A brilliant novelist and political thinker, Albert Memmi was one of the most influential theorists of anticolonialism, as well as a proud Jew and a defender of Israel who painted vivid portraits of North African Jewish life in both his fiction and nonfiction. Memmi, who was born in Tunisia in 1920, died in Paris last month. In 1962, when some 120,000 Jews left Algeria following its independence, he wrote an essay in Commentary about the Jewish future in the newly independent states of North Africa, which begins with a provocative question:
Am I a traitor? It is a question I could not have avoided facing indefinitely, one which has been asked by my former North African compatriots—Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans. It had to be asked. Here I am, living in France, the country of the colonizers of North Africa. I, a Tunisian Jew, have gone away, left behind those young, newly independent nations, whose independence I had so fervently desired.
Memmi never refutes this accusation, but his reflections lead him to more profound, and very relevant, conclusions:
If anyone has given a false picture of what the Jews of North Africa think and feel, it is the Jewish intellectuals, particularly of the left, who have done nothing but imitate the kind of thinking characteristic of the French left in general.
Such blindness, conscious or unconscious, is not, alas, new in the history of Jewish communities. It would certainly be easier, for thought and for action, if the lot of Jews could coincide exactly with that of their neighbors. It would be pleasant if history were always rational and manageable. How fine to be able to work for the good of all men at once, including Jews! I really believe this to be the great dream of every Jewish intellectual: to fight for all humanity, and in so doing to save his own people, without suspicion of self-interest, Alas, history abounds in contradictions. Not that the history of the Jews is independent of that of the Others; on the contrary, everything that happens to the Others also affects the life of the Jews, but in a special way.
In any case, the destiny of the Jew too often carries with it a hard nucleus that cannot be minimized. No historic duty toward other men should prevent our paying particular attention to our special difficulties. It is not wrong for the Jewish elite to take positions in advance of the majority of their people, but at the same time they must never forget to listen to the voices of their people. Jewish leaders have not performed their historic mission simply by fighting for the coming of a universal morality. For, beyond the solidarity with all men, there exists a more humble and often less comfortable duty: to come to grips directly with their special destiny as Jews, without worrying too much about being called a traitor by anyone.
A few months after the article was published, Algeria passed a law denying citizenship to non-Muslim citizens. Within a decade, barely anything was left of this nearly two-millennia-old Jewish community.