Remembering Albert Memmi, a giant of intellectual Jewish thought in France

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Remembering Albert Memmi, a giant of intellectual Jewish thought in France

By Sacha Elkaim, WJC International Relations Officer

The world lost a giant of 20th French literature and an emblematic figure in contemporary intellectual Jewish thought on 22 May, with the passing of French-Tunisian writer Albert Memmi.

Memmi was born to a Jewish family in Tunis in 1920 and at the core of his life’s work lay an existential question on the nature of Judaism itself: What does it mean to be a Jew, and what place does Judaism hold in one’s identity?

This very question was imposed on Memmi from the moment he was born, when his father sought to give his son a Hebrew name, but was denied the opportunity by a town hall employee in Tunis who insisted he be registered with a French name.

Although the family was forced to distance themselves from their Jewish roots, Albert Memmi was sent to Hebrew school from a young age, and excelled in his studies of the language and religious history. His mother-tongue was Judeo-Arabic, like many Mediterranean Jews of his time. French was a language that he learned only upon his enrollment at the Alliance Israélite Universelle  – an impressive feat, considering that he went on to achieve great literary fame in what was to become his third language

His mastery of the French language is all the more impressive considering that his mother, Maïra Serfati, who was of Berber origin, was illiterate.  

And yet, after arriving in France in 1956 at the independence of Tunisia, Memmi embarked on a brilliant career. Before emigrating, he was fortunate enough to obtain a scholarship from both the Tunisian government and the Jewish community to attend high school and later studied philosophy at the University of Algiers. 

Throughout his career, Memmi questioned the status of mankind in society, always relating to his own experiences and identity. This was the case in the quasi-autobiographical novel "La statue de sel", prefaced by Albert Camus, which looks back at the childhood of a Jew in the first half of the 20th century in Tunisia, when it was still a French colony, while passing through the German occupation. 

The place of the man of the time is again discussed in his two essays, "Portrait du  colonisateur and Portrait du colonisé", prefaced by Jean-Paul Sartre, in which he explains that both the colonizer and the colonized can only be defined by the existence of the other. 

Memmi’s contribution to the contemporary intellectualization of existential questions related to Judaism was not limited just to writing. He was also instrumental in integrating these ideas in les colloques des intellectuels juifs de Langue française at the beginning of the 1970s, a forum created by the French section of the World Jewish Congress at the time, at the initiative of Professor Jean Halpérin . The aim of these colloquia, when they were created in 1957, was to rethink the status of the Jewish community in France, as it gradually resumed normalcy after the Second World War . Numerous notable French Jewish personalities took part in these colloquia, including André Neher, Edmond Fleg and Emmanuel Levinas. The greatest Jewish philosophers - sometimes rabbis, sometimes secular academics – would meet to answer the existential questions of Judaism, such as that of a "Jewish Consciousness", the concept of “Shabbat", “Jerusalem", "Israel, Judaism and Europe”, and the role of "Youth and Revolution in Jewish Consciousness ", a subject in which Memmi took particular interest.

During the 10th and 11th Colloquiums on the question of Youth and Revolution in Jewish Consciousness, Memmi contributed two texts as part of the debate: "Jews and Arabs" and "The Revolution through the Human Sciences: Sociology" .  

The fact that the first text concerns the relationship between Jews and Arabs is not insignificant – this was a complicated and deeply personal matter for Memmi. Above all, he was one of the first Jews from an Arab country to join the colloquia, at a time when French Jewish thought was still very much nourished by Ashkenazi intellectuals. 

Memmi’s intellectual return to the question of his existence and his identity as a Tunisian Jew is so present throughout his work that he was  compelled to fuel effective debates on these issues. 

His text on the matter speaks first and foremost to the complicated nature of Sephardic Jews, upon arrival in post-war France – where the ashes of the war still smoldered –  complaining of the antisemitism they suffered in Arab countries. 

Indeed, he says, “Compared to Europe, which had just emerged from Nazism, it is true that the Arab countries (...) could appear to have been relatively preserved from the European cataclysm. However, this is no reason to consent to the mystification that in the Arab countries the living conditions of the Jews were idyllic." 

Throughout this text, which spans about 10 pages, Memmi elaborates on his thoughts on the relationship between Jews and Arabs as he knew it before the existence of the State of Israel, and  also the relationship between the two peoples in the Holy Land at the time of these debates in 1974.

It is striking to what extent his socio-political opinion of the time could be relevant if it were written today. He compares the self-determination of both Jews and Arabs, and the desire of all to have a land of their own. He expresses that the Jews, after the Shoah, needed to fight for their land, while admitting that the Arabs in Palestine might not necessarily understand why; he is also clear in his willingness to dismantle the argument that Israel was a colonizing entity. Against the backdrop of this text, Memmi’s rapport and attachment to Israel, as well as his deep Zionism, stand out clearly. The text underscores his desire for a democratic State of Israel that could live side-by-side with a Palestinian state, to address the needs and concerns of both peoples.

Albert Memmi’s admission of the deeply complicated situation in Israel is accompanied by a warning: Memmi urges the world to understand that Jewish self-determination is not just a matter of claims to a land, but rather a manifestation of our obligation to actualize that right. "On the Jewish side, I know that many now hesitate and say to themselves that the party has become so badly involved now, that too many people are against the State of Israel, that it is becoming too difficult. Well, it's good for the Jews to know that if this time they let Israel perish, it's because they haven't been worthy of having a nation.”

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