The mass exodus of Jews from Algeria in recent months has raised the crucial question as to whether there can ever again be any significant Jewish life in the new nationalist states of North Africa. Albert Memmi here presents his view of the moral and practical issues involved, a view differing radically from that put forth last month by the well-known French journalist Jean Daniel, who spoke for the possibility of a “prudent optimism” concerning the Jewish future in Algeria.
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. Before leaving, I had visited several Moslem friends; not a little embarrassed, I explained: all writers, all artists, must, at some point in their lives, spend time in Paris; to make certain contacts with publishers, the press, etc. Such has been my automatic answer ever since. Several weeks ago, in New York, for example:
Have you left North Africa permanently?
No. I don’t know. A writer. . . Paris. . . . Look, even in your own country, American writers and artists have had their Parisian periods. . . Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Henry Miller. . . .
But I know perfectly well that the question is a more serious one, that I am only avoiding the real issue, that I did not come to Europe merely for the sake of my work as a writer. The proof? An objective one, stronger than all my explanations: 120,000 Algerian Jews have just left Algeria; two-thirds of all Tunisian Jews have already left Tunisia, as I did; I don’t know the figures for Morocco, but they cannot be very different. Even if my own personal reasons were valid, I would still have something to explain, for I am part of this North African Jewry. Were we right to leave North Africa just when the French left? Didn’t we in some way betray these young nations by refusing to identify ourselves with their present new destinies?
Jews in other countries ought not to shrug their shoulders or be above it all. How often have I heard it said: “A local matter. . . . What happens in North Africa is quite interesting. . . .” People listen with well-intentioned curiosity, even with some sympathy, but with little real concern. A local matter? I do not think so. Periodic upheavals have never ceased uprooting the Jewish communities all over the world. The most surprising thing is that it has taken so long for it to happen to the Jewish communities of North Africa. Separated from Europe, the Jews of North Africa have not been forced to any large migrations since the Middle Ages. My grandfather never left Tunisia, where he died; my mother, I believe, would never have left had it not been for the recent events. Only lately have I painfully come to understand what my own Tunisian community had in common with world Jewry. . . . The voice of the Others is sometimes loud, sometimes barely heard—shame or brutality governs it, and the language differs in different places. For us, the question is posed in Arabic, and in relation to the independence of the North African countries: what is the nature, how strong is the solidarity, of our ties with these countries in which we were born? What exactly are our obligations toward these people among whom we have lived for so many generations, and, on the whole, with so little trouble? In leaving North Africa, have we suddenly become traitors?
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. For a long time the Socialist intellectuals of France understood very little of what was happening in the colonies; above all, they were unable to foresee the birth of a “chauvinistic” nationalism—the “health” of the colonies, they thought, would be automatically ensured by the victory of socialism in Europe. Finally, when they were ready to admit that the liberation of the colonies must take a nationalist form, they still refused to acknowledge that their own people would react as nationals themselves—that the colonies would not be granted freedom before they had been subjected to long, costly, inherently useless wars. The result is known: the total lack of a sound policy, of a doctrine vigorous enough to win over the French people. If the French intellectuals of the left had no influence over events, it was precisely because of the poverty of their ideas. They cannot plead that they were removed from power; on the contrary, they had every opportunity and all the time needed. But when the Président du Conseil was a socialist and the Représentant in France also a socialist, it was the policy of the right that was adopted: resignation to an impossible status quo, and a continuation of the war.
We find the same poverty among Jewish leaders and intellectuals, the same total lack of foresight. When Jews in great numbers suddenly rushed toward the ports and airports, these leaders seemed completely surprised. One Jewish journalist, who over the years had been regularly analyzing the situation in North Africa for one of the French weeklies, could give no explanation except that the exodus was a deplorable mistake! And a brilliant professor of philosophy, a Jew, put forth in one of the large French newspapers the ingenious distinction between “repatriated” and “refugee”: he beseeched those who were setting sail by the thousands to be refugees, not repatriates; by which he meant, of course, that their place was in Algeria and not in France. But by what logic does one ask these Jews to return to the very place from which they have just fled? As if they were acting in a simple outburst of temper or a momentary panic—when the war had lasted seven years! All this would be comic if the lives of so many Jews were not at stake. For the fate of North African Jewry is the most important world Jewish problem of our postwar period, just as the fate of the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe was the leading problem for Jews before 1939.
