Israel: A Country Full of Atticus Finches (The 2.0 Version)

The bigoted, racist lawyer of Harper Lee’s new novel would feel completely at home in modern Israel.

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Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'Credit: AP
Naomi Levitzky
Naomi Levitzky

Anyone who was raised on “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as I was, will find it hard to accept the change in hero Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s new novel, “Go Set a Watchman.”

In Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, Finch is a lawyer with a conscience, a man who, in the darkest days of racism (the 1930s) in America’s Deep South, stands up to everyone and defends Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of raping a young white woman. The calm, generous Finch, who was spit at, threatened and almost lynched, stood courageously as a sole beacon crying out for humanity.

The Atticus Finch of “To Kill a Mockingbird” was a hero and role model for his two small children, Scout and Jem – and for generations of children around the world.

In the new novel, which is published Tuesday, little Scout is now 26 and living in liberal, tolerant New York; she returns to visit her racist (fictional) hometown of Maycomb, Alabama.

The media hype over the book is huge: The New York Times just devoted its main headline to a review of the book by legendary reviewer Michiko Kakutani.

The new book is set during the time of the American civil rights movement: Following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, which outlawed school segregation, the Alabama town is seething. Atticus, Scout’s revered father, is now 72 and, horrifyingly, has become part of the consensus in the racist town.

If in “To Kill a Mockingbird” Finch speaks in favor of the Supreme Court and is an avowed believer in the Constitution and that all men are created equal, here he lashes out angrily at the Supreme Court, asking his stunned daughter if she really wants to see cars full of black people coming to schools, churches and the theater.

As I read the review in The New York Times, I couldn’t help but think of us in Israel. How exactly was I reminded of the racist, ignorant southern town in Alabama? Here, last July they burned alive a Palestinian boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir. An Israel Defense Forces soldier of Ethiopian descent was manhandled by a police officer and the case against the officer was closed. Schools and summer camps refused to accept children because of their skin color. A representative of the government talked aggressively and patronized the family of Avera Mengistu, a seemingly disturbed man who crossed the border into Gaza last September and has disappeared – and no one seems to care. And as a woman is raped in Tel Aviv, passersby witness it but keep walking; no one helped her.

Israel’s Arab citizens are outcasts, freedom of expression and creativity are trampled underfoot, and woe to anyone who dares depart from the consensus. Even a veteran and much-respected actress like Gila Almagor was vilified and undefended following her comment that she was embarrassed to be Israeli following the murder of Abu Khdeir – and that is only a partial list.

We don’t have one single Atticus Finch of “To Kill a Mockingbird” here. As for the Atticus Finch of “To Set a Watchman” – we have plenty.

Had I not known Harper Lee had been living quietly in the small town in Monroeville, Alabama, all these years, I would have assumed she’d come to visit the Israel of 2015 and was heartbroken by what she saw.

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