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The Ghetto, from Venice to Vilna to Harlem

Dusty Sklar
June 6, 2016

by Dusty Sklar

Discussed in this essay: Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, by Mitchell Duneier. 2016, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 304 pages.

02AS MITCHELL DUNEIER, a sociology professor at Princeton, points out in the preface to his inspired book, Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, people associate the word “ghetto” with harmful and stigmatizing stereotypes of poverty, racial or religious confinement and exclusion, and general degradation — including, under the Nazis, genocide. Duneier considers the ghetto to be a useful sociological concept, however, and has worked hard to bring us its abundant history.

Far more of his book is devoted to the post-World War II black ghetto than to the Jewish experience with confinement. But he begins with a condensed history of the 16th-century ghettos of Western Europe, which were rooted in the medieval Church of Rome’s anxiety about preserving the “purity” of Christians. While King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain infamously opted for mass expulsion of Jews, in 1492 (not the first example of Jewish expulsion, with Jews ordered to leave England in 1290 and France between 1306 and 1394), in Italy itself, Jews were ghettoized rather than expelled. The term “getto” was derived, in fact, from gettare, which means the pouring or casting of metal, and is associated with the municipal copper foundry on the Venetian island of Cannaregio where, in 1516, the Senate mandated that Jews live in an area enclosed by walls, known as Ghetto Nuovo. Gates in the walled community were opened at sunrise and locked at sunset.

In 1555, Pope Paul IV did the same to Rome’s Jews who, for centuries, had thought of themselves as Romans, living in relative freedom. He issued the infamous bull, “Cum nimis absurdum,” which, among other things, stated that “all Jews should live solely in one and the same place, or if that is not possible, in two or three or as many as necessary, which should be contiguous and separated completely from the dwellings of Christians.” Rome’s Jews were moved into several dark and narrow streets, which were habitually flooded by a nearby river, and imprisoned by ghetto walls. “To some extent,” Duneier tells us, “his decision can be attributed to the chronic and habitual anti-Judaism prevalent across Europe. The official aim of the edict was to press Jews into conversion so that they could be saved from eternal damnation, but not many Jews converted.”

Also by the decree of Paul IV, Jews were no longer allowed to trade in new merchandise. By 1843, of the 3,600 or so Jews living in the Roman ghetto, more than half of them were reduced to selling and repairing old clothes. Ghetto living had a pernicious effect that reinforced anti-Jewish stereotypes, says Duneier. “Isolation from mainstream society, as well as the decrepitude caused by overcrowding, produced notorious conditions, behaviors, and traits that could gradually be invoked to rationalize further negative attitudes and more extreme isolation. The consequences of ghettoization provided an apparent justification for the original condition.” The squalor of the ghetto enhanced the view that Jews were suffering the dismal fate they deserved for betraying Christ.

IT WAS NAPOLEON who first tried to do away with Italian ghettos. Roman Jews, however, among the first to have been ghettoized, became the last in Western Europe to be granted citizenship, due to the influence of the papacy. By the 19th century, with Jewish emancipation, Jewish ghettos ceased to be — but the term evolved to refer to tightly packed Jewish quarters in Europe and America, and then to black urban neighborhoods in the U.S.

As early as 1935, Hitler proposed that Jews be herded “into a ghetto, enclosed in a territory where they can behave as becomes their nature, while the German people look on as one looks at wild animals.” Even before then, as early as 1933, he had justified his vilification of Jews by citing the Catholic Church’s view of them as undesirables calling for banishment into the ghetto. As Hitler put it: “I have been attacked because of my handling of the Jewish question. The Catholic Church considered the Jews pestilent for fifteen hundred years, put them in ghettos, etc. because it recognized the Jews for what they were. In the epoch of liberalism the danger was no longer recognized. i am moving back toward the time in which a fifteen-hundred-year-long tradition was implemented.”

And so he did. In the late 1930s, the Nazis ordered Eastern European Jews to live behind barbed wire, separated from non-Jews. They were declared a degraded race, to be enslaved, tortured, and starved. Duneieer makes it clear that the Nazi ghetto was not your ordinary ghetto, but something that had never existed before. Many of the Nazi ghettos imprisoned Jews day and night. Extreme overcrowding led to disease, which the Nazis claimed the Jews had brought with them. Their pathetic condition confirmed that these were subhumans.

USING NEW and forgotten sources, Duneier’s book is a valuable examination of black ghettos in America from 1944 to the present. The use of the word “ghetto” to describe segregated black neighborhoods, he notes, was a deliberate choice by black scholars and activists like sociologists Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake. In their study, Black Metropolis, harking back to Nazi ghettos, they discussed “the invisible barbed-wire fence and restrictive covenants.” As Duneier puts it, “They were making a claim that their experience was of comparable importance for Americans to that of Jews in Europe and should not be eclipsed by the horrors of Nazism.”

Duneier is not optimistic about the dissolution of the black ghetto, but observes: “When the poorest and most isolated blacks have been out of the ghetto for as long as the most isolated and destitute Jews, their situation could look very different from how it looks now.”

Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles.