An anti-colonial Zionist? Remembering Albert Memmi

The great prophet of anti-colonialism embraces Zionism without ever questioning its colonial implications
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Albert Memmi was born and raised in the Jewish hara of Tunis, Tunisia. He was educated in Tunis and at the University of Algiers before his studies were interrupted by the Second World War. After the war, he completed his education in France before returning to Tunis, where he taught philosophy, worked as a journalist, and practiced as a psychologist, until Tunisia gained independence in 1956. He then returned to Paris, where he continues to reside until his recent death. Albert Memmi was a Jewish-Tunisian- Berber-Arab writer. Yet in his 1974 book, Juifs et arabes (1974), he dedicates a chapter to the figure of the Arab Jew, arguing that de facto the latter does not actually exist: 

One should remember that the term ‘Arab Jew’ is itself not a good one  [the term hides the fact] that the term Arab is not a happy one when applied to a [non-Muslim] population, including even those who call and believe themselves to be Arabs (5). [1]

Writing about his personal experience, Memmi adds: “there was never a time… in which Jews in Arab lands lived [peacefully]”(7) and “We would have liked to be Arab Jews [but] the Muslim Arabs systematically prevented [this possibility] by their contempt and cruelty” (6). 

I am not a historian of Tunisia and cannot prove or disapprove Memmi’s argument and personal experience. But what I can say, is that what appears to be missing from Memmi’s analysis, is an account of Europe and its colonial legacy in this context. Memmi must have known, and personally experienced the impact of French antisemitism in North Africa, which was introduced and propagated by the French colonizers.  It is particularly surprising and disappointing that “Europe” as the colonizer is totally missing from Memmi’s account of the growing animosity between Arabs and Jews in the early to mid-twentieth century North Africa. 

Memmi is after all the writer of The Colonizer and the Colonized (Portrait du colonisé, précédé par Portrait du colonisateur 1957), one of the most important and original anti-colonial texts, along with Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (Peau noire, masques blancs 1952). Is it really possible to assume he neglected to notice the impact of French colonialism on dividing the colonized population in Tunisia and elsewhere? I suspect the answer to this question is an unambivalent “no.”

There is an unresolved crisis in Memmi’s oeuvre, which in its broadest terms is preoccupied with two main forces of political discrimination: colonialism and antisemitism. While in the early text on colonialism, there is no clash between these two, later writings expose a serious failure on the part of Memmi to think about the tragedy of the Arab Jew (or the impossibility of this figure as he would come to argue) in relation to (French) colonialism. Moreover, with the years, Memmi, who never chose to live in Israel himself, has become an open and uncritical supporter of Zionism, remaining totally unspoken about the explicit colonial nature of Zionism as a political national settler movement.  

Unlike in his essays from the 70’s, in his early autobiographical novel, La statue du sel (1953), Memmi offers a much more politically sound account of the growing tensions between Muslims and Jews, as a direct outcome of French colonialism. The narrator, Alexander Mordekhai Benillouche, a Tunisian Jew, experiences the harsh faith of antisemitism in the particular context of the French colonial education system and during the Nazi occupation of Tunisia. For example, the narrator is forced to drop his Arabic class and replace it with French: “[this] was no longer a matter of shades of pronunciation but of a total break. How will I manage… I’ve never learned French!” (31,44). [2] He is also mocked by other students for his Tunisian dialect, by both Jews and Muslims: “My mother tongue is the Tunisian dialect, which I [learned] to speak with the proper accent of the young Moslem kids of our part of town… [Unlike] the Jews [who] drag out their syllables in a singsong voice… the relatively correct intonations of my speech earned me the mockery of all: the Jews disliked my strange speech and suspected me of affectation, while the Moslems thought I was mimicking them” (30, 43)

When Tunisia is occupied by Nazi Germany, the narrator’s precariousness becomes extreme. Like all other Jews, he realizes that even his “French protectors” will not help and that “Jews were left alone.  (271-2, 292-3). In the novel, Memmi’s character concludes that he who “rejected the East” is now “rejected by the West,” (321, 352). Unlike, his later political essays, which endorse the Zionism as the only solution to the Jewish problem, [3] the narrator of this early novel, while aware of the Zionist option, chooses not to follow its ideology. In fact, it is by keeping Benillouche’s inner conflicts and tensions (is he an Arab? A Jew? a Berber? Part of the East? Part of the West?) unresolved, that Memmi’s novel highlights the central role of European aggression, colonialism and antisemitism, on making the figure of the Arab-Jew impossible:

I whose culture is borrowed, my maternal language un-firm. I am Tunisian but Jewish, I am Jewish but of French culture…I speak the language of the country with a particular accent and emotionally I have nothing in common with Moslems. I am a Jew who has broken with the Jewish religion and the ghetto…I must re-find myself  (331, 364). 

In the novel Memmi leaves his narrator in this overwhelming and tragic sense of dislocation and confusion (“I must re-find myself”). Perhaps the price of such uncertainty—a condition of living in exile and never fully belonging anywhere – is responsible for the clear shift that occurs in Memmi’s later political texts, all of which tend to ignore the question of colonial violence and instead embrace Zionist nationalism as (the only) legitimate solution for the so called “Jewish problem.” 

In his books Portrait d’un Juif: l’Impasse [Portrait of a Jew] (1962) and  [Liberation of the Jew] (1966), Memmi argues that the conditions of Jews everywhere and always, whether under Christian or Muslim rule, whether in Europe or elsewhere, have always been that of persecution. In short, he writes about a universal state of antisemitism. Unlike Aimé Césaire, however, who points out the clear historical and ideological connections between the persecution of Jews and colonialism in his 1950’s essay “Discourse on Colonialism” (Discours sur le colonialisme), Memmi fails to make such important connections. The outcome is a total schism within his writings. The great prophet of anti-colonialism embraces Zionism without ever questioning its colonial implications. 

Life is complex, no doubt. There are always multiple versions of reality and we don’t all see everything in the same way. I am not suggesting that Memmi had no reason to support Zionism. I am, however wondering, what it takes for such a brilliant writer and astute political mind, so stay blind to Zionism’s detrimental racist and colonial implications. In the broadest sense, this is a theoretical question not just about Memmi but more broadly about great thinkers, who nevertheless remain blind to realities they rather not see. Whether they fail to see recognize racism, homophobia, or misogyny, the results are equally negative. It is for this reason that I think we must recognize Memmi’s failure. Precisely because his legacy matters. 


1. I quote from the English translation, which was reprinted and published as an independent essay by The Israeli Academic Committee on the Middle East in 1975.

2. Page numbers refer to the English translation, followed by the original French.

3. The existence of Israel, Memmi insists in all his political writings from “The Liberation of the Jew” (1966) to his 1985 essay “Condition juive et littérature,” is the only solution for the helpless distress and melancholia experienced by Jews all over the world. “The national solution [alone] can fight back our own ghostly existence,” he writes in La terre intérieure; “only Israel can make us again into flesh and blood” (214, my emphasis).

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