Charlottesville Echoes of Leo Frank

Mount Carmel Cemetery is located in the borough of Queens, N.Y. In Section 1 of the burial grounds rests the remains of Leo Frank, whose lynching at the hands of Southern white supremacists still resonates deeply within the conscience of American Jewry.

In 1915, Frank was president of the Atlanta Chapter of B’nai B’rith and manager of a pencil factory. Because of ingrained anti-Semitism, a Georgia court wrongly convicted Frank of killing a young girl and sentenced him to death. Due to questionable prosecutorial conduct and inconsistencies in witness testimony, Georgia Gov. John Slaton commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.

Subsequent to the commutation, members of the Ku Klux Klan broke into the jail, kidnapped Frank and lynched him in Marietta, Ga. In 1986, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles granted Frank a posthumous pardon. The events leading up to and including the recent white supremacist-incited chaos in Charlottesville provides a clarion wake-up call to the American Jewish community.

As an Orthodox Jew who occupies a leading position in a national Jewish organization, I am deeply concerned about the moral ambiguity that has been articulated by the leader of the free world. It should be a no-brainer to condemn anti-Semitism and white supremacy.

Asserting moral equivalence among American neo-Nazis, the KKK, Arayan Nation sympathizers, radical “alt-right” provocateurs and those who counter-demonstrated these anti-American front groups is frightening. The seeds of the anti-Semitism that plagued America at the time of Frank and prior to World War II are being resewn and cultivated by malignant denial and political enablement.

Our elected leaders must identify and condemn hate speech and hate groups. They must demonstrate clear-minded moral leadership, firm and stable conviction and competent command of the resources at their disposal to counter those who parade with torches, shouting anti-Semitic epithets. Willful equivocation is unacceptable. Those who “respectfully” march beside anti-Semites who bellow, “Jews will not replace us!” share the guilt. They are not “very fine people.”

If our elected leaders refuse to stand up to evil, fearing political blowback from their core base, then they have abandoned the essence of America. As American Jews, we must hold our elected leaders accountable for their failure to identify and condemn those who aid and abet anti-Semites.

Bob Levi is a second cousin, twice removed of Leo Frank. He is the chairman of the board of the National Council of Young Israel and lives in Silver Spring, Md.

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