The Shamama Case: Contesting Citizenship across the Modern Mediterranean 
by Jessica M. Marglin.
Princeton, 363 pp., £30, January, 978 0 691 23587 5
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Nissim Shamama​ , a Tunisian Jew, became an Italian count and fast-tracked his way to citizenship by royal decree. But he was also a refugee who fled his country of origin in a moment of political crisis, never to return, and lived for the rest of his life in Western Europe, without learning to speak a language other than Arabic. After his death in 1873, the civil court of Livorno declared him stateless, a ‘cosmopolitan’ who ‘did not belong to any nation, and thus did not have – nor could he have – any national law’. This verdict would have shocked Shamama, who was still bound to Tunisia by ties of family, ambition and financial obligation, but had taken great care to establish a new legal identity. If he had died poor, his citizenship would have been an irrelevance. The verdict mattered because he was so rich that it took nearly four years to establish an inventory of his estate, which turned out to be worth nearly 28 million francs, making him ‘among the very richest people’ in Europe. Despite this, he died, to use Theresa May’s phrase, a ‘citizen of nowhere’, and his estate, as Jessica Marglin details in this absorbing microhistory, became the subject of celebrated lawsuits.

Shamama was born in the hāra, the old Jewish quarter of Tunis. His family were influential but unremarkable. He started out under the patronage of a prominent local figure, Mahmud Ibn ‘Ayyad, as a tax farmer. Over time, more and more of the Tunisian state’s finances fell into the hands of Ibn ‘Ayyad’s family. Shamama then came to the attention of Ahmad Bey, the ruler of Tunisia, who eventually made him tax collector for the entire country and later receiver general. He began to acquire monopolies on the export of wood, lime, salt, charcoal and olives, and in time became rich enough to lend money to the government. The 19th century may have been the ‘European century’ – a bold new age of industrialisation, globalisation and empire – but it was still possible for a North African Jew to become one of the wealthiest men in the world.

When Shamama was making his fortune, Tunisia was on the path to financial ruin. Because this was the European century, countries like Tunisia were under pressure to modernise, in order to compete internationally and maintain their independence. But modernity did not come cheap, and the money Tunisia needed came from Europe – in the form of costly international loans, negotiated by bankers in Paris and London on terms that became ever more profitable as the Tunisian state finances grew more disordered. The result, as in Egypt, was bankruptcy. Tunisia was peculiarly vulnerable because it was not quite a state, but a semi-autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire (which disputed the government’s right to contract international loans at all). So when the Tunisian prime minister Mustapha Khaznadar set out to borrow money in Europe, he failed to attract established Continental houses and had to do business with an arriviste.

Frederick Emile d’Erlanger was a German Catholic of Jewish origin, based in Paris. In 1863 he offered Khaznadar a loan of 35 million francs at 7 per cent interest. There was more to this than met the eye. Various intermediaries, including Khaznadar himself, took a cut. The loan was repayable at a rate of more than four million francs per year, and as Khaznadar soon realised, the only way he could raise the funds was to double the Tunisian poll tax, the mejba – a decision that in 1864 tipped the country into rebellion. The Mejba Revolt came close to prompting military intervention by Britain and France; it was eventually brutally suppressed. As a Jew who was also the director of the state finances, Shamama was an easy target. He, too, had invested in the loan, and was deeply compromised. According to the Tunisian historian Ibn Diyaf, rebel tribespeople descending on the capital ‘planned to attack’ Shamama’s house, ‘kill him, and take his wealth’. Understandably, he fled to France.

Shamama had no children from his three marriages, but his great-niece ‘Aziza became, in the words of Israel Costa, a Jewish contemporary, ‘like a daughter to him … he did everything for her and fulfilled her every desire’. In 1864 ‘Aziza accompanied Shamama into exile, along with her husband, Moses, and their newborn son, Nissim. In Paris, they lived first with, then above and finally next door to Shamama in one of the city’s smartest neighbourhoods (he rented apartments on the rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré and bought two properties on the rue de Chaillot). When the family felt like a change of scene, they retreated to an elegant 18th-century pavilion on the site of the Château de Bellevue, the home of Louis XV’s official mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Such associations would have meant much to a European Jewish banker who understood the allure of the French 18th century – a Rothschild, for example. Shamama, however, showed little interest in the culture of his briefly adopted homeland. To begin with, he had regular meetings with advisers to the Tunisian government and even attempted to raise another international loan. But then, no longer a player, he had to watch from afar as his nephew Momo, ‘Aziza’s father, was appointed Tunisia’s receiver general in his place. Momo owed his career to his uncle, but didn’t hesitate to saddle Shamama with large debts. Nor did Khaznadar. Shamama’s beautiful palace in Tunis was ‘abandoned to the lizards and the dogs’.

