The word “ghetto” summons very different cognitive images depending on the listener, from old-world Jewish enclaves in Europe, to the Holocaust, to the underserved inner city neighborhoods in the US today. Just how this linguistic evolution came about is the subject of a new book, “Ghetto: The History of a Word,” by George Washington University professor Daniel B. Schwartz.
The book links the first usage of the term to the Jewish ghetto of Venice over 500 years ago. It proceeds to look at the enforced ghettos of early modern Europe and then the voluntary ghettos established by Jewish immigrants in their new home countries after Napoleon dismantled the model in the late 18th century.
It also examines the ghettos established by the Nazis in the Holocaust, including the famous Warsaw Ghetto. Jumping continents, it shows how the term came to be associated with African-American neighborhoods in the US and then jumped to be a word of choice for critics of Israel in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The book shows how malleable the term is,” Schwartz told The Times of Israel, adding that it “also came to evoke not merely a place, but more generally a whole ethos, a sensibility, a state of mind. The ghetto is used in a more metaphysical manner.”
An associate professor of history and Judaic studies, Schwartz has “a real longstanding interest in projects that trace ideas or terms or images across boundaries of time, space and identity,” he said.
His previous book, “The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image,” tracked perceptions of the 17th-century Jewish philosopher and heretic Baruch Spinoza from the Renaissance to the present. He said that his latest book employs a “similar genealogic method.”
Befitting the field of cultural history, Schwartz said, he consulted “a pretty wide canvas of sources” — rabbinic sermons, responsa, historical dictionaries from the 17th to the 20th centuries, and a 21st-century slang dictionary, along with numerous newspaper articles, and books representing the 19th-century “ghetto literature” genre as well as “major works of urban sociology.”
Schwartz taught a course at George Washington University on the term “ghetto” while working on the book. He said it allowed him to “test out ideas with my undergraduate students,” who included both Jews and African-Americans. He will teach the course again next semester.
A ghetto is born
Schwartz dates the first ghetto to 1516, when Venice relocated its Jews to an enclosed area on an island. A century earlier, the island had contained a copper foundry that cast metal to make ammunition for the republic. The island derived its name of Ghetto Nuovo, “New Ghetto,” from the Italian verb gettare, “to cast.” Schwartz disputes other explanations of the term, such as connections with a Jewish divorce decree, or get.
“It had no Jewish associations whatsoever,” he said. “It was geographical happenstance that the term happened to be associated with Jews… It was essentially the name of a neighborhood, a name that by osmosis was associated with the whole idea of a compulsory, segregated, enclosed Jewish quarter.”
Another ghetto was established in Rome by papal decree in 1555. Others were created in many Italian cities and towns into the 18th century. Similar enclaves had existed elsewhere in Europe for centuries, from the German Judengasse to the Spanish juderia. Regardless of the term, the reasons why authorities established these enclaves included religious intolerance and economic incentive, Schwartz said.
Ghettos were created for Muslims as well as Jews and that, as dire as it was to live in one, the alternative could be expulsion
Schwartz noted that ghettos were created for Muslims as well as Jews and that, as dire as it was to live in one, the alternative could be expulsion. He said that “there might have been differences between ghettos” in terms of strictness. In more liberal Venice, Jews could leave by day to do business on the Rialto, while gentiles entered the ghetto for deals with Jewish merchants, and both Jews and Gentiles crossed boundaries to meet acquaintances of the other faith. The “older notion of the ghetto as synonymous with total isolation” is “simply untrue,” he said.
Among Jews, reactions to the ghetto were complex, Schwartz finds. In the early modern period, he said, Jews “protested the ghetto, protested the boundaries,” but “at the same time did not really protest the idea of the ghetto as unjust.”
In some examples, he said, “communities are seen actually commemorating the anniversary of ghettoization in some way,” including Verona, Italy, which held an entire service involving the celebratory hallel prayers, hymns and a procession of Torah scrolls around a synagogue.
“Does it view ghettoization as an entirely good thing?” he wondered. “Does it help the community maintain solidarity? Does it avoid a worse outcome such as expulsion… It’s hard to know.”
During the 18th century, a rabbinic opinion viewed ghettoization as “an act of divine providence,” Schwartz said, noting “a little bit of complicity, rationalizing” in the belief that living within a ghetto made it easier to observe Shabbat. But, he said, there was a counterbalancing view of the ghetto as “a warren of dark and narrow alleys and folk suspicions that you had to escape in order to become modern.”
Enter Napoleon and the rise of secularism
Modernity appeared through the invading army of Napoleon, under whose authority the Venice ghetto walls came down in 1797. Although they were later reestablished, they could not keep out the concepts of assimilation and emancipation sweeping Europe. Nearly 100 years later, during Italian unification in 1870, the Rome ghetto was liberated — “the last of the old ghettos to fall,” Schwartz said.
Meanwhile, a new type of ghetto was developing: voluntary urban immigrant Jewish communities in countries such as England and the US. A Lower East Side streetscape image was preserved in an early 20th-century postcard captioned “The Ghetto, New York City.” According to the back of the postcard, this neighborhood was also called Judea, with a quarter-million people crammed into one square mile of tenements six or seven stories tall.
Jewish and non-Jewish authors began using the term. Schwartz includes Zionism founder Theodor Herzl’s 1890 play “The New Ghetto,” although, he said, “the ghetto that Herzl referenced was not a physical ghetto for impoverished Jews but in fact the kind of social isolation of the Viennese Jewish bourgeoisie.”
Jewish-American author Michael Gold penned the semi-autobiographical “Jews Without Money.”
“Gold is an example of a writer who did not try to sugar-coat,” Schwartz said. “He had no real nostalgia. The ghetto is kind of a nightmare milieu,” based partly on Gold’s communism, and partly on his father’s dashed employment hopes.
Schwartz said that some non-Jewish writers “used the idea of the ghetto in a negative sense, as epitomizing certain aspects of Judaism and Jewishness,” while others viewed ghettos positively, including journalist Hutchins Hapgood, whose 1903 work “The Spirit of the Ghetto” is “in many ways a celebration of the Lower East Side.”
The Nazi perversion
Several generations later, in World War II, the Nazis overran Eastern Europe and established 1,000 enforced enclaves for captive