The Shama­ma Case: Con­test­ing Cit­i­zen­ship across the Mod­ern Mediterranean

By – March 28, 2023

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 (18051873). 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 an assis­tant pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Phi­los­o­phy and Reli­gious Stud­ies at Tow­son University.

Discussion Questions

When Nis­sim Shama­ma, a wealthy Tunisian Jew exiled in France, died with­out off­spring in Livorno in 1872, his death pre­cip­i­tat­ed a com­plex legal bat­tle that per­sist­ed for over a decade. Jes­si­ca Mar­glin fol­lows an intri­cate legal trail through volu­mi­nous, mul­ti­lin­gual sources with humor and inge­nu­ity to tack­le the conun­drum of the legal iden­ti­ty and dis­pen­sa­tion of prop­er­ty of Shama­ma in the pre-colo­nial and colo­nial world of the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry West. Her deft treat­ment of the legal bat­tles under­tak­en by the many con­tenders to the large estate sheds new light on issues of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and belong­ing,” and the anom­alies of inclu­sion and exclu­sion of the Jews in the multi­na­tion­al empires of the time. Mar­glin writes with verve, engag­ing the read­er in a riv­et­ing account that unrav­els legal knots and pre­vi­ous­ly accept­ed stereo­types of the legal sta­tus of Jews in spe­cif­ic regions.