This Day in Jewish History

1920: A Man Who Decided Colonizers Weren't Root of All Evil Is Born

Albert Memmi wrote of Jews in the Arab world and concluded that many former colonies bore responsibility for at least some of their plight.

A Jewish man rests in La Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Africa, on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 28, 2015.
Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP

December 15, 1920, is the date of birth of Albert Memmi, the Tunisian-French writer whose novels and works of non-fiction, published over a period of decades, reflected on the place of the Jew in the post-colonial Muslim states of North Africa. Memmi also examined the effect of colonialism on both the imperial power and the nation being occupied.

Albert Memmi was born in Tunis, and grew up on the border of Hara, the Jewish ghetto there, and an adjacent Muslim neighborhood. His father, Francois Memmi, was of Jewish-Italian descent, and made his living as a saddle-maker. His mother, the former Marguerite Sarfati, was of Jewish-Berber background, and was illiterate. Albert was one of eight children.

Belonging to the others

Although the Jews were a minority in Tunisia, there were some 50,000 of them in the country when Memmi was growing up. He attended a Hebrew school starting at age 4, a primary school run by the Alliance Israel Universelle from age 7, and then the prestigious Lycee Carnot, from which he graduated in 1939 with the school’s top philosophy prize.

Memmi’s philosophy studies at the University of Algiers were interrupted by World War II and the anti-Semitic laws imposed by the Germans and their Vichy allies who occupied both Algeria and Tunisia. He was expelled from the university and confined to a forced-labor camp in eastern Tunisia.

In 1946, he moved to Paris, where he resumed his studies at the Sorbonne. He also married Marie-Germaine Dubach, a French-Catholic, with whom he had three children.

They returned to Tunis in 1951, as Memmi wanted to be involved with the anti-colonial struggle, yet left again for Paris after independence was gained, in 1956, and Jews found themselves “othered,” that is, marginalized. Most of the country’s Jewish institutions were dissolved, for example, and the Hara was demolished in the name of urban renewal.

Memmi’s two dozen books (published originally in French, though a number have been translated to English) have alternated between novels and non-fiction.

His first two novels, published while he was still living in Tunisia, were semi-autobiographical: Both “Pillar of Salt” (1953) and “Agar” (“Strangers” in English, 1955) deal with a Jewish young man from the Hara ghetto whose talent allows him the opportunity to experience the outside world. He then finds himself out of place in both Jewish and French-Tunisian society and later marries a French Christian woman and returns to Tunis, adding extra layers of alienation to his situation.

Both novels were critical successes when published in France, with “Strangers” being nominated for the Goncourt Prize.

'A revolt against my attachments'

His non-fiction works have titles like “The Colonizer and the Colonized” (1957, with a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre), “Portrait of a Jew” (published in two parts, in 1962 and 1966), “Jews and Arabs” (1974) and “Racism” (1982). His unique identity – as Jew, as North African and as French intellectual -- gives him a unique point of view, which includes all the inherent contradictions one might expect from those multiple allegiances.

Memmi himself said the following about his writing in 1995: "All of my work has been in sum an inventory of my attachments; all of my work has been, it should be understood, a constant revolt against my attachments; all of my work, for certain, has been an attempt at...reconciliation between the different parts of myself."

With the dramatic changes that have taken place in the Arab and Muslim world, and in its relations with Europe and the West in recent years, Memmi moved to the right. Or at least, he began to place more blame for the dismal situation of the formerly colonized on them themselves, rather than attributing all of their problems to the imperial powers that once ruled them.

 “The Colonizer and the Colonized” made the argument that the institution of colonization does harm to both the perpetrator and the victim, and that its overthrow is necessary and inevitable. But Memmi’s 2006 follow-up work, “Decolonization and the Decolonized” laments all the things that didn’t happen, or that went wrong, when the colonial age came to its end.

The newly independent former colonies must take responsibility for the dire state that many of them are in, he wrote – and as an avowed secularist, he is convinced that religion is not the answer to their problems.