Foresight, it still seems to me, is in political matters the most important criterion of serious thought. We must therefore conclude that either our intellectual and political leaders never engaged in serious thought at all, or, for some reason, were extraordinarily misled. Just before the Jewish departures from Tunisia began, the various syndicates of workers and professionals increased the number of their meetings to explain to their members that they would finally see peace and brotherhood, and economic prosperity for everyone. Some months later, Jewish civil servants were replaced by Moslems (I do not say this was wrong—I merely state a fact); education became Arab- rather than French-oriented, and the question was what to do about the children; lawyers were notified that they would have to plead their cases in Arabic—but they were completely incapable of doing so, and it meant the end of their activities; merchants and industrialists began to have difficulties renewing their licenses. And so, and so on, and so on.
Nothing had been foreseen, nothing prepared for. Even today, in the reception centers hurriedly opened in Marseille and Paris, there is confusion and astonishment—the catastrophe is too great. The truth is, to repeat, that the problem of the end of colonization and the ensuing fate of the North African Jewish communities had been met only with a kind of paralysis of political thought and action. Why such blindness and incompetence? Because, it seems to me, there was so profound a contradiction between what the mass of Jews felt and thought was happening in the colonies and the values and ideology of their intellectual leaders. On the whole, these values and this ideology prevented the leaders from seeing what was staring them in the face—and when they did perceive what was happening they became almost hysterical with fright and shock.
The fact was clear and unequivocal: the Jewish masses—and also the other non-Moslem groups—were for France and for Europe. One only had to speak to people in the streets, to the barber or the shoemaker, to know it. It wasn’t even necessary to go out into the streets—it was enough to have a family, brothers and sisters: they were all strongly Europeanized and they never, for a second, had any intention of abandoning European culture and customs. Why this firm choice? To understand it, we must return to the past history of the relation of the Jews to colonization. It has often been said that Moslems, unlike Christians, have never persecuted Jews; and, on the whole, this is true. There have almost never been pogroms in Arab lands comparable to those of the East European countries, let alone to the Nazi disaster. At the same time, it must be stated that the lot of the North African Jew, living under political absolutism, in insecurity and anxiety, has never been enviable. From birth to death, and as a matter of course, Jews were always second-class citizens under Moslem rule. Economically they had to content themselves with those activities which the Moslems left to them.
From the beginning, therefore, they cast their eyes across the sea: toward France, toward Italy, even toward England. Well before the beginning of colonization, many of them asked for and obtained French or Italian citizenship. This meant, above all, protection by the consulates in case of danger; it meant, also, more advantageous economic relations with these countries. Then, too, the Alliance Israélite Universelle, in its role of educating the Mediterranean Jews, helped very early to integrate them into French culture. When the French moved into North Africa, the Jews continued along the line they had already been pursuing, accelerating their “march to the West.” Was this an act of treason toward their Moslem fellow citizens? In one sense, yes—the Jews abandoned the one culture for the other, and sought a different social status. They were, it must be said, often exploited politically by the colonizers—sometimes willingly, sometimes unknowingly. Certainly, the Crémieux Decree, which granted French citizenship to all the Algerian Jews (and this I do not condemn), was at the same time a very clever divisive maneuver. And because they had earlier accepted the language, culture, and technological improvements of the colonizers, because they had relations in Europe, the Jews found themselves intermediaries between the French and the Arabs—intermediaries who did not as a matter of course favor their Moslem fellow citizens.
I hasten to add that in their condition of oppression, under Moslem domination, and even more under the colonial situation, the Jews took the only way out for them. The Arabic culture and language, the Oriental customs, the Arabic-Islamic civilization—these were the past, a past of historical gloom, of fear, and of economic and cultural poverty. To become part of modern history and leave behind the ageless stagnation in which the former Turkish possessions of North Africa were engulfed, it was absolutely necessary for the Jews to pass through Europe, to adopt France and be adopted by it. It became clear that the Moslem elite wanted the same thing. They too began to Europeanize themselves, to speak French, to wear Western dress, to send their children to the colonizer’s schools. But the movement toward Europe among the Moslems remained limited, and was complicated by resentment against the conqueror. The Jews had not been conquered by the French—and had nothing to lose.
Thus, a Jewish bourgeoisie came into being whose culture, tastes, and aspirations were almost entirely French. The children went to Europe to study, and returned doctors, pharmacists, lawyers—forming a new “class” of professionals, dynamic, active, and prosperous. Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco badly needed such technicians. The miserable ghetto remained, of course, but took hope from the success of its Jewish bourgeoisie. In the occasional career of a son of the ghetto who had broken out to become a doctor, lawyer, or rich merchant living in a European town, there was proof that the road to success was open to all.
