Jews and Legal Belonging in the Modern Mediterranean: The Life and Afterlife of Nissim Shamama (1805-1873)

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A lecture by Jessica Marglin (USC)

When a wealthy Jew from Tunisia died in Italy in 1873, a fierce lawsuit over the estate consumed Jews, Muslims, and Christians on both sides of the Mediterranean. Before Nissim Shamama’s riches could be disbursed among his aspiring heirs, the Italian courts had to decide which law to apply to his estate—a matter that depended on his nationality. A decade-long battle ensued to determine to which state Nissim legally belonged: was he an Italian citizen? A subject of the Bey of Tunis? Or was his Jewishness also his nationality? Shamama v. Shamama, as the lawsuit was called, encourages us to think differently about the history of citizenship and state membership. Jews and Legal Belonging across the Mediterranean offers an account of belonging that challenges the perceived divide between the Middle East and Europe, between Jews and non-Jews, and between the pre-modern and the modern.

Jessica Marglin is associate professor of Religion and the Ruth Ziegler Early Career Chair in Jewish Studies at the University of Southern California. She earned her PhD from Princeton University and her BA and MA (in Middle Eastern Studies) from Harvard University. Her research focuses on the history of Jews and Muslims in North Africa and the Mediterranean, with particular attention to law. Her book, Across Legal Lines: Jews and Muslims in Modern Morocco (Yale University Press 2016), was awarded the Salo Wittmayer Baron Book Prize, a National Jewish Book Award, and the Norris and Carol Hundley Award. Drawing on sources in Arabic, Hebrew, and a number of European languages, Across Legal Lines traces the movement of Jews among the various legal institutions that together made up Morocco’s plural legal system. The book demonstrates that law could act as a force for Jews’ integration into the broader Islamic society in which they lived. Marglin is currently working on the legal disputes over the estate of Nissim Shamama, a trans-Mediterranean case from the late nineteenth century involving Italian law, Jewish law, Tunisian law, and Islamic law. She has received numerous awards and fellowships, including the Rome Prize, a fellowship at the Institut d’Etudes Avancées in Paris, and a Fulbright fellowship. Her publications have appeared in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Jewish Social Studies, the Jewish Quarterly Review, and the British Journal of Middle East Studies.

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Published: Thursday, January 14, 2021