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?”