Jessica M. MarglinMay 27, 2023
The Shamama Case
Contesting Citizenship Across the Modern Mediterranean
Princeton University Press 2022
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: Contesting Citizenship Across the Modern Mediterranean (Princeton UP, 2022) 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.
Geraldine Gudefin is a French-born modern Jewish historian researching Jewish family life, legal pluralism, and the migration experiences of Jews in France and the United States. She is currently a research fellow at the Hebrew University’s Avraham Harman Research Institute of Contemporary Jewry, and is completing a book titled An Impossible Divorce? East European Jews and the Limits of Legal Pluralism in France, 1900-1939.