Suddenly, everyone’s talking about Frantz Fanon. And for good reason.
Hamas apologists are facing their toughest assignment in years. Thanks to Israel’s Iron Dome, it was fairly easy for them to excuse the firing of rockets at Israeli civilians. But when you’ve got to defend the dismemberment of babies, it’s only natural to run for intellectual cover. And the only non-Islamist offering even partial cover to acts so horrific is the aforementioned Dr. Fanon.
Fanon was a psychiatrist from Martinique who lived in Algeria in the 1950s, during the struggle for liberation from French colonial rule. When he came out in support of Algeria’s National Liberation Front the French expelled him to Tunisia. It was there that Fanon wrote his famous work, The Wretched of the Earth, praising the virtue of violence to help the colonized break the shackles – physical and psychological – of colonial rule.
Fanon was hardly the first author to call for violent revolt from colonial rule. He just formulated a more extreme version of what other national liberation advocates were already writing. Foremost among these prior works was a book called The Colonizer and the Colonized. This militant tract claimed that “revolt is the only way out of the colonial situation” and concluded that “the colonial condition cannot be adjusted to; like an iron collar, it can only be broken.”
The Colonizer and the Colonized was written by an Arab nationalist named Albert Memmi. Memmi was a leading intellectual of the Destour, the party that won Tunisia’s independence from France. Memmi was born, raised and educated in Tunisia. But he was different from most of his comrades in arms, and this difference ultimately forced him to leave the very homeland he helped to liberate. Albert Memmi was a Jew.
Memmi saw no contradiction between his Jewish and Arab identities. Since the Arabs are a people, not a religion, he believed that one could be a Jewish Arab every bit as much as one could be a Muslim or Christian Arab. His erstwhile allies saw things differently. After Tunisia achieved its independence, Memmi fled to France.
Reflecting on his life as a persecuted minority, Memmi shared a critical insight. He wrote that he and his fellow Arab Jews were double victims: they had been colonized by the colonized. If the colonized people of the Arab world were, in Fanon’s term, the “wretched of the earth,” then the Jews of the Arab world were more wretched still. After recalling the waves of antisemitic violence he and his family suffered in Tunisia, Memmi concluded:
The Arabs were colonized, it is true. But weren’t we? What have we been for centuries if not dominated, humiliated, threatened, and periodically massacred. And by whom? Isn’t it time our answer was heeded: by the Muslim Arabs.
Memmi had been a loyal soldier in the fight for Arab liberation. But he refused to accept anything less for his own people, the twice-colonized Jews. Thus Memmi supported Jewish national liberation – Zionism – and argued that the Jews should build their independent state in the Middle East to which they were indigenous. He urged Muslim Arabs to understand that Jews from Arab lands also needed to “live free like them” and that the State of Israel offered them the opportunity to do so “on a scrap of the immense common territory which belongs to us too, though it is called Arab.”
Memmi would no doubt be baffled by campus protesters claiming Jews are somehow colonists in their own homeland. He’d ask them the same question he posed to his Arab colleagues long ago:
By what mystical geography are we not at home there too, we who descend from the same indigenous populations since the first human settlements were made? Why should only the converts to Islam be the sole proprietors of our common soil?
Those who read Fanon without reading Memmi will never understand this conflict. They will see Israelis as colonizers instead of as an indigenous people who achieved their national liberation. They will insist Israelis are white despite the fact that a majority of Israelis trace their roots to these Jewish refugees from the Muslim Middle East. They will fail to recognize that the true wretched of the earth are these refugees from centuries of persecution at the hands of the so-called wretched of the earth.
But the most important lessons to be learned from these Middle Eastern Jews relate not to their suffering but their auto-emancipation from that suffering. When they fought for their national liberation, the Jews rejected Fanon’s advice. They saw neither virtue nor healing in violence; they recognized only a horror they tried desperately to avoid. And they refused to look back in anger. They did not cling to the keys of their old homes in Baghdad, Tripoli or Algiers. Instead, they planted trees, built homes and made new lives in their ancestral corner of the Middle East.
If Israelis now seem prosperous and strong enough to be confused for oppressors, it’s because they chose life over death. They devoted themselves to building not murdering. Fanon might provide grist for dorm room debates. But he’s a poor guide for achieving true liberation or justice.