Albert Memmi: Contradictions of the colonial condition Mondoweiss – Mondoweiss

Posted By on June 26, 2020

It is a commonplace of literary theory that neither the intention nor the biography of the writer have any final authority over the interpretation of the work. The work stands apart from either, however they may contribute to its initiation and structure. Least of all can the subsequent life or opinions of the writer determine the fate of the work or revise its meaning. What is true for the literary work is surely all the more true for the work of critical sociology: its value lies in its continuing analytical pertinence, its capacity to explain social or cultural phenomena and to account for, and even predict, the unfolding of their tendencies. The later development or revisions of its author have no power to invalidate the theoretical insights or explanatory power of the work even over situations never envisaged at the time of writing. This is especially true of works that emerge from the felt contradictions of authors, irresolvable contradictions that may even become the object of and not just the impetus to critical reflection. The interplay of blindness and insight haunts theoretical reflection even as it generates its conditions.

There are few writers to whom such reflections are more relevant than the recently deceased Albert Memmi (1920-2020), author of that indispensable analysis of the colonial psyche, The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957), and dedicated adherent of that impossible conjunction left-wing Zionism. [1] How can one reconcile Memmis commitment to the legitimation and defense of Israel with the fact that The Colonizer and the Colonized, a work based primarily on the experience of French colonialism in North Africa, continues to have exceptional explanatory power for our understanding of the nature and evolution of the Zionist settler colonial state? Certain Zionist writers have drawn on Memmis authority as one of the great theorists of anti-colonialism to deny the colonial formation of that state and to cast its history of settlement and annexation of Palestine as part of the more general problem of oppressed peoples. They then represent Zionism as neither more nor less than the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. [2] No matter that such an assertion would have surprised early Zionists, who openly understood Zionism to be a colonizing project at a time when colonization was an honorable trade among the European powers whose support they sought. As Edward Said long ago pointed out, It is important to remember that in joining the general Western enthusiasm for overseas territorial acquisition, Zionism never spoke of itself unambiguously as a Jewish liberation movement, but rather as a Jewish movement for colonial settlement in the Orient. [3] Early Zionists, indeed, despite the claim to have located a land without people for a people without land, were far more willing to admit the colonial dimension of Zionism and correspondingly the actual existence of the Palestinian people than are Israels contemporary defenders. And far from effecting the transformation of Zionism into a liberation movement, an attentive reading of The Colonizer and the Colonized with the fate of Palestine and the Palestinian people in mind indicates how prescientif unwittinglyMemmis work turns out to be with regard to the conformity of Israels practices to what are now widely understood as quite typical settler colonial models.

Herzl had envisaged that a Jewish state, populated by settlers predominantly from Europe, would form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. [4] Precisely as Memmi recognized in his classic portrait of the colonizer, settler colonialism initially seeks to legitimate its conquest by the invocation of civilizing ideals and a commitment to development or improvement of the colonized and their lands. But the fate of such ideals, sincere or opportunistic as the case may be, is finally determinedas Memmi showedby the hardening of the siege mentality that equally typifies setter colonial societies from the start and is determined by the persistent presence of the indigenous population. Surrounded by the settlers as it may be, the indigenous people appears to them as a threatening surround that, to their frustration, they cannot eliminate. The settler remains perpetually on guard, poised for real and imaginary resistance behind an iron wall whose institutionalization preserves the mentality of the embattled colonizer within the very structures of the state.

