Academic books are rarely engaging — but Jessica M. Marglin’s The Shamama Case: Contesting Citizenship in the Modern Mediterranean is a welcome exception. Working at the intersection of religious studies, history, and law, Marglin examines the international entanglements of the estate of Nissim Shamama (1805−1873). Born in Tunisia, Shamama amassed enormous wealth through investments in imports and real estate, at which point he became head of the Tunisian Jewish community. He got involved in the highest levels of government, overseeing Tunisian finances and taxation. In 1864, when the political tide turned against him, Nissim fled to Paris. Unable to secure French citizenship expediently, Nissim sought Italian naturalization based on dubious claims to Livornese ancestry. He was granted the title of Italian Count, even though he didn’t follow the proper naturalization procedures, having moved to Italy so late in life.
Per his will, Shamama’s estate was to be divided unequally among his surviving family members. Without biological children of his own, Shamama’s beloved great-niece Aziza and her son Nissim, Jr. would receive a half of his wealth — contravening the Jewish laws of inheritance found in the Hebrew Bible. The validity of the will hinged on Nissim’s Italian citizenship. Were he still a Tunisian citizen, his estate would be subjected to Jewish law.
Italian courts were tasked with settling the issue of Nissim’s estate, a complex case requiring several appeals. Many parties, including Italian legal experts, Tunisian officials, French bankers, and members of Nissim’s family sought to shape the outcome to their own ends. The trials pitted academics against their teachers and father-in-law against son-in-law.
Marglin argues that the narrow issue of citizenship obscures both the complexity of the debate of the Shamama case and the dynamics of state, religious, and cultural affiliation in modernity. She posits the broader notion of “legal belonging” as an analytical lens for understanding the question of Nissim’s national identity. Legal belonging “involves both the formal bonds that tie people to a state, as well as forms of membership that stray beyond the strict boundaries imposed by words like ‘citizen’ and ‘national.’”
The first of the book’s three sections explores Nissim’s biography against the backdrop of the rise of Tunisia in the nineteenth century. Although formally part of the Ottoman Empire, Tunisia had considerable autonomy in its political and economic activities. The lengthy second section narrates the different positions adopted when it came to Nissim’s legal belonging. The shorter third section discusses the aftermath of the case’s verdict and how all parties continued to grapple with the questions it raised.
Marglin deftly analyzes the legal intricacies of the Shamama case, carefully guiding the reader through its abstruse legal technicalities and the human motivations of the players involved. A riveting drama with unexpected twists and turns, The Shamama Case joins a growing body of scholarship on Sephardic Jews that can only serve to enrich our understanding of modern Jewry.
Brian Hillman is a visiting professor in the Jewish Studies program at Indiana University, Bloomington.