From exile, Shamama continued to make charitable donations every month to the impoverished Jews of Tunis; he supported Hebrew publishing by financing a translation into Judeo-Arabic of a book written by one of the lesser medieval Jewish sages; and filled his Parisian household with Tunisian Jews. When his attempt to become French ran into difficulties, his lawyer wrote to the new king of Italy, informing him that ‘the General Commander Nissim, son of Solomon Shamama … a native of Tunis, but from a family that was originally Livornese’ wished to ‘return to live as a citizen in the land of his ancestors’ – and offered 50,000 Italian lire ‘to be disbursed in charitable works in whatever way Your Majesty thinks best’. Sure enough, Shamama was rewarded with a noble title and a rapid path to Italian citizenship. He needed only to establish his domicile in Italy, present his papers and swear an oath of loyalty to the king. For several years, however, he remained in France. Perhaps he still hoped to acquire French citizenship, or perhaps he wanted to return to Tunis – we can’t know. Eventually the Franco-Prussian War, the siege of Paris and the Commune forced his hand: he moved to Italy.

Shamama died not long afterwards in Livorno, the city he claimed as his ancestral home. He had made his will a few years earlier in Paris, leaving roughly a quarter of his estate to four people: ‘Aziza, her son Nissim, his nephew Joseph and his great-nephew Nathan. To his estranged wife Mas’uda, he left 100,000 francs. To Momo – the protégé who had betrayed him – he left only 25,000, the same amount he left his secretaries. Then there was 275,000 francs for the Jews of the Holy Land, enough to establish a community of scholars in Jerusalem to study and pray for him; 25,000 francs for the sages and poor Jews of Tunis; 25,000 francs for the Jews of Paris. These bequests are evidence of his familiarity with established forms of Jewish piety, and with the charitable tradition that places the Land of Israel above the poor of your own community, and then your own community above everything else. They also make clear Shamama’s sense of himself as a Tunisian Jew in France. (It fell to ‘Aziza to make charitable donations in Livorno on her great-uncle’s behalf – she gave to Catholic causes as well as Jewish ones.) The will disappointed Momo, Joseph and Nathan, who had expected Shamama’s fortune to be divided equally among his closest male relatives in keeping with Jewish tradition. Khaznadar, meanwhile, claimed that Shamama had been deeply in debt to the Tunisian government, and backed Momo’s inheritance claim in an attempt to recoup the money: Momo owed the government large amounts, and without Shamama’s riches he had no means to pay.

Inheritance in Italy was adjudicated according to the national law of the deceased. What this meant for the Shamamas was uncertain because Nissim had failed to register his decree of naturalisation with the Italian authorities. If he was still Tunisian, then the will, drawn up by a French lawyer, would almost certainly fail to meet rabbinic standards – since it wouldn’t have included a kinyan, a ritual of acquisition – leaving ‘Aziza penniless. Momo was counting on this. ‘Even if my uncle did wrong by you, I will be your champion,’ he promised Joseph and Nathan. But he also issued a threat: ‘If I find that I have been excluded from the estate of my uncle – for which I have waited all my life – I will not rest and I will not desist; I will commit wicked deeds. If we do not inherit equally, then none of us will get anything: I will denounce you to the government and they will take everything!’ Before long, the Tunisian authorities forced Momo to sign away a quarter of the inheritance he claimed, and began to press Joseph and Nathan to do the same. It was increasingly unclear how much money would actually come their way.

