August 30, 2023

The 1915 Lynching of Leo Frank Still Inspires Antisemitism Today

Antisemites rallied online around the anniversary of the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish man today believed to be wrongfully convicted by antisemitic public pressure.

The history of lynching racial and ethnic minorities is a stain on the American South — including the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish industrialist convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering 13-year-old Mary Fagan in the pencil factory he managed in Atlanta, Georgia.

Today, the majority consensus is that Frank was innocent, and that antisemitic prejudice and media coverage led to a biased trial, jury, verdict, and denial of appeal. During the trial itself a mob stood outside the court chanting “Hang the Jew” so loudly that the judge couldn’t hear the jurors speak from 10 feet away. But even at the time, the trial was deeply controversial.  There was enough concern of mob-inspired failure of justice that the Governor of Georgia, John Slaton, commuted Frank’s sentence from death to life imprisonment.

Some felt that life in prison was too lenient. In the evening on August 16th, 1915, 25 armed men broke into the prison hospital where Frank was recovering from a stab wound, overpowered the guards, kidnapped Frank, and drove him more than 100 miles to a spot near the house where Fagan was born. There, in the early morning of August 17th, they lynched him, hanging him from a tree until dead.

Proud of their vigilante work, the murderers posed for photos with Frank’s body.  Thousands of people came as spectators, ripping his nightshirt for souvenirs and enjoying the modern blood sport. Despite the clear photographic evidence incriminating the perpetrators – several were prominent members of society and easily recognizable – no members of the mob saw conviction.

The lynching of Leo Frank has since become a rallying point for American white supremacists, who still insist on Frank’s guilt and venerate the lynch mob. This past February, at the premiere of the Broadway revival of the 1998 musical “Parade,” based on a book by the same name about the Frank lynching case, neo-Nazis harassed attendees, screaming insults, calling Frank a pedophile, passing out hateful fliers, and in one case, hurling an attendee’s phone into the street.

Over 100 years later, antisemitic mob mentality and hatred for a long-dead Jewish man still calls white supremacists to action.

#TheNoticing is Still Being Noticed

Calling antisemites to action begins online.

During the week of the 108th anniversary of Leo Frank’s lynching, CyberWell detected a spike in antisemitic content on social media surrounding Frank’s case.  A significant number of the posts we identified included the hashtag #TheNoticing, among other tropes.

CyberWell continues to sound the alarm about this problematic hashtag.  Although progress has been made on some platforms, where the hashtag is no longer searchable (well done, Facebook!), other platforms are not doing enough to monitor and remove this hate.

Legitimizing Leo Frank’s Lynching

Some of the posts justified, or even celebrated, the lynching of Leo Frank based on the narrative that Frank “deserved” to be murdered outside the scope of the law for allegedly murdering Mary Fagan at the pencil factory.

Antisemitic Responses to the ADL’s Posts

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) formed in 1913 in response to Leo Frank’s murder conviction.  This year, the ADL and several employees posted on social media in commemoration of this tragic injustice.  These posts provoked a host of antisemitic responses and attacks against the ADL, many alleging that the ADL specifically, and Jews in general, have disproportionate power, control the media, control law enforcement, and are all-around evil.

The post below has over 108k views!

Sexual Deviancy

One of the antisemitic tropes that regularly rears its ugly head on social media is that Jews are immoral and sexually deviant. Some of the posts we identified claim that this is true of all Jews in general, and that Leo Frank was a sexually deviant pedophile in particular, comparing him to figures such as Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein.

Irrational Hatred

In the Torah portion marking the anniversary of Leo Frank’s lynching, we read about two contrasting commandments on how the Israelites should treat two peoples they encountered — the Egyptians and the Amalekites.

The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites for 210 years. They turned the Israelite colony in Egypt into a penal labor colony and cruelly suppressed them. Pharaoh even attempted genocide by ordering that every male newborn be thrown into the Nile. Despite this, the Israelites are commanded to not despise the Egyptians.

The encounter with the Amalekites was short and included a failed attack on the Israelites.[1] But that single moment was enough for God to announce that his war with Amalek is “from generation to generation.”[2] God also issues a very unusual commandment that does not appear anywhere else: “You shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens”.[3]

The stark contrast between these two commandments is puzzling and requires explanation. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explained this based on the Mishna:

“A love that is dependent on something, when the thing ceases, the love also ceases. But a love that is not dependent on anything never ceases”.[4]

Hate is similar to love in this context.  When it is rational and based on a fear or dispute, it is understandable, even if it is not justified.  Therefore, it is possible to speak to the hater’s heart and even dissuade them from their hatred.

But unconditional and irrational hatred is immune to persuasion. It has no reason and no logic, so nothing can change it.  The only way to respond is to remember, to be on guard, and to fight it wherever and whenever it appears.

This is the difference between the Egyptians and the Amalekites. The Egyptians’ hatred and fear of the Israelites weren’t without logic. Rabbi Sacks bases this on the fact that Egypt had previously been invaded by the Hyksos — a people with Canaanite names and beliefs — who conqured parts of Egypt.

Although the Hyksos were expelled from Egypt and all traces of their presence erased, the trauma remained. The Egyptians thus feared that the Hebrews would become like the Hyksos. Though Egypt’s fear was unjustified as the Israelites did not want to take over their land, it was rational.

With the Amalekites, the situation is reversed. They attacked a nation that was “faint and weary”[5] and focused their efforts during the attack on the “stragglers”[6] in the back. Such a weakened nation doesn’t pose a danger. This is a case of unjustified, irrational, baseless hatred.

Following Rabbi Sacks’ words, it is important to clarify that the war against Amalek is a war against ideology and not against a people. The Amalekite people serve as an example of those who hold irrational hatred against Jews. Despite the commandment to “obliterate” their memory, Maimonides states that, before any war with Amalek, Jews are first obligated to call for peace and see if Amalek has turned from their evil ways.[7]

Furthermore, the Talmud states that some of the descendants of Haman — a descendant of Amalek considered to be a symbol of evil and antisemitism for his attempted genocide of the Jewish people in the story of Purim — converted to Judaism, becoming fully embraced by their former “enemy”.[8]  According to some commentators, a descendant of one such convert was none other than Rabbi Akiva, who is considered to be one of the greatest scholars and spiritual leaders in Jewish history.

End Antisemitic Ideology Before it is Actioned

Antisemitism, hatred of the Jewish people, persists around the world today, leading to grave harm, including violence and death. The mob-mentality and antisemitic press that convicted Leo Frank in the public square before he ever went to trial must not be reborn again on social media. CyberWell is dedicated to fighting this hate in our digital spaces, where bigotry can be disseminated en masse even more expediently and effectively than in Frank’s lifetime. We urge you to join our mission by reporting antisemitic content for immediate review and removal at app.cyberwell.org.

Footnotes

[1] Shemot (Exodus) 17:8-13.

[2] Ibid, 17:16.

[3] Devarim (Deuteronomy) 25:19.

[4] Mishna, Avot 5:16.

[5] Devarim (Deuteronomy) 25:18.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mishneh Torah (Rambam), Melachim 6:4.

[8] Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 57b.

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