Dazed and confused? Not me. I’m just Lost in the Cheese Aisle.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


In accordance with time-honored practice, Jews throughout the world read from the Torah last Saturday, just as they do every Saturday. (Mondays and Thursdays, too.) The weekly portion - Shoftim (“Judges”), from the Book of Deuteronomy - began with the instruction to appoint judges and officers, public officials that
“...shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert judgment, you shall not respect someone’s presence, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe will blind the eyes of the wise and make just words crooked. Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
It is an especially appropriate set of passages to be reading right now, because these days, judges are in the news.

Simon Cowell and Ellen DeGeneres won’t be returning to “American Idol” next year, and Kara DioGuardi’s position is none too secure. This has the collective bowels of the Hollywood press and the American Idol-viewing public in an uproar. Will the show be any good without Simon? Does anyone really give a crap?

Right here in Cobb County, Georgia, you had the story of Judge Kenneth Nix, who resigned after allegations surfaced that he touched two female county workers inappropriately... flicking them on the ass after they sat in his to take a picture. Why in Gawd’s name a judge would ever think it was OK for female employees to sit in his lap for a photo shoot is far beyond my pitiful imagination, but what do I know? I am told that the headline in the Marietta Daily Journal read: “Nix Takes Licks After Flicks.”

On a more serious note, just this past week Solicitor General Elana Kagan was confirmed as the 112th Justice of the Supreme Court. For those who care about statistical trivia, Justice Kagan is the fourth female Supreme Court Justice... and right now, along with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, the third sitting female judge on the highest court in the land.

Justices Kagan and Ginsburg, along with Justice Stephen Breyer, provide another handy statistic: There are three Jews currently sitting on the Supreme Court. That’s right: fully one-third of the Court is Jewish, in a country where Jews constitute less than two percent of the population. Some people – people like Pat Buchanan – feel that that’s way too much... but there’s no Constitutionally mandated requirement that there be any consideration of religion, race, and ethnicity when selecting people to serve on the Court, the role of which is to review cases and rule on whether the laws involved are acceptable under our Constitution. Black, white, Hispanic, Jewish, Episcopalian - none of that matters. Or should matter. The only real issue is whether a prospective Justice can interpret court cases in light of their constitutionality.

But still... why so many Jews on the Court? It’s a reasonable question... and the simple answer is that Jews are heavily represented in the legal profession that feeds into the Court. This only makes sense, if you think about it. What other profession, aside from the law, is so completely suited to the entire philosophical and religious outlook of us Red Sea Pedestrians?

Our faith is not so much a faith as it is a Code of Laws to follow – that’s what Torah means, Law – and our holy books are filled with what amount to court cases – rabbinical authorities arguing the merits of one interpretation of the Law over another. That’d be a good working description of the Talmud.

One of our most beloved Bible stories is one having to do with a court case, one in which King Solomon adjudicates a dispute between two women. The women were of questionable repute, though that point was not emphasized in my Little Golden Book of Bible Stories. As the story goes, one of the women had rolled over in her sleep and crushed her baby, whereupon she pulled a hitchy-switchy, exchanging her dead child for her roommate’s baby. The roommate suspected something was not quite kosher - like any normal mother, she knew her child - and brought the matter to court, where the wise King solved the matter. Most culturally literate Westerners know how the story ends, so I won’t repeat it here.

Who better to sit on the High Court than people for whom dealing with niggling legal issues is part of their cultural DNA?

Going back to the words of Deuteronomy, there are a couple of phrases that catch the eye. You shall not respect someone’s presence: This means that a judge should not treat the wealthy with undue deference... nor should the poor be treated differently simply because they are poor. You don’t tilt the table toward the one out of avarice or respect for wealth, or to the other out of misplaced charity; to do so is a perversion of justice. Which, boiled down, means that Lindsey Lohan shouldn’t get preferential treatment because she’s a Hollywood actress... and when the village wino is hauled in for urinating in public, he shouldn’t be able to play the “I’m just a poor wino” card and get off.

Justice, justice shall you pursue: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof in the original Hebrew. The word “justice” is repeated, and our Sages teach us that the Torah does not bandy superfluous words about. Some authorities interpret this repetition to mean that not only must you pursue justice, but you must pursue it through righteous means. The district attorney who withholds potentially exonerating evidence in order to secure a conviction is himself committing a crime, even if the accused is really guilty. How we arrive at a verdict is as important as the verdict itself.

