Friday, March 24, 2017

Thoughts After A Civil Rights Tour of Atlanta

I returned very late last night from Atlanta where I attended a conference for “Jewish innovators” called The Collaboratory. As part of the conference, yesterday morning I participated in a Civil Rights tour of Atlanta lead by Billy Planer, a Jewish educator who runs tours of the South for Jewish student and adult groups looking at the history of the Civil Rights movement, including the involvement of Jews in the movement.

Our first visit was to the Pencil Factory. This apartment and retail complex in a gentrifying neighborhood was the site of the National Pencil Factory managed by Leo Frank, a Jewish man originally from New York. In 1913, a 13-year-old female employee of the factory was murdered, Frank was falsely accused and convicted of the murder in a trial replete marked by vicious antisemitism. The governor of Georgia, John Slaton, towards the end of his term in office, concluded the trial was unfair, commuted Frank’s sentence from death to life in prison, and then himself fled the state with his family for ten years. The prison where Frank was held was stormed by a mob and Frank was lynched, the only white person ever lynched in the South. Frank was posthumously pardoned by the Georgia Parole Board in 1986. The Leo Frank lynching was the catalyst for the formation both of the Anti-Defamation League and the modern Ku Klux Klan.

From there we went to the Martin Luther King, Jr., historical site and visited both the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached, and the gravesite of Dr. King and his wife Coretta next door. After that, we went to the headquarters of the NAMES Project, aka the “AIDS Quilt.” We heard from the project’s executive director Julie Rhoad about the history of the Quilt and how our society did very little to find a cure or treatment for AIDS/HIV as long as it was thought to be a disease which mainly afflicted the LGBT community.

The unspoken but very real question: what if anything is the connection between antisemitism, racism, and prejudice against the LGBT community? What is the role of religion in both creating and fighting prejudice?

And then we returned to our hotel only to learn that a suspect has been arrested in connection with the spate of telephoned bomb threats to Jewish institutions. As we all know by now, the suspect is a Jewish teenager who lives in Israel and has both Israeli and American citizenship. From news reports, we learn that he was rejected by the Israel Defense Forces under circumstances which lead pretty clearly to the conclusion that he suffers from mental illness.

Before we breathe a sigh of relief that the hoaxer has been caught, let’s remember that it hasn’t only been bomb threats. Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated and swastikas have been painted on Jewish institutions, and it’s not likely that these crimes, too, were perpetrated by a teenager living in Israel. Even if the JCC threats were a hoax, antisemitism remains real.

This arrest also brings up another question for me. Yesterday I studied antisemitism, racism, and homophobia. What of prejudice towards those who are mentally ill? What if Congress repeals laws which require that insurance companies cover mental illness treatments the same way they cover treatments for other kinds of illness?

Lots of things to ponder.