Derrida’s Life as an Algerian Jew

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Scott Krane in Tablet:

Derrida’s attitude toward biography may have also been shaped by the experiences of his own family and his resulting loss of verifiable connection to his origins. Most of the papers concerning Derrida’s family life and his early life growing up as a Jew in Algiers have disappeared. In a book review for the Guardian, literary theorist Terry Eagleton wrote:

At the age of 12, Derrida was excluded from his lycee when the Algerian government, anxious to outdo the Vichy regime in its anti-semitic zeal, decided to lower the quota of Jewish pupils. … Paradoxically, the effect of this brutal rejection on a “little black and very Arab Jew” as he described himself, was not only to make him feel an outsider, but to breed in him a lifelong aversion to communities. He was taken in by a Jewish school, and hated the idea of being defined by his Jewish identity. Identity and homogeneity were what he would later seek to deconstruct. Yet the experience also gave him a deep suspicion of solidarity.

In an interview, Peeters said, “In 1942, anti-Semitic measures taken by the Vichy regime had him excluded from school for a year. Like other Jews of Algeria, he was stripped of French nationality. These experiences marked him forever. But this time, he also kept away from the Jewish school founded by teachers excluded from formal education. These themes run throughout his life and his work.”

In 1962, Derrida’s parents left their home and his birthplace of El Biar in the “hill suburbs of Algiers.” But Peeters manages to capture content that may have seemed elusive to researchers and searchers for autobiographical sentiment. “I was part of an extraordinary transformation of French Judaism in Algeria: My great-grandparents were still very close to the Arabs in language and customs,” Derrida once recalled during a later-in-life interview quoted by Peeters.

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