The Shama­ma Case: Con­test­ing Cit­i­zen­ship across the Mod­ern Mediterranean

  • From the Publisher
January 4, 2022

How a nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry law­suit over the estate of a wealthy Tunisian Jew shines new light on the his­to­ry of belonging

In the win­ter of 1873, Nis­sim Shama­ma, a wealthy Jew from Tunisia, died sud­den­ly in his palaz­zo in Livorno, Italy. His pass­ing ini­ti­at­ed a fierce law­suit over his large estate. Before Shama­ma’s rich­es could be dis­bursed among his aspir­ing heirs, Ital­ian courts had to decide which law to apply to his estate―a mat­ter that depend­ed on his nation­al­i­ty. Was he an Ital­ian cit­i­zen? A sub­ject of the Bey of Tunis? Had he become state­less? Or was his Jew­ish­ness also his nation­al­i­ty? Trac­ing a decade-long legal bat­tle involv­ing Jews, Mus­lims, and Chris­tians from both sides of the Mediter­ranean, The Shama­ma Case offers a riv­et­ing his­to­ry of cit­i­zen­ship across region­al, cul­tur­al, and polit­i­cal borders.

On its face, the crux of the law­suit seemed sim­ple: To which state did Shama­ma belong when he died? But the case pro­duced hun­dreds of pages in legal briefs and thou­sands of dol­lars in lawyers’ fees before the man’s estate could be dis­trib­uted among his quar­rel­some heirs. Jes­si­ca Mar­glin fol­lows the unfold­ing of events, from Shama­ma’s rise to pow­er in Tunis and his self-imposed exile in France, to his untime­ly death in Livorno and the clash­ing visions of nation­al­i­ty advanced dur­ing the law­suit. Mar­glin brings to life a Dick­en­sian array of indi­vid­u­als involved in the case: fam­i­ly mem­bers who hoped to inher­it the estate; Tunisian gov­ern­ment offi­cials; an Alger­ian Jew­ish fix­er; rab­bis in Pales­tine, Tunisia, and Livorno; and some of Italy’s most famous legal minds.

Draw­ing from a wealth of cor­re­spon­dence, legal briefs, rab­binic opin­ions, and court rul­ings, The Shama­ma Case reimag­ines how we think about Jews, the Mediter­ranean, and belong­ing in the nine­teenth century.

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