Albert Memmi: The Great Theorist of Decolonization Who Saw the Dangers of Anti-Zionism

June 21 2019

In an excerpt from her recent book, The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky, Susie Linfield explores the great Tunisian-Jewish writer Albert Memmi’s sustained and simultaneous commitment to socialism, Zionism, and Jewishness. For Memmi, whose 1957 book The Colonizer and the Colonized galvanized a generation of anti-colonial thinkers, Zionism was above all a national liberation movement. But unlike his colleagues on the left, he foresaw, and never shied away from condemning, the dangers of terrorism, anti-Semitism, and Islamic fundamentalism from within former European colonies:

In Memmi’s view, there was nothing picturesque about the Jewish ghetto [of Tunis in which he was raised]: it was a place of “physiological poverty, undernourishment, syphilis, tuberculosis, mental illness, . . . an everyday, all-day historical catastrophe.” . . . But the ghetto was also a world of solidity and belonging. Memmi would recall the comfort of its “collective presence,” which embodied “a kind of common soul.” It was Jewish culture, not the Jewish religion, that he treasured. Yet this did not translate into scorn for his religious forebears or for observant Jews. [He] was surprised when, arriving in Paris after World War II, he discovered that Jewish-French intellectuals had little sense of a positive Jewish past; this alienation struck him as “utterly ridiculous.” In contrast, he considered himself “heir to a powerful tradition and culture.” . . .

Memmi was also prescient about the prominent place that terrorism would occupy in these future struggles, though he could not foresee the extent of the barbarism to come. It is a very bad sign of the times in which we live that the terrorism of the postwar anti-colonial movements seems almost quaint compared to today’s beheadings, suicide bombings, mass rapes, and deliberate targeting of . . . civilians of every stripe, especially women and girls. Memmi assumed he was writing within a leftist tradition that “condemns terrorism and political assassination”; he termed such actions “incomprehensible, shocking, and politically absurd. For example, the death of children and persons outside the struggle.” But that tradition was weakening even as he wrote.

In [his 1962] Portrait of a Jew, Memmi parts company with a kind of generic universalism and introduces a theme he would subsequently develop: the reality, and necessity, of national identity. “A man is not just a piece of abstract humanity,” he argued. People live their lives within particular nations; there is nothing reactionary about this. “True justice, true tolerance, universal brotherhood do not demand negation of differences among men, but a recognition and perhaps an appreciation of them.” Jews in particular had paid a high price for abstract universalism, which suppressed their particular history and particular needs.

Now it was time to acknowledge a truth that was existential and political at once: “I am convinced that difference is the condition requisite to all dignity and to all liberation. . . . To be is to be different.” . . . Memmi was not, however, an exponent of what we now call identity politics. On the contrary, he would criticize the politics of differentiation as they morphed into a kind of narcissistic self-preoccupation.

As for the left’s—and even the Jewish left’s—eventual turn against Zionism, Memmi would argue trenchantly that the “failure of the European left with regard to the Jewish problem was no accident.” Of the insistence of Jewish Marxists, and of Marx himself, that “a Jew’s only duty was to disappear,” Memmi demanded, “From what other people could one ask such saintliness?”

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More about: Albert Memmi, Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism, Mizrahim, Postcolonialism, Socialism

The End of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and the Rise of the Arab-Israeli Coalition

Nov. 30 2022

After analyzing the struggle between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors since 1949, Dan Schueftan explains the current geopolitical alignment and what it means for Jerusalem:

Using an outdated vocabulary of Middle Eastern affairs, recent relations between Israel and most Arab states are often discussed in terms of peace and normalization. What is happening recently is far more significant than the willingness to live together and overshadow old grievances and animosities. It is about strategic interdependence with a senior Israeli partner. The historic all-Arab coalition against Israel has been replaced by a de-facto Arab-Israeli coalition against the radical forces that threaten them both. Iran is the immediate and outstanding among those radicals, but Erdogan’s Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, Syria—and, in a different way, its allies in the Muslim Brotherhood—are not very far behind.

For Israel, the result of these new alignments is a transformational change in its regional standing, as well as a major upgrade of its position on the global stage. In the Middle East, Israel can, for the first time, act as a full-fledged regional power. . . . On the international scene, global powers and other states no longer have to weigh the advantages of cooperation with Israel against its prohibitive costs in “the Arab World. . . . By far the most significant effect of this transformation is on the American strategic calculus of its relations with Israel.

In some important ways, then, the “New Middle East” has arrived. Not, of course, in the surreal Shimon Peres vision of regional democracy, peace, and prosperity, but in terms of a balance of power and hard strategic realities that can guardrail a somewhat less unstable and dangerous region, where the radicals are isolated and the others cooperate to keep them at bay.

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More about: Abraham Accords, Israel-Arab relations, Middle East, Shimon Peres, U.S.-Israel relationship