Joseph and Nathan sought consular protection from Italy; Momo looked to France. The representatives of both were only too happy to flex their muscles – Tunisia was a promising target for imperial expansion. In the end, all the Shamamas joined ‘Aziza in Nissim’s Livornese palazzo, and ‘Aziza and the Tunisian government lawyered up. Representing ‘Aziza was Pasquale Mancini, father of the ‘nationality principle’ that underpinned international private law and the new Italian civil code. Representing the Tunisian government was Augusto Pierantoni, Mancini’s disciple and son-in-law. International law was in its infancy, and the two men were among the eleven founder members of the Institute of International Law in Ghent. This gives their legal arguments a particular force and interest – not so much, as Marglin stresses, because they shaped future practice, but because they illuminate a particular moment, when the nation-state was emerging and European hegemony over the Mediterranean not yet established. On one level, the case hinged on a single man’s estate, but on another it raised fundamental issues about citizenship and belonging, about nationalist ideology and about the bias inherent in modern European international law.

Was Nissim Shamama Italian – either by descent, or by acquisition? Some Jews in Tunis did claim Italian origin, and the consular protection that went with it. The Shamamas had never been in that category, but in the new kingdom of Italy – a country whose identity rested on the myth of nationality, or italianità – there were benefits to claiming Italian extraction. Shamama’s lawyer made reference to his client’s Livornese descent in his original application for Italian citizenship, though back in Tunisia, both the government and Nissim’s relatives argued that this was a legal fiction. Shamama had failed to complete the bureaucratic niceties of naturalisation, but to Mancini this was an irrelevance. He was an Italian nationalist who had put the nationality principle at the heart of Italian civil law because he believed nationality was as fundamental to human relations as the family. Shamama had certainly believed he was an Italian citizen and had acted accordingly. He had joined the Italian Charitable Society of Paris on receiving his naturalisation decree, and all his future dealings with Italian officials were conducted on that basis. This, Mancini asserted, counted for much. More crucially, international law operated on the presumption that everyone belonged to a state.

But in 1877 the judges in Samama v. Samama ruled that Nissim ‘did not belong to any nation’. They decided that he no longer had a claim to Tunisian citizenship because in 1864 he had fled the country and asserted his right to renounce his nationality. He died neither Italian nor Tunisian, but stateless. ‘With the stroke of a pen,’ Marglin writes, ‘the president of the civil court of Livorno erased Nissim’s membership of the country of his birth and the nation-state of his adopted homeland.’

This unexpected ruling reflected a European arrogance, based on a faith in the superior attractions of France and Italy over North Africa, as well as, Marglin speculates, a feeling that statelessness was Shamama’s condition as a Jew: ‘he came from a people condemned to roam the face of the earth, never properly belonging anywhere.’ The Tunisian authorities saw things differently: to them, Nissim did not seem to have cut his ties with his native country. He had carefully avoided telling anyone in Tunisia about his new status – perhaps through calculation and perhaps because he remained a Tunisian at heart. In any case, the nature of Tunisian law was a complicating factor. The Livornese court assumed that ‘citizen’ and ‘national’ were synonyms, but they ruled that Shamama was not a Tunisian citizen – and by extension a Tunisian national – in part because he ‘professed the Jewish religion, and as a Jew he was barred from civil life in a society regulated by the Quran’. This view reflected widespread assumptions about the treatment of Jews in Islamic countries. Tunisian Jews had yet to be fully emancipated. Since they were subjects of the Bey – not citizens – their national law was the Jewish law that governed most internal aspects of Jewish life in Tunisia. Yet educated and liberally inclined Italians could not accept that Jewish law was a proper legal system, or that Jews were a nation in the mid-19th-century sense of the word (a belief their Jewish contemporaries shared).

Unconscious bias played a part in this. As Mancini argued when addressing the Italian parliament, ‘the law of nations is not a natural law that regulates the relations for all the people of the earth … rather, it is a particular, circumscribed law that applies only to Christian nations, which is why it tends to be called the law of the nations of Europe or Christendom.’ Pierantoni no doubt shared these prejudices. When he made the case for the Tunisian government, he was forced to rely on the expertise of others who saw the world differently. Chief among them was General Husayn ibn ‘Abdallah, who was sent to Italy by Khaznadar to oversee the case. ‘Civilised nations’, Husayn said, were ‘animated by the same feelings of sovereign tolerance’ and ‘justice … distributed equally, without distinction of nationality’, and he completely rejected the idea that Tunisian ‘rights – so respectable and so justified’ were not protected under the new international law. He also rejected the assertion that in Tunisia Jews couldn’t be citizens. In his eyes, sharia law guaranteed justice to both Jews and Muslims, even if Jews claimed a distinct set of rights as dhimmi – non-Muslims living in a Muslim state. Having been guaranteed the ability to apply their own laws through their judges, Tunisian Jews were – in his view – more fortunate than their French or Italian counterparts. ‘Tunisian Jews,’ he asserted, ‘live in our country with greater liberty than anywhere else.’

