Did Harper Lee Whitewash The Jewish Past?


The 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is being marked this summer, was supposed to be a celebratory event. But at least in the press, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that still sells about a million copies a year has become the subject of ruthless criticism.

Detractors say that its hero, the small-town Southern lawyer Atticus Finch, is far from a paragon of justice and may in fact be complicit in the very system he seems to oppose.

Critics argue that while Finch defends a black man against accusations of rape, he is still unwilling to demand more systematic reform. And because he is a well-liked and prominent public official, his quiet campaign on a black man’s behalf amounts to a casual acceptance of institutionalized racism. Moreover, his critics argue, Finch accepts the case to appease his own conscience, knowing full well that he will probably lose. That may take courage, but it is hardly the bolder type of courageous activism that seemed necessary for a more enduring change.

“Here is where the criticism of Finch begins,” Malcolm Gladwell writes in an essay for The New Yorker last year, which has stoked the recent debate. “The hearts-and-minds approach [which Finch represents] is about accommodation, not reform.”

The re-evaluation of Atticus Finch is essentially about racism, and whether a gradual or more active approach, like the civil rights movement, was best for America. But a Jewish subtext has arisen in its wake, too, with some now wondering whether Harper Lee whitewashes the Jewish past. She includes two short passages where Jews are held up as accepted members of Southern society, implicitly highlighting the irony of white racism: Southerners can accept Jews, Lee suggests, so why not blacks?

But some argue that her presentation of Jews only drives home her racial naiveté. Not only were Jews less embraced by whites than Lee suggests, but Jews may have also been more complicit in Southern racism as well. “The Jewish situation was not like that of the blacks,” said Eric Goldstein, author of “The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity,” and a professor of Jewish history at Emory University, in Atlanta. “I think that that’s the mistake Harper Lee made.”

Goldstein added that Jews in small Southern towns, particularly in the 1930s, when the novel is set, would not have been likely targets of the Ku Klux Klan, who appear in Lee’s first reference to Jews. Lee depicts Sam Levy, a Jewish dry goods salesman, being confronted by KKK bandits. But Levy easily scares them away. Recounting the story to his daughter, Scout, Finch says: the Klan “paraded by Mr. Sam Levy’s house one night, but Sam just stood on his porch and told ’em things had come to a pretty pass, he’d sold ’em the very sheets on their backs.”

Lee’s defenders argue that the book is a novel, not history, and therefore makes no claims to historical accuracy. But that seems at odds with what in part makes the novel so affecting: how real it feels. Since its initial publication in 1960, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been praised for capturing, in pitch-perfect prose, the very essence of the Depression-era South. It puts on full view all the gradations of Southern racism, both white-on-black and the reverse. And while the Jewish presence in the novel is minimal, as it was in the historical South, Lee’s depiction of Jews only adds to that feeling of truth.

Sam Levy’s role “is entirely, entirely credible,” said Leonard Rogoff, a historian and president of the Southern Jewish Historical Society. Rogoff said that the anecdote of Jews selling white bedsheets to Klan members is something you still hear Southern Jews talk about today. He added that such sales were rarely, if ever, done in knowing complicity. Yet still, he acknowledged that Southern Jews were by and large not vocal about black rights during the Depression, when the novel is set, nor in the civil rights era, when it was written. “That was not the Southern way of doing things,” he said.

Many historians argue that Jewish Southerners played a less prominent role in black civil rights because of the tenuous situation they were in — not because they approved of racism. Even for Jewish Southerners like Sam Levy, whose family roots went back five generations, “they always had a sense of difference,” said Marcie Cohen Ferris, a historian of Southern Jewry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Jews may have been more accepted than blacks and even Catholics, but latent anti-Semitism still existed. White Southerners might embrace a Jew they knew personally, yet they were still suspicious of the ones they had not met, observers say. “The Jew we don’t know? Fearful,” Cohen Ferris said. Moreover, the randomness of violent, anti-Semitic outbursts — most infamously in Leo Frank’s lynching in 1915 — meant that Jews could never feel entirely safe.

Even when Jews did take a stand for civil rights, like Atlanta’s Reform Temple Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, they had reason to fear their own security. The bombing of Rothschild’s synagogue in 1958 is well known, but in 1957 and 1958, a high point of civil rights activism, white supremacists attempted to bomb eight synagogues.

The instances of violence against Jews who openly supported black rights have led many historians to argue that the general silence of Southern Jews was the product of fear. As the historian Clive Webb has argued in his influential book, “Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights” (2001), “In 1957, those who dared to protest against racial prejudice risked personal injury. As a result, many Southern Jews had explicitly rejected the notion that they had any particular responsibility to support the civil right movement.”

But that, Goldstein says, might be “letting them off the hook too easily.” In small towns, like Lee’s fictional Maycomb, Ala., Jews were rarely victims of anti-Semitic violence and were more likely to accommodate themselves to the dominant racist attitudes. Perhaps counter-intuitively, Goldstein argued, Jews were least accepted in large cities like Atlanta, where Leo Frank was lynched; there, Goldstein and his colleagues agree, anti-Semitism was considerably more pronounced.

The other passage where Lee mentions Jews comes near the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Scout’s third grade teacher, Miss Gates, tries to teach her students the meaning of prejudice and the importance of democracy in the wake of Hitler’s persecution of Jews. “‘Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced. Pre-ju-dice,’ [Miss Gates] enunciated carefully. ‘There are no better people in the world than the Jews, and why Hitler doesn’t think so is a mystery to me.’”

Lee then turns this seemingly innocuous lesson into a cutting jab at Southern racism. A few moments later, Scout tells her older brother, Jem, that she saw Miss Gates earlier that summer say that she hoped Finch lost his case. “I heard [Miss Gates] say it’s time somebody taught ’em” — blacks — “a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us.” Scout then adds: “Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home…?”

Eliza McGraw, a scholar who has written about Jews in Southern literature, said that this is a common trope in Southern Christian literature. “You are seeing Jews used as a tool to discuss things in a liberal way.” While she made no value judgment on this, she did express sympathy with Gladwell, who made a more forceful critique of Lee here.

Finch also appears in this passage answering Scout’s question about whether “it’s okay to hate Hitler.” He responds: “It is not,” adding, “It’s not okay to hate anybody.” But Gladwell asks: “Really? Not even Hitler? … Finch does not want to deal with the existence of anti-Semitism. He wants to believe in the fantasy of Sam Levy, down the street, giving the Klan a good scolding.”

There is no way of telling how the growing criticism of Atticus Finch will affect Jewish perceptions of Lee’s classic novel. But for some Jews, like Eli Evans, author of a prominent history of Southern Jewry, “The Provincials,” the criticism will not change a thing. Evans’ father, E.J. Evans, was the first Jewish mayor of Durham, N.C., from 1951 to 1963. And he said that Finch was always a hero to him. “Atticus Finch reminded me of my father more than any other character I’ve ever read,” Evans said.

Unlike Finch, though, Evans’ father won his election in part because he favored a more aggressive, if still quiet form of activism. Before Evans became mayor, he owned a chain of department stores with food service counters in them and refused to have segregated seating. To be sure, he did not brazenly break the law requiring separating seating, but instead got rid of seating altogether. He served his clients, black and white, standing up.

The subtle difference between Evans’ father’s approach and Finch’s mattered less to Evans than the general principle Finch embodied. As he said: “Launching an attack on Atticus is a convenient device [to be provocative]. But the figure still stands. You cannot tear him down.”