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Between the Maghrib and Italy: Rethinking the Livornese Jews of Tunisia

Sun, December 16, 4:15 to 5:45pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Amphitheater


The historiography of Jews in Tunisia typically divides the Jewish community into two separate parts: the Twansa, or Tunisian Jews, and the Grana, or Livornese Jews. This division reflects a schism that was formalized in the eighteenth century, by which Livornese and Tunisian Jews established parallel communities (each with its synagogues, cemeteries, butchers, etc.). According to this narrative, the religious and administrative divisions between the Twansa and the Grana only increased as the Italian Jews came to dominate international trade in the nineteenth century. The memory of this division remains alive among the members of the Tunisian Jewish diaspora.
But as with so many questions of identity, the stark differences between Grana and Twansa are belied by the historical record. This paper uses the lawsuits surrounding the estate of Nissim Shamama, a Tunisian Jew who died in Livorno in 1873, as an entry point through which to discuss the fungible nature of affiliation to the Livornese community in Tunis. Although the Shamamas were widely considered to be Twansa, potential heirs produced various affidavits attesting Nissim’s Italian heritage. An Italian lawyer working on the case used this evidence to build an argument about Nissim’s Italian nationality—which would, in turn, determine the law applied to his estate.
The Shamama case raises broader questions about who considered themselves (and was considered by others) to be Livornese, and how the membership in this community changed over the course of the nineteenth century. This paper argues that prevailing narratives about Livornese Jews in Tunisia reflect the discourse advanced by a number of Italian Jews who arrived in Tunisia during the second half of the nineteenth century. These new immigrants eventually succeeded in reifying and even racializing divisions between Twansa and Grana. Recovering the fluidity of identitarian categories in the nineteenth century, however, requires understanding the changing contours of the Jewish communities of Tunisia between North Africa and Italy.


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