Tunisia had followed the Ottoman Empire in granting Jews and Christians a new kind of equality, and the government had legally recognised the principle of indelible allegiance – by which individuals may be compelled to retain a renounced nationality – in an attempt to limit the number of Tunisians claiming legal protection from foreign consulates, as Joseph, Nathan and Momo had done. Essentially, Husayn argued that Nissim was not free to reject the relationship that bound him to his Muslim sovereign, even though he no longer lived on Tunisian soil. In the end, after fifteen years of court cases, the Italian legal system accepted that Shamama was indeed a Tunisian Jew, but that his will should be allowed to stand. By the time this verdict was reached, however, the Shamamas were running out of money. Gradually, all the claimants sold their share of the inheritance to d’Erlanger who, in the end, claimed the lot. (The lawsuit was finally settled in 1881, the year Tunisia became a French protectorate.)

The​ family’s complicated legal status continued to matter, however. Decades later, when the Nazis came, where the Shamamas lived and who they claimed to be determined their fate. Nissim Jr survived the Second World War. He lived in Paris, where he worked as an international lawyer, but clearly felt very Italian, and was vice-president of the Franco-Italian League. He was 75 in 1939, and spent the war in Cannes (Vichy territory). Momo’s son Isaac Jacques married an Ashkenazi Jew and they moved to Nice, which from June 1940 was under Italian control. But in 1943 it was invaded by the Germans and they were deported to Auschwitz. Had they remained in Vichy France, they would – as Tunisians – probably have been classified as French subjects, and Marglin points out that ‘while belonging to France was not enough to spare Jews deportation – thousands of French Jews were murdered in concentration camps – the majority of Jews with French citizenship survived. Jews who were foreign citizens suffered from the double-punch of xenophobia and antisemitism.’

Joseph’s son Abramo married out, as did Abramo’s daughter Daya, who married a Catholic: when her son Leone was killed in command of an Italian submarine during the war, the authorities decided that, as the product of a mixed marriage, Daya did not belong to the ‘Hebrew race’, and she was awarded financial support from the state. Joseph’s son Elia also married out. His son, Giuseppe, joined the Fascists and took part in the March on Rome in 1922, but then fell out with the authorities. In 1940, Elia was described as French by Italian officials because he was Tunisian and had never applied for Italian citizenship despite living his whole life in the country. As a foreigner and a member of the Jewish race, he was deemed by the prefecture to be ‘capable of conducting defeatist activity’, interned and treated so badly that he was unable to work after the war. Had he been naturalised Italian – Giuseppe tried to make this happen – his fate would have been different.

As Marglin argues, the Shamama case offers an ‘insight into the way legal belonging was proved – not only in the Shamama lawsuit but in countless cases both before and since: as a narrative’. Inevitably, perhaps, she frames her book with an eye to contemporary dilemmas. She refers to migrants crossing from Africa and the Middle East into Europe, and Central and South Americans seeking to reach the US in order to ‘defy the constraints of their birthright’. Scholars of European nationalism have long understood that citizenship and nationality cannot be readily equated, and that legal and ethnocultural belonging are not the same thing, but there is nonetheless a benefit in viewing these issues through the eyes of a Tunisian Jew.

What does citizenship mean to the cosmopolitan? The answer depends on what kind of cosmopolitan you are. There are the rich and the poor, those who struggle with rules and paperwork designed to keep them out and those who can afford golden visas and fast-track applications. To one group, citizenship means everything. As Hannah Arendt wrote, the supposed universalism of human rights can only be guaranteed through citizenship: something she knew first hand as a stateless refugee. To the other group, citizenship is something you can buy. But these distinctions are not clear-cut. In Brexit Britain it hardly comes as a surprise to learn that ‘the imagined boundary between “citizen” and “foreigner” obscures the range of ways one can legally belong to a state.’ There is nothing new about the distinction between legal belonging and identity. Nissim Shamama lived at one tipping point; it seems that we live at another.

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