Nelle Harper Lee (1926-2016) was an American novelist best known for her 1960 novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, which has sold more than 30 million copies and became one of the undisputed greatest classics of modern American literature. Lee, who won the Pulitzer Prize for To Kill Mockingbird (1961), was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to literature (2007).
To Kill a Mockingbird’s stratospheric popularity was heightened when the novel was turned into a major motion picture that won three Academy Awards in 1962, including a Best Actor Award for Gregory Peck for his portrayal of lawyer Atticus Finch. Finch, Lee’s protagonist, was portrayed in both the novel and the film as a paragon of virtue and the moral conscience of the South.
To Kill a Mockingbird – which deals with the irrationality of attitudes towards race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s – was inspired by racism in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. The novel, narrated by Scout, Finch’s six-year-old daughter, is set in the small fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama during the 1930s, when segregation and discrimination against blacks were deeply ingrained in the political, economic, and social fabric of the American South.
Finch, who has agreed to represent defendant Tom Robinson, an innocent black man falsely accused of raping a white girl, mounts a passionate defense of his client, but the all-white jury returns the pre-ordained and expected guilty verdict. He is hopeful that he can get Robinson’s conviction overturned on appeal but, tragically, the incarcerated Robinson is shot to death after trying to escape.
Though Finch has been lionized as a moral hero by generations of readers and as a model of integrity for lawyers, a reassessment of his character became necessary when Lee’s controversial Mockingbird sequel (which she actually wrote before Mockingbird) Go Set A Watchman – the title is based upon Isaiah 21:6 – was published in 2015. Some say it was published against the author’s wishes, but that complex subject is beyond the scope of this article, in which I will stick to Lee’s portrayal of Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Lee, who studied law for several years, almost certainly based Finch upon her father, A.C. Lee, a lawyer and Alabama legislator who in 1919 defended two black men accused of murdering a white storekeeper (both defendants were convicted and hanged); proud of his daughter the author, he later delighted in signing autographs as “Atticus Finch.”
There is significant Jewish subtext in To Kill a Mockingbird, which won the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (1961).
First, Lee characterizes Jews as being accepted members of Southern society. For example, she describes the family of Sam Levy, a Jewish dry goods dealer, as “meeting all the criteria for being Fine Folks: they did the best they could with the sense they had, and they had been living on the same plot of ground in Maycomb for five generations.”
In one scene, Sam Levy is confronted by the Ku Klux Klan but, most unrealistically, he easily chases them away. Later recounting the story to Scout, Finch says that the KKK “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. Sam made ‘em so ashamed of themselves they went away.”
This passage seems particularly odd in a novel lauded for its historical accuracy. Many critics argue – persuasively, in my opinion – that Lee’s description of Jews in Southern society manifests deep naiveté because, in fact, Jews were considered “others,” not equals, in white society. It is true that Jews were generally more accepted than blacks in the Southern hierarchy, but they were still subject to anti-Semitism and had good reason to fear the Klan.
Second, in a poignant scene at the end of the novel, a group of students in Scout’s third-grade class are discussing current events when Cecil Jacobs comments: “Old Adolf Hitler has been after the Jews and he’s puttin’ ‘em in prisons and he’s taking away all their property and he won’t let any of ‘em out of the country…. He wants to register ‘em in case they might wanta cause him any trouble and I think this is a bad thing and that’s my current event.” Another student asks: “How can Hitler just put a lot of folks in a pen like that, looks like the govamint’d stop him.”
The teacher, Miss Gates, answers:
Hitler is the government. That’s the difference between America and Germany. We are a democracy and Germany are a dictatorship. Over here we don’t believe in persecuting anybody. Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced. Pre-ju-dice [pronouncing precisely]. There are no better people in the world than the Jews, and why Hitler doesn’t think so is a mystery to me…. They contribute to every society they live in and, most of all, they are a deeply religious people…. You’ll learn that the Jews have been persecuted since the beginning of history, even driven out of their own country. It’s one of the most terrible stories in history.…
Lee’s discussion of the Holocaust in To Kill a Mockingbird is truly remarkable, coming as it did in an era when few Jewish leaders and writers were discussing it and when even Holocaust survivors were reticent about discussing their experiences, even with their own children. Equally extraordinary was the fact that Lee, a Southern Methodist from rustic Alabama, undertook to address the moral problems presented by the Shoah.
Yet, ironically, in one of the many ethical conundrums in the novel, Lee has Finch respond to his daughter’s question about whether it is acceptable to hate Hitler by saying, “It is not…. It’s not okay to hate anybody.” Some ethicists challenge Finch’s thinking: Does he really mean that it is unacceptable to hate the mass murderer of millions?
Some critics argue that Finch (really, Lee) is not naïve but, rather, is blinded by a strong desire not to acknowledge or address contemporary Southern anti-Semitism; it is far simpler to buy into the fantasy of Sam Levy, the little Jew down the street who single-handedly shames the KKK away.
Many critics maintain this entire scene is anachronistic in that Lee incongruously imposed her own after-the-fact 1960s sensibilities onto her 1935 characters, who were overwhelmingly unaware of the Nazi persecution against the Jews. Moreover, according to Holocaust historians, at the time in which To Kill a Mockingbird is set, even those who kept abreast of developing events overseas did not see anti-Semitism as central to Nazism and, even when news of anti-Jewish persecution began to trickle out, most Americans blamed the Jews themselves.
