Leonard Dinnerstein, a historian whose doctoral dissertation on the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager, in Atlanta heralded his career as one of the nation’s foremost scholars of anti-Semitism, died Jan. 22 at his home in Tucson, Arizona. He was 84.
The cause was complications of kidney failure, his daughter, Julie Dinnerstein, said. He had spent most of his academic career at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Dr. Dinnerstein was a young scholar who had completed postgraduate course work at Columbia University in 1963 and was gravitating toward a thesis topic on political history when his wife proposed a more contemporary subject, like civil rights.
His adviser approved, he recalled, and as he was leaving the building following their meeting an acquaintance reminded him that “the Jews were involved in civil rights before it became a Negro issue,” he would later write. Another friend suggested that the topic be narrowed further to Leo Frank.
“My response was, ‘Who’s Leo Frank?’” Dr. Dinnerstein recounted.
He went on to research and write about Frank, who ran a pencil factory and was sentenced to death for the strangling in 1913 of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old employee. After the governor commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, a mob kidnapped Frank and hanged him.
No one was prosecuted for the lynching. As a result, and because the state had failed to protect Frank so that he could pursue legal appeals, he was posthumously pardoned in 1986 by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, although not officially absolved of the crime itself.
Dr. Dinnerstein’s thesis was published in 1968 by Columbia University Press, titled simply “The Leo Frank Case.” It has never been out of print.
“The book launched my professional academic career in 1968,” he wrote in the preface to a 2008 revised edition, which added an up-to-date perspective to the original exploration of what Dr. Dinnerstein described as “the ambivalence that Southerners felt toward Jews” and “the poor judgments that some Jews made when trying to defend Frank.”
The case divided people both by class as well as religion.
After the verdict, based on evidence that some viewed as questionable, prominent Jews across the country — including Louis Marshall of the American Jewish Committee; Albert Lasker, an advertising executive; and Adolph Ochs, publisher of The New York Times — weighed in on Frank’s behalf.
“There are still people who sincerely believe that Frank was guilty of the crime for which he was convicted,” Dr. Dinnerstein wrote. “I have no doubts: Frank was innocent.”
In perhaps his most authoritative work, “Anti-Semitism in America” (1994), he argued that age-old European prejudice against Jews was instilled in the New World by the earliest settlers, reinforced by successive waves of Protestant and Roman Catholic immigrants and ingrained as “an irrevocable part of the American heritage.”
The book has been regarded as the definitive examination of American anti-Semitism and was cited in 2017 by the House Judiciary Committee in a hearing on anti-Semitism on college campuses.
Anti-Semitism peaked in the late 1930s and early ′40s, when, Dr. Dinnerstein wrote, Americans were unnerved by the Depression and anxious about another war in Europe. Some, he said, felt trapped between what they imagined was a global cabal of Jewish bankers and an influx of subversive Jewish refugees.
In his book, Dr. Dinnerstein quoted one demagogue warning of “200,000 Communist Jews at the Mexican border waiting to get into this country,” a horde that not only threatened democracy but, if admitted, would also “rape every woman and child that is left unprotected.”
But Dr. Dinnerstein concluded that relations between Jews and gentiles had improved over time.
“Not only did Pope John XXIII inaugurate a new emphasis on interfaith dialogue, but the Second Vatican Council specifically ‘exonerated’ Jews for Christ’s death,” he wrote, referring to reforms by the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-1960s.
“By comparing the strength of anti-Semitism in the United States today with what it had been in previous decades or centuries,” he continued, “the obvious conclusion is that it has declined in potency and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.”
Leonard Dinnerstein was born on May 5, 1934, in the Bronx to Abraham Dinnerstein, a Jewish immigrant from what is now Belarus, and Lillian (Kubrick) Dinnerstein, a homemaker and the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Austria and Romania. His father worked in his in-laws’ grocery store in the East Bronx and later at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
After graduating from Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx, Dr. Dinnerstein received a bachelor’s degree in history in 1955 from City College of New York and a master’s and doctorate in American history from Columbia University, where his adviser was the historian William E. Leuchtenburg.
He first taught at the New York Institute of Technology and at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey before moving to the University of Arizona, where he was a professor of history from 1970 through 2004 and director of Judaic Studies from 1993 through 2000.
Among his other books are “Ethnic Americans: A History of Immigration and Assimilation” (1975), with David M. Reimers; “Natives and Strangers: Ethnic Groups and the Building of Modern America,” with Roger L. Nichols and David M. Reimers (1979); and “America and the Survivors of the Holocaust” (1982).
In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Myra (Rosenberg) Dinnerstein, a historian; their son, Andrew; a sister, Rita Kabasakalian; and a granddaughter.