Mr. Memmi on Jewishness and the Jews
Mr. Albert Memmi is a Tunisian Jew born in 1920, the son of a saddle-maker in the Jewish quarter of Tunis. Like so many Oriental Jews he was given an entrance into western, and more particularly, French culture through one of the excellent schools founded and maintained for the last century all over the Muslim world by the Alliance Israelite Universelle. Mr. Memmi is the author of two interesting novels, La Statue de Sel and Agar in which autobiography looms very large, and of a short essay, Portrait du Colonise precede du Portrait du Colonisateur, which contain reflections of a 'progressive' kind on what is known as imperialism and colonial liberation. Portrait of a Jew was first published in French in 1962, the English translation coming out a year later. Like the novels, the Portrait contains a large element of autobiography, and it is perhaps this which largely makes for its interest; like the essay, it is full of 'philosophical' speculations which arouse a great many objections, and make the work somewhat less readable than it might have been. The book is divided into four parts: The misfortune of being a Jew, The mythical Jew, The shadowy figure and The heritage. Of these, the second part is devoted to the discussion of various European racial and economic myths about the Jews; it is not only a showing-up of these popular idiocies for what they are (something which has been done many times), but also an incisive discussion ofthe role of myth in the structure of the psyche, a role which in no way depends on its truth or falsehood, however these terms may be understood. Chapter 21 in the fourth part also calls for special mention. It is a locus classicus of sociological religion, an account of what being Jewish means to someone of Jewish parentage who continues to consider himself a Jew without believing in or practising Judaism as usually and traditionally understood.