However, while the American disinterest in the developing anti-Jewish persecution – and the general public enmity toward the Jews of Europe – are inarguable historical fact, other commentators note that some Southern newspapers in the late 1930s refused to rely exclusively upon national press reports and blithely cite Associated Press accounts without comment. Rather, Southern journalists and editors – particularly in Alabama – manifested deeply negative views of the Nazis, condemned German anti-Semitism, and exhibited far greater sympathy for the Jews than the mainstream national press. In this regard, it’s interesting to note that Lee has Atticus, who refers to Hitler as “a maniac,” reading The Birmingham News, The Montgomery Advertiser, and The Mobile Press.
Moreover, as early as 1933, Alabama Governor Benjamin Miller condemned the Nazi persecution of Jews, and the Mobile City Commission passed a unanimous resolution lamenting Nazi Germany’s bigotry. As such, these commentators contend that Lee’s seminal classroom scene, far from anachronistic, accurately reflects the sensibilities of many Southerners at the time.
In any event, it’s obvious that Lee has great affection for the Jews, and the intended lesson underlying To Kill a Mockingbird’s passages on Jews is obvious: Just as Hitler persecutes the Jews out of pure unreasoned prejudice, American social order, which discriminates against blacks, is based on prejudice, and such racism – against blacks, Jews, or anyone else – must not be tolerated.
There are any number of reasons proposed by critics to account for Lee’s philo-Semitism, including her connections with New York Jews, particularly in the publishing industry. In my opinion, however, the most likely explanation is that her essential zeitgeist – her contempt for bigotry – is the very gestalt of her philosophy, the very sense of right and wrong that establishes the foundation of To Kill a Mockingbird and permeates its every scene.
Lee’s philo-Semitism is borne out in this rare and historic April 17, 2009 letter she wrote to her dear friend and New York neighbor, Bruce Higgison:
My own Bruce:
You and the lord move in mysterious ways!!…
The new abp [archbishop] looks jolly enough but guess he will follow the Pope’s orders. Maybe I’m prejudiced, but I don’t think much of German shepherds (you are too young – hell, you weren’t even born!) I shall never forget how quickly the Germans forgave themselves after the war. In the history of the present generation, Hitler never happened. At any rate, there may be enough Irish abps [archbishops] to head off [Pope] Benedict!
I ramble. You are bored.
I love you, Nelle
As is evident from our correspondence, Lee (whose full name was Nelle Lee Harper) had a deep friendship with Higgison that spanned many decades, and she frequently corresponded with him during her long visits back to her hometown in Alabama. Higgison, like Lee originally from Mobile, settled in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, looked after her apartment when she was away, and faithfully and consistently updated her on the New York gossip scene.
At the time this letter was written, however, it is likely that Lee had moved permanently, perhaps writing from her nursing home in Alabama; in her last years, she had become wheelchair-bound, partially blind and deaf, and suffering from memory loss. (Pundits argue that her poor health supports their argument that she lacked capacity to consent to the publication of Go Set a Watchman a year before her death.)
Over and above Lee’s unmistakable anger at the German whitewash of their Nazi past, there is additional evidence in this letter of her philo-Semitism. She was apparently not an admirer of Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria, who was a member of the Hitler Youth during World War II; served in the Nazi anti-aircraft corps; helped set up the Reich’s anti-tank defenses in Hungary; attended “de-Nazification” classes while held in a POW camp after the war; and later served as the Archbishop of Munich. Hence, her pun referring to him mockingly as a “German shepherd.”
Many critics justifiably accuse Benedict of great insensitivity towards Judaism. First, in a tone-deaf action deeply offensive to Jews, he infamously restored the traditional Good Friday Tridentine Mass service, which included a prayer beseeching G-d to lift the veil over Jewish eyes so they may see the “truth.” Second, in the face of fierce Jewish opposition, Benedict accelerated the canonization process of Pope Pius XII, who had remained passive and silent about Nazi genocide during the Holocaust.
Third, Benedict lifted the excommunications of four bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X, which endorsed the doctrine of Jewish deicide (i.e., “the Jews killed our god”) and spread canards regarding Jewish plots of world domination. Fourth, Benedict lifted the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, an outspoken Holocaust denier who preached that not a single Jew was gassed by the Nazis, which many critics, both Jewish and non-Jewish, viewed as evidence of the pontiff condoning Williamson’s historical revisionism.
During his visit to Israel in 2009, Benedict delivered a banal speech at Yad Vashem in which he expressed “deep compassion for the millions of Jews killed” but never once uttered the words “German” or “Nazi,” made no suggestion of Catholic responsibility for the Holocaust, and refused to enter the museum.
The archbishop to whom Lee refers in this letter is almost certainly Timothy Dolan, who was appointed by Benedict as Archbishop of New York and was installed on April 15, 2009, only a few days before the letter was written. Generally viewed favorably by Jews, Dolan was presented with the American Jewish Committee’s Isaiah Award for Exemplary Interreligious Leadership “in recognition of his steadfast contribution and ongoing commitment to the relationship between our respective faiths” on November 2, 2015.