I’ve been thinking quite a bit over the last few weeks about one of my all-time favorite books. Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, depicts Depression – era life in a small Alabama town. Its central character, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer who defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.
Atticus Finch, has long been one of my favorite fictional heroes. OK, I’ll admit it: it’s easy for me to identify with a widowed lawyer raising his two children as a single parent. But my admiration for Atticus Finch began when I first read the book as a seventh grader, long before I could have known how much of my own life I would see mirrored in his.
What makes Atticus Finch so extraordinary is his ability to stand up for principle despite the hostility of his friends and neighbors, while at the same time refusing to demonize those same friends and neighbors no matter how strongly they oppose him. When his daughter Scout, the book’s narrator, tells him that he must be wrong to defend the accused man because “most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong,” his response sums up who he is: “They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions…but before I live with other folks, I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
The example of Atticus Finch came readily to mind these last few weeks as I followed the world-wide outpouring of admiration that followed the death at age 95 of Nelson Mandela, the first black President of South Africa. People who are able to take principled stands against determined opposition without losing sight of the fundamental humanity of their opponents are not easy to find anywhere. To find such a person at the highest levels of his country’s politics is almost unheard of. And Mandela did not merely become president of his country. He became the first black president of a country that had long been divided by race and whose white minority regime had imprisoned him for twenty-seven years, yet he achieved what few if any other post-colonial leaders have managed to achieve – a peaceful transition to democratic governance without provoking a mass exodus of the white minority.
Many Jews were ambivalent about Mandela because of his support for the late unlamented Yasir Arafat. As Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League – not exactly a pacifist when it comes to fighting anti-Semitism — explains in his Times of Israel blog (https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/how-mandela-won-over-the-jewish-community) , Mandela dealt with that issue straightforwardly, explaining that during the years of his imprisonment, “I needed the support of anybody I could get. And Arafat gave me support.” As to Mandela’s relations with the South African Jewish community, the most important thing to remember is that there still is a flourishing Jewish community in South Africa, an outcome that could not have been taken for granted during the last years of the apartheid regime, when many feared that majority rule would bring with it reprisals against anyone perceived as having benefited from the previous decades of white rule.
There may be, however, another element involved in Mandela’s refusal to repudiate Arafat. To lovers of Israel, Arafat is seen, correctly, as a murderous terrorist and an implacable enemy. But someone like Mandela, who was willing to forgo any thought of vengeance against those who imprisoned him for more than a quarter of a century, may not have the capacity to recognize unmitigated evil. A well-known example is Mahatma Gandhi, who was able to shake the British hold on India through non-violent resistance and at one point opined that Britain could have defeated the Nazis the same way. The possibility that there are some human beings who are unappeasably evil – who have no conscience to appeal to — was not part of Gandhi’s frame of reference, and may not have been part of Mandela’s either.
Even the fictional Atticus Finch displayed such a blind spot, and he did so in the one part of To Kill A Mockingbird that mentions Jews specifically. Near the book’s end, during a discussion of current events in Scout’s third grade class, her teacher, Miss Gates, expresses sympathy with the Jews and strong disapproval of Hitler’s persecution of them. “Over here,” she explains, “we don’t believe in persecuting anybody. Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced.”
Scout is troubled by the obvious (to her and us, but not to most others in her town) inconsistency between Miss Gates’ sympathy for persecuted Jews in far-off Europe and her bigoted remarks about the blacks in her own town at the time of the trial the previous summer. Scout can’t quite articulate her puzzlement to her father, but in the course of trying, she asks him whether it’s okay to hate Hitler, to which he replies in the negative: “It’s not okay to hate anybody.”
Even Hitler? However much I may admire Atticus Finch’s ability to fight against bigotry while recognizing the essential humanity of most bigots, I cannot avoid recognizing that some people are irredeemably evil. If anybody in human history fits into that category, surely it must be Hitler.
In fairness to Atticus Finch (assuming that one can be fair or unfair to a fictional character), this conversation is depicted as taking place in 1935, well before the extent of Hitler’s murderous evil was self-evident. Still, his instinctive rejection of the possibility that there are people so evil that hating them is morally essential is jarring. With the benefit of hindsight, I know Hitler was such a man, and I would like to believe that someone as morally exemplary as Atticus Finch would have realized it even at that early stage – just as I would like to believe that Nelson Mandela should have seen Arafat for what he was, however grateful he may have been for Arafat’s earlier support..
But human beings are inherently imperfect, and fictional characters, to be credible, must be flawed as well. Indeed, one theme running through To Kill a Mockingbird is Atticus’s internal struggle to recognize the unmitigated evil of his client’s principal accuser.
I would like to believe that Mandela went through a similar internal struggle when it came to Yasir Arafat. Whether he did or not, however, his relationship with Arafat, important as it may be to us as Jews, is of marginal importance in the context of his life. In the main arena in which history called on him to play a critical role, Mandela responded in a manner that not only brought peaceful change to his country but also demonstrated to the world that vengeance is not the inevitable outcome of uprooting historical injustice. For this he deserves to be remembered with honor and gratitude.