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Georgia’s new senators will write the next chapter in Black-Jewish relations

Despite historic wins in Georgia, Black-Jewish relations have long been complicated.

Jon Ossoff, left, and the Rev. Raphael Warnock wave to the crowd during a campaign rally in Augusta, Ga., on Jan. 4. (Michael Holahan/AP)

On Wednesday, Democrats gained a majority in the Senate when Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff were sworn into office. But the elections of Georgia’s two new senators also produced another historic result. Warnock and Ossoff are the first Jewish and African American senators from the state. Their victories in fiercely contested runoff elections turned a state that was blood Red for much of the recent past Blue. Or, as some online wags have put it — taking note of the identities of the two men — the Peach State has turned Blewish.

In the run-up to the election and its aftermath there has been much ecstatic talk about the Black-Jewish nexus of this electoral victory. And no wonder. There is plenty of reason in our moment — after attempted insurrectionists carrying Confederate flags and wearing “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirts stormed the U.S. Capitol — to think about the shared vulnerability of African Americans and Jews. Journalists and historians alike have been celebrating the victory and its particular poignancy for a state where lynching of African Americans was once epidemic and a horrifying anti-Black massacre in Atlanta resulted in dozens of deaths in 1906, and which was also the site of the only recorded lynching of a Jewish American, Leo Frank, in 1915.

But such rhetoric has been organized around a purposeful unwillingness to acknowledge that the glory of Black-Jewish relations has always been more aspirational than achieved: this contemporary appeal to “golden-age” Black-Jewish relations may well have been a good electoral strategy, but the history is more complicated. A review of the Frank case reveals quite a bit of that historical complexity.

Leo Frank was lynched in 1915 after being convicted and sentenced to death in the summer of 1913 for the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old who worked in the National Pencil Company factory he managed. Frank was a Cornell-educated Brooklynite who had moved to Atlanta to take this job. Phagan’s dead body was found in the basement of the factory and Frank was quickly arrested and then convicted — largely on the testimony of the African American janitor, Jim Conley.

Today, consensus has organized around the idea that Frank was certainly innocent and Conley guilty of the crime. The trial and its aftermath represented a zero-sum competition which pit the Jewish factory supervisor against the Black janitor. Frank’s lawyers were relentless in their racist attacks on the barely literate, socially disempowered Conley. They believed their job was to counter the work of the prosecutor whose case was rooted in presenting the Jewish man as alien and dangerous, and the African American man as docile and familiar.

The racialized power dynamics embodied in the case were knotty, to say the least. Before the Frank case, there had been very little overt anti-Semitism in Georgia: Frank was a reform Jew, a member of a synagogue whose rabbi had been working assiduously to coach his congregants on how to assimilate most fully into White Georgia culture. Jews formed a growing part of the owning class in Atlanta and one issue raised by the Frank case was whether they would be able to demonstrate that they understood and could reproduce the city’s racial protocols.

At the trial, however, the prosecutor made a number of moves to demonstrate that Frank had not only murdered the young White woman, but had also enlisted the African American man, Conley, as an enabler of his own alleged regime of sexual harassment in the factory. Conley understood what was required of him at the trial and enacted a kind of racialized humility that at once served him well legally and acted as a rearticulation of the White supremacy that had always characterized the so-called New South.

After a couple of years of appeals, and a commutation of his death sentence by Georgia’s governor, Frank was taken from prison in the summer of 1915 and lynched in Marietta, near Phagan’s home. The lynching energized the creation of two significant organizations: the new Ku Klux Klan and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). For this reason, and many others, the lynching of Leo Frank has been turned, for many, into a sacred text of Black-Jewish sympathy.

But the details of the case itself serve as a reminder that African Americans and Jews have frequently come into contact with each other as something other than the siblings in sorrow that the conventional narrative of Black-Jewish relations promotes. Most of the Jews who had advocated for Frank did not experience African Americans as fellow sufferers: in fact they could barely acknowledge the humanity of Black Atlantans and were more than willing to appeal to White Georgians’ racism in their effort to get Frank acquitted. Frank’s legal team and supporters summoned images of African Americans as bestial rapists, images that were very familiar in a culture that would celebrate D.W. Griffith’s racist film “Birth of a Nation” in 1915.

Yet a sunny version of this alliance persisted. Later in the 20th century, much important civil rights work was done by Jews and African Americans working in concert. From the legal team working on the Brown v. Board of Education case to the murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner in 1964 as they traveled in Mississippi to do voter registration work, it is not hard to find examples of African Americans and Jews coming together in progressive common cause.

But the relationship was never simple or egalitarian. Various moments of conflict — from the Ocean Hill/Brownsville school crisis of 1968 to the Crown Heights conflict of 1991 — have made it clear that the simple, cherished narrative of natural alliance was not a reliable guide to the thorny realities on the ground.

Political scientist Adolph Reed has perhaps best summarized Black-Jewish relations: the positive depiction of these groups as allies stemmed from conversations held by various civil rights organizations. But, as Reed points out, this dialogue was usually steered from both sides by Jews, who often played a major role in interracialist groups, and was marked by the very different status of Jews and African Americans in the hierarchical American system of class and race. Additionally, this rosy picture of Black-Jewish relations has never really had much room for people who are both Black and Jewish.

Recognizing this history should reframe nostalgia around Black-Jewish relations and the new Georgia senators.

During their campaigns, both senators talked in detail about their desire to rekindle the historic relations of African Americans and Jews. Warnock preaches at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. once pastored, and on the morning after the vote, the senator-elect made mention in an interview of King’s relationship with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched beside King. Ossoff took frequent opportunities to invoke his own connection to civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis. Both men worked hard to develop a sort of common-sense narrative about Blacks and Jews working hand-in-hand for progressive change in Georgia and — they hoped — the U.S. Senate.

But the provisional Black-Jewish alliance of 2020-2021 did not come without a price: among other things, the strategic alignment meant that Warnock felt pressure to pivot from his previous commitments to Palestinian rights. One major centrist Jewish Democratic PAC withheld its endorsement of Warnock until he created distance from earlier statements he had made about Israel/Palestinian territories, particularly one issued by faith leaders comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa. A number of other mainstream Jewish civic and political organizations made it clear that a demonstrated and uncomplicated fealty to Israel was a litmus test for inclusion in this current iteration of Black-Jewish relations. An insistence by some American Jews that there can be no Black-Jewish alliance without these ritualized declarations of loyalty to Israel on the part of leading African Americans dates back at least to the 1970s, as historian Cheryl Greenberg and others have documented.

The lynching of Leo Frank was a tragedy of enormous proportions. But the way we have come to use his death as a sermon about interracial harmony does violence to the very different historical experiences of Jews and African Americans in the United States. Still, the Democratic victory in Georgia, propelled by on the ground organizing by African American women, represents a heartening instance of what Georgia-born activist Bernice Reagon Johnson called coalition work: “In a coalition,” she reminds us, “you have to give, and it is different from your home. You can’t stay there all the time.” Here we find a model for a sustainable 21st-century Black-Jewish relations. It might lack the amber-hued glow of the mythological narrative we used to tell ourselves, but it might also facilitate meaningful progressive change.