That is how this new loyalty, to France and to Europe, was born. And it will remain. In the war of 1914, and again in 1939, the regiments of Jewish North African origin were among the toughest. Those who could not be mobilized did their part in recruiting offices. Important proofs of loyalty; but even more significant was the constant concern of the Jews for the French (not always reciprocated), their admiration for everything that came from the French capital, their eager imitation of French customs and fashions—all demonstrated a profound attachment. If history had not changed its course, these Jews would doubtless have been transformed into a kind of southern Frenchman, perhaps like the people of Marseille or others living on the French Mediterranean coast. Conceivably, even the Moslems might have taken the same path.
But history did change its course: colonization was condemned to extinction. It is not my purpose here to inquire whether this was inevitable, or whether by intelligent management the French colonial establishment could have been saved. The French did not in any case know how to correct their basic self-deception and how to give up a few of their privileges until it was too late. The colonized discovered that colonization had always only been exploitation adorned with a few ribbons; and the war which gave the oppressed a taste of liberty also taught them the use of arms. Justice and morality finally passed into the camp of the colonized. No intellectual worthy of his name could any longer justify colonization. The French intellectuals who for a long time had been preaching integration as the solution to the colonial problem, changed their tune. They admitted that the colonized had the right to be free to pursue their own course, not matter how disagreeably such freedom might be used. The French intellectuals decided to help the North Africans attain their independence.
It is here that we find one—among others during this period—of the paradoxes of history: it was as French intellectuals that the Jewish intellectuals of North Africa first took a stand against colonization. These Europeanized North African Jewish intellectuals did not suddenly discover the importance of the Islamic past or the beauties of Arabic—they knew nothing about either. It was, on the contrary, by pushing their attachment to French ethical values to the limit that they became the adversaries of French colonization. Those who were the most French, most Westernized, were the most extreme—they were the ones who joined the Communist or Socialist parties, and who, supporting the anti-colonial struggle, thereby came full circle back to the side of their Moslem fellow citizens. Through an excess of loyalty to France—to a certain image of France, the finest image—they returned to their former loyalty to North Africa. Practically speaking, in opposition to France and French interests in North Africa, they soon found themselves in the camp of the colonized. Some very touching reunions were witnessed between Jew and Moslem, and several authentic Jewish heroes made their appearance in the ranks of the North African maquis.
But by another paradox, more serious perhaps, reversion to their former allegiance failed to bring these intellectual leaders close to the large majority of Jews; on the contrary—they found themselves in disagreement with their own people. The Jewish masses obviously could not follow these leaders down so complicated a path. The masses clung to their “march toward the West,” though they were far from having reached their goal, and far, too, from realizing that at the end they would have to fight—against the injustices of the West! But for them, there could be no question of abandoning what they had so painfully acquired. Inside the ghetto, it was not denied that the Moslems were justified in fighting for an end to Moslem misery; but this was their business. The Jews would side with the French, from their deep attachment, or possibly capriciously; perhaps also from self-interest. If the Moslems took power, wouldn’t they upset a delicate equilibrium? Wouldn’t the Jews be deprived of the few cultural or economic positions they had painfully wrested for themselves after so many generations?
The Jewish intellectuals, Europeanized and anti-colonialist, were certain the answer was no. The ghetto had its doubts. And—why not say it?—the ghetto was right. The intellectuals were self-deceived, blinded by their ethical aspirations. Once again, it was not a matter of regretting for a single moment the liberation of a formerly colonized people; or even of regretting the breaking up of old ties which this liberation would inevitably bring about. There is no revolution without a price. Colonization had to end—for the sake of justice, and a more harmonious human order, probably. It was necessary. It was also necessary, however, not to pretend, against all evidence, that no price would be exacted for this revolution.
In the end, the Jewish intellectuals were proved wrong because they had not taken into account the specific nature of the Jewish destiny. Here is the important lesson to learn from this terrible adventure, which is unfortunately far from ended. It was not that the Jewish intellectuals were wrong in their argument with their own people: colonization was indeed doomed, and the direction of history was changing. But these same intellectuals failed to understand their own exact position in the over-all historical context. They could not understand, or they preferred not to understand, that the end of colonization, legitimate and desirable, nevertheless would profoundly change the life of North African Jews. Embarrassed, these intellectuals in the purity and generosity of their ideas preferred to deny what was actually happening. The most responsible of them considered the North African Jews to be a special case, and thus could not foresee their actual catastrophic migration. It serves no purpose now to deplore the blunders or to try to explain at this late date the sudden panic that threw thousands of Jewish refugees into transit camps.
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.