The historian Georges Bensoussan has hit back against accusations of ‘essentialism’ and writing a ‘lachrymose’ version of relations between Jews and Muslims in the Arab world.
The accusations came from Lucette Valensi, herself a historian, speaking at the opening session of a recent conference in Paris.
She singled out Georges Bensoussan, David Littman and Paul Fenton for criticism and attempted to distinguish between legitimate historians and ‘jobbing’ historians. Littman and Fenton were the authors of the ‘excellent’ (according to Bensoussan) Exile from the Maghreb, a compilation of documents detailing antisemitic abuses suffered in 19th century Morocco.
Bensoussan himself was acquitted in a case against incitement to racial hatred in 2017. Given a right-of-reply by Akadem, the ‘Jewish digitial campus’, Bensoussan claimed that ‘essentialist’ was another term for ‘racist’, without the legal implications. It was simply an attempt to shut him down.
Pointing to the introduction to his major work, Juifs en pays arabes: le grand déracinement, published in 2012 (See English version here), Bensoussan had clearly written that a lachrymose version was as inappropriate as an idealisation of the past, vaunting a golden age, as promoted by the Wissenchaft historians of 19th century Germany. Nonetheless, his book was based not on police reports but hard archival evidence that Jews had suffered grave abuses at the hands of Muslims.
There was not one memory of the the Jewish past in North Africa, there were several layers of memory, depending on social class. Cultural attitudes were not static but evolved over time.
In turn, Bensoussan accused Valensi of speaking for a privileged ‘comprador’ merchant elite, representing less than one percent of the Jewish population. The great mass of Jews lived in the oppressive city mellahs. Bensoussan remarked that the conference featured an appearance by royal adviser André Azoulay, who was pushing the agenda of the king of Morocco. Valensi could be said to have a political agenda herself, being associated with a project to establish a Jewish museum supported by the Tunisian ministry of Tourism.
Bensoussan contrasted Lucette Valensi’s take on history with that of fellow-Tunisian, Albert Memmi, who grew up in the poor Tunis hara, or Jewish quarter. Bensoussan quoted Memmi’s words, written in 1975: ‘ The much vaunted idyllic life of the Jews in Arab lands is a myth! The truth, since I am obliged to return to it, is that from the outset we were a minority in a hostile environment; as such, we underwent all the fears, the agonies, and the constant sense of frailty of the underdog.”
The Akadem interview by Antoine Mercier with Georges Bensoussan on Facebook has garnered over ten thousand views, and comments mostly favourable to Bensoussan.