Thus, rather than gaining confidence and therefore openness to the potential for change and accommodation as it gains power and security, the settler society undergoes a gradual hardening of its defensive psychic and institutional structures over time. Rather than expanding democratic freedoms and inclusivity, the more the state appropriates in the name of security and development, the more deeply it becomes militarized, and the more it shapes draconian laws and restrictions on the rights of the colonized. Every colonial nation carries the seeds of fascist temptation in its bosom, Memmi noted [62]. His terse, ironic and profoundly objective laying out of the contradictions of colonialism offers a trenchant and explanatory account of Israels steady right-wing turn and abandonment of the progressive veneer with which it once disavowed its colonial project, from its renewing of the Palestinians throughout historic Palestine as a demographic time-bomb to the recent Nationality law that consolidates its apartheid regime, and the announcement of its intent to annex the West Bank. Memmis theoretical relevance only grows in pertinence, laying bare with great lucidity the constitutive contradiction of Israels claim to being a Jewish and democratic state, a claim that Zionism itself has made a laughable oxymoron.

Such contradictions, Memmi continues, produce in the colonizer who accepts the reaction of rage, a loathing, always ready to be loosed on the colonized, the innocent yet inevitable reason for his drama [66]. Faced with the persistencethe sumudof the indigenous population, who refuse to disappear, the settlers rage manifests in what Ilan Papp has termed the righteous fury that is a constant phenomenon in the Israeli, and before that Zionist, dispossession of Palestine. We have witnessed all too often how such rage issues in turn in the barbarically disproportionate military incursions that Israel periodically directs against the besieged and trapped inhabitants of Gaza. For Memmis colonizer who refuses, the psychic response in no less vexed, for even if he is in no way guilty as an individual he suspects that he shares a collective responsibility by the fact of membership in a national oppressor group. [38] In this dilemma, s/he wants to be sympathetic, or at least in dialogue (the interminable dialogue industry of the so-called peace process), but remains unable to relinquish either the privileges granted by a colonial status or the overall project of the settler colonial state in whose supposedly civilized values s/he grounds the moral values that lead to the rejection of its excesses. In the end, as Memmi ironically observes, however benevolent or understanding s/he wishes to be, the leftist colonizer is part of the oppressing group and will be forced to share its destiny, as he shared its good fortune. [38]

Meanwhile, whether in rage or in guilty pathos, in vituperation or in extenuation, the settler faces an impossible historical situation, one in which colonial relations [] like any institution, determine a priori his place and that of the colonized and, in the final analysis, their true relationship. [38-9] Willy-nilly, the historical contradictions of the settler colonial society grind steadily on in the gradual regression of that society into a less and less flexible state, both for the colonizer and for the colonized on whom those contradictions are played out. No better description of the evolution of Israeli society, down to the most recent capture of its political institutions by the most right-wing ideologues, could be imagined than the one Memmis analysis so presciently offers us.

Memmi himself was no more immune than any of us to the inhabitation of contradiction. An Arab Jew who denied the possibility of such an identity, blaming on Muslim hostility an erasure that has also been a crucial element of Zionist policy; a brilliant anti-colonial theorist who defended Israels settler colony to the last; a left Zionist who acknowledged that Israels occupation was politically and morally wrong, even as his own writings imply the inevitability of its logic; a French colonial subject who declared that his true homeland was not the country itself, but the French language, he would describe his work as an attempt atreconciliation between the different parts of myself. In the end, he inhabited what he so well identified as an impossible historical situation, and if that culminated in his own rightward turn, as a colonizer who accepted, we may find the logic of that trajectory in his own unsurpassed analysis of settler colonial relations. That he should fall victim himself to the contradictions of the colonial condition that he so clearly grasped takes nothing from the continuing relevance of that work to the actuality of the state to which he eventually lent his allegiance.

This article will be shared in Arabic and French by the Tunisian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel in Tunisia, the country of origin of Albert Memmi, on the occasion of the 40th day of mourning his death on May 22, 2020.

1. Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, intro. Jean-Paul Sartre, trans, Howard Greenfeld (Boston: Beacon Books, 1967).

2. Susie Linfield, The Lions Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), pp. 176 and 179.

3. Edward W. Said, Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims, Social Text , 1 (1979), p. 23.

4. On the attitudes to the Palestinians and the colonial project, from Chaim Weizman and Zeev Jabotinsky to David Ben Gurion, see Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (New York: Norton, 2000), pp. 7-19.

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