Ghetto: The Shared History of a Word


Adam Kirsch in Tablet:

Today most Americans would be surprised to learn that the original ghettos were inhabited by Jews. That is the experience Mitchell Duneier relates in his new book Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, when it comes to teaching his own students at Princeton about the history of the ghetto. For the last 70 years, Duneier shows, the word “ghetto” has for Americans become exclusively associated with poor black neighborhoods, especially in big cities like New York and Chicago. Few people know that, for centuries before America even existed, Jews in many European cities were legally confined to walled neighborhoods known as ghettos. (“Ghetto” is the Italian word for “foundry”; the first Jewish enclave in Venice was located on the same island as a foundry, and the word came to refer to the neighborhood by extension.)

When it comes to understanding the black American ghetto, can we learn anything from the history of the European Jewish ghetto? It is a tricky question, which Duneier addresses carefully, since it seems to invite comparisons about who was more victimized and more resilient. Yet as he tells the story of the evolution of American thinking about the black ghetto—primarily through the lens of successive generations of academic sociologists, from Gunnar Myrdal to William Julius Wilson—the Jewish ghetto refuses to disappear. It haunts the subject like a ghost, raising questions that continue to define the way sociologists think about ghettos today.

Matters are complicated by the fact that, during the Holocaust, the word “ghetto” took on a very different freight than the one it had traditionally carried. Ghettos like the ones in Venice or Frankfurt were poor, isolated neighborhoods subject to discrimination and surveillance; but they were places where Jews lived and where their culture and civilization sometimes thrived. These ghettos had almost all disappeared by the 20th century, as European countries abolished official discrimination against Jews. It was the Nazis who brought the word back into common use when they created their own Jewish ghettos in occupied cities like Warsaw and Vilna. But the Nazi ghettos were not places for Jews to live; they were places for Jews to die of starvation and disease, or to await death in the gas chambers.

More here.