The Atticus Finch Principle of Israeli History

Has Israeli history up to now been the story of colonialism or democracy? The next chapter determines its meaning.

Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg
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To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a MockingbirdCredit: AP
Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg

Atticus Finch is a racist. This is the real news of the week.

Atticus, as you surely know, is the heroic father in Harper Lee's “To Kill a Mockingbird” - the lawyer who defies his Alabama town and defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. After a delay of nearly a lifetime, Lee's other novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” was published Tuesday. In it, Atticus is an old man in the civil-rights era - and a segregationist. The last righteous man in the Sodom of Alabama bigotry turns out to be just another citizen of Sodom. “Mockingbird” has been a staple of American high school literature classes. Now teachers are worried about how to teach it.

For practical purposes, “Watchman” is a sequel: It appeared many years after “Mockingbird.” It has the same characters, but they're older. In theory, we could treat them as two separate works, and the Atticus of each as a separate character. But that's not how anyone reads.

A sequel transforms the original work. We discover that the characters of the first story are not what we thought. What once looked like the resolution of their conflicts turns out to be the set-up for new conflicts. Even within a single work, each chapter changes the one before. The second time you read, you know that Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy is actually shy, or that the quiet hotel clerk in a Raymond Chandler novella was plotting murder.

The Atticus Finch Principle applies in real life as well. We are constantly changing history by writing our next chapter. Sometimes the altered story shocks us; we furiously reject it. Anger is futile, though. The only way to change the past again is by creating yet another sequel.

Let me demonstrate the Atticus Principle through one person's story: If you read an account from several years ago about a man who became a crack addict at 18 after his mother died of a Valium overdose, and who sold his blood plasma to get by in New York City, you'll read his decline as the sad, inevitable consequence of his childhood or his genes.

But on 9/11, this man suddenly volunteered to bring meals to firemen at Ground Zero. He "became addicted to rescue efforts," went to Pakistan to help after the earthquake in 2005, and stayed to start a hospital in a mountain village. Knowing that, you read his addiction as the prelude to his rescue of himself, which is of one piece with his rescue of others. You'll say his hard childhood forged his determination.

None of this was preordained. Some of what happened to him was a trick of circumstances, and much was choice. But when he altered his present, he transfigured his past.

Nations also reshape their histories via sequels. When Israel was born, the country's creation read as a victory of progressive politics. One of the world's most oppressed peoples achieved self-determination against the will of imperialist Britain. It was a democracy with a socialist government. This was the dominant story among Israelis, and among many people in the West.

In the late 1980s, Israel's "new historians" began publishing their accounts of an uglier genesis. The new histories were partly the product of information that became available when archives opened. But they were also a rewriting of Israel's past in the light of sequels: the hubris that followed the Six-Day War, the permanent occupation, the war of choice in Lebanon in 1982.

As a prelude to all that, the first chapter of Israeli history became a story of pushing Arabs off their land in what became the territory of the new state or of keeping those who fled from returning. It was a colonialist story of reducing those Arabs who remained to being the subjects of a restrictive regime. All this led - inevitably, it seemed - to Israel's post-1967 behavior.

But here too, nothing was inevitable. Israel made choices after 1967, often by refusing to make decisions, and continues to do so. If we had made other choices - if, for instance, we had seized very real opportunities for peace after 1967 - our earlier history would read differently. It would include the harsh events of 1948. But it would be the story of the clash between our worst and best selves, with the better side slowly winning.

Nor is anything inevitable now. We can alter the meaning of the 48 years since 1967 - if they become the prelude to full equality within the Green Line and an end to occupation beyond it. Unlike Atticus Finch, we are not locked inside a book with a last page. We are not dependent on an author. We will write our future, and in doing so choose our past.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Unmaking of Israel" and "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977." Follow him on Twitter: @GershomG.

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