This business of Justice and the pursuit thereof is especially appropriate today... for today marks the ninety-fifth anniversary of the lynching of Leo Frank.

The Leo Frank case was a perverse landmark in American jurisprudence. Frank, who managed a pencil factory, had been accused of the murder of Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old girl who worked at the pencil factory. The sensational nature of the crime, coupled with the competition between the Atlanta Constitution and the Atlanta Georgian for readership, ensured that the trial would be conducted in the midst of a media-driven frenzy.

The trial itself was a complete mess: an abomination by today’s standards, rife with inconsistent witness accounts and outright lying, subornation of witnesses, lack of physical evidence, and some of what little evidence there was spirited away by reporters. Frank’s (perfectly reasonable) agitation and nervous demeanor did not help him. And overlaid on top of the whole steaming pile was a nasty subtext, one that was flogged relentlessly by populist anti-semite Tom Watson: The case pitted a Northern industrialist Jew against a poor Southern Christian girl. No longer merely a murder case, it became a battlefield upon which was fought a struggle-by-proxy of class and religion... and of course the Evil Jew just had to be guilty. That, in any event was the popular narrative... and news, then as now, is all about making events fit the narrative.

Frank was convicted and sentenced to death - no surprise, given the constant, vicious outpouring of public anti-semitic sentiment drummed up by Watson and his Jeffersonian magazine and the sensational reportage of the local press... all of which heavily influenced the jury. Today, a change of venue would have been a foregone conclusion at the very least.

After the trial, new evidence began to surface that cast doubt on the verdict, yet repeated requests for an appeal were denied. The day before Frank was scheduled to be executed, Governor John Slaton commuted his sentence to life imprisonment, citing his concern that the verdict fell somewhere in the area between reasonable doubt and absolute certainty. The commutation inflamed Watson to new heights of vitriol; he called for both Slaton and Frank to be lynched.

Shortly afterward, a fellow inmate at the Milledgeville prison attacked Frank, slashing his throat. Frank survived that attack... but he had only a month to live.

One of the two sets of manacles with which Leo Frank’s wrists and ankles were bound during his lynching.

A group of prominent citizens that included local business leaders, a judge, and a former governor, organized a gang that kidnapped Frank from Milledgeville and brought him to Marietta, where they lynched him. The lynching took place at Frey’s Gin, about six miles west of where I write these words, the morning of August 17, 1915.

The Frank case put Georgia’s Jews on notice: They were not especially welcome in the Peach State. Roughly half of them left. Tom Watson, the great defender of mob law, was instrumental in reviving the Ku Klux Klan even as he advanced his political career... and in response to the anti-semitism he helped rouse, the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai Brith was formed.

Nearly seventy years later, in 1982, Alonzo Mann, once Leo Frank’s office boy and now an eighty-two-year-old man in poor health, came forward with a hair-raising story. He described how he had seen Jim Conley, the janitor at the pencil factory whose inconsistency-riddled testimony was instrumental in convicting Frank, carrying Mary Phagan’s body... and how Conley threatened to kill him if he spoke out. In 1986, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles pardoned Frank posthumously, wording the pardon in a way that would cause minimal offense to the (still very significant) faction that believed Frank guilty. It was a tacit recognition of the intensity of the passions stirred up by the case, passions that are still very much alive after close to a century.

Things have changed since 1915. Atlanta is now home to a thriving Jewish community of about 120,000 - almost a hundred times as many as remained in 1920. And a Person of Color is president of the United States. I like to envision Tom Watson rotating in his grave... perhaps he’ll drill his way down to Hell if he’s not already there.


Fiona Kathleen Hogan said...

I enjoyed this. Thanks for puting it together!

Erica said...

I must have read hundreds of posts of yours over the years, but this may well be my favorite. Excellent, brilliant, amazing...great job!

Claude said...

I'm also very impressed by your narrative. Those perverted acts of justice need to be told. It's not so long ago. And we don't want repetitions of similar situations. In France, in the 20s, there was a scandalous affair when a young officer (Dreyfus) was wrongly accused of treason. It took him years to prove his innocence. It was amazing to witness the virulent antisemitism in the French nation. There are still some people who claim he was a traitor, although he fought for his country with bravery.