Albert Memmi's About-Face

By Lieberman, Lisa | Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Albert Memmi's About-Face


Lieberman, Lisa, Michigan Quarterly Review


ALBERT MEMMI'S ABOUT-FACE Decolonization and the Decolonized. By Albert Memmi. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Pp. 160. $17.95 paper.

In The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957) Albert Memmi remarked that "the benevolent colonizer can never attain the good, for his only choice is not between good and evil, but between evil and uneasiness." Evil and uneasiness are a fair description of the choices faced by Leah Shakdiel, an Israeli peace activist featured in the documentary Can You Hear Me?: Israeli and Palestinian Women Fight for Peace. Born in a house that once belonged to Arabs, she rejected the crusading Zionism of her parents, choosing instead to live in a small town in the Negev desert and to work for social justice. But in order to visit her daughter, who lives in a West Bank settlement, she must travel on what she calls an "apartheid road"-a highway open only to Israelis; her daughter's decision, Shakdiel confesses to the filmmaker, makes her feel like a failure as a mother. All the same, she loves her daughter. What can she do?

The fatal ambiguities of Shakdiel's situation are brought home in a wrenching scene where she meets with a Palestinian peace activist, Maha Abu Dayyah-Shamas, and finds that her years of dedication to the cause of coexistence count for nothing in the other woman's eyes. Abu Dayyah-Shamas runs a legal aid and counseling center for women in Beit Hanina, a Palestinian village northwest of Jerusalem cut in half by the separation wall. To get from her house to her office across the street, she must travel eight miles and pass through a checkpoint. Life for the three thousand inhabitants of Beit Hanina is plagued by such ALBERT MEMMI'S ABOUT-FACE ALBERT MEMMI'S ABOUT-FACE ordeals, and Abu Dayyah-Shamas does not distinguish between the Zionism of the Israeli settlers whose protection requires the wall and the well-intentioned Shakdiel who, as she calmly points out, is in a position of power whether she chooses to exercise it or not. "No matter how he may reassure himself," Memmi wrote, "[the well-intentioned colonizer] suspects, even if he is in no way guilty as an individual, that he shares a collective responsibility by the fact of membership in a national oppressor group."

Critics of Zionism have been applying the lessons of The Colonizer and the Colonized to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the early 1970s, although Memmi has always resisted this analogy. "Israel ... is not a colonial settlement," he asserts again in his new book, Decolonization and the Decolonized. "Aside from its domination of the Palestinians, which is unacceptable, it has none of the characteristics of such a state." Zionism, in Memmi's view, has more in common with the nationalist movements for self-determination that he championed as a young man alongside Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon, the independence of his native Tunisia chief among them. Like other oppressed peoples, Jews were entitled to liberation, to sovereignty; Israel was as legitimate as any of the new states that emerged in the postwar era and had the same right to defend its existence. "I approve and continue to approve of the liberation and the national development of the Arabs. Why should I not wish for the same things for my own people?" he demanded in an essay he published after the Yom Kippur war, the defensive tone a clear indication of the widening rift between Memmi and his erstwhile leftist and thirdworldist comrades.

The rift has now become a chasm. In Decolonization and the Decolonized, Memmi distances himself not only from his radical fellow travelers, but also from his earlier self. Described as a continuation of The Colonizer and the Colonized, his new book in fact reassesses his views on national and ethnic liberation movements and judges them harshly. Fifty years on, Memmi finds little to celebrate in the independent states that emerged after World War II. "Widespread corruption, tyranny and the resulting tendency to use force, the restriction of intellectual growth through the adherence to long-standing tradition, violence toward women, xenophobia, and the persecution of minorities-there seems to be no end to the pustulant sores weakening these young nations. …

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