Albert Memmi’s Very Jewish Rejection of Postcolonial Orthodoxies

April 5, 2018
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Reviewing the Tunisian-French-Jewish writer Albert Memmi’s most recent book (not yet translated into English), Daniel Gordon surveys the career of a man he describes as a “novelist who wrote like a sociologist [who] became a sociologist who wrote like a novelist.” Memmi, born and raised in Tunisia, spent World War II in a concentration camp. In 1957, he wrote The Colonizer and the Colonized, a foundational text of postcolonial theory, but quickly broke from his friends Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus in presciently expressing his concerns about the ability of former colonies to govern themselves, decrying Arab anti-Semitism, defending Israel, and rejecting the bloodthirsty ideology of Frantz Fanon. Gordon writes:

Memmi has defended Third World revolutions while condemning their tyrannical by-products ever since his native country drove out its Jewish population soon after attaining independence. The recently published Tunisie, An I (“Tunisia, Year One”) is Memmi’s diary from the years 1955 and 1956. This was when Tunisia ceased to be a French protectorate and became, as its new constitution stated, “an Islamic state.” . . .

Memmi . . . insisted on a distinction between the process of liberation from oppression and the achievement of a durable liberty. This is, arguably, a characteristically Jewish distinction. As readers of the Bible from Moses Maimonides to Michael Walzer have noted, the book of Exodus vividly depicts the difference between the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian bondage and their maturation as a people in the desert for 40 years. The great cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am summed up this tradition when he wrote that a “people trained for generations in the house of bondage cannot cast off in an instant the effects of that training and become truly free.”

At the end of The Colonizer and the Colonized, Memmi made a parallel point about the postcolonial revolutionary: “In order that his liberation may be complete, he must free himself from those inevitable conditions of his struggle.”

Although Memmi burst upon the intellectual scene as someone who had brilliantly dramatized and theorized the injustices of colonialism, his full message was one that neither violent theorists nor armchair rebels wished to hear. His work was too subtle, too unflinchingly honest, and too unabashedly Jewish for that. He began telling the “whole truth” in the 1950s, and while he is now ninety-seven years old, one hopes he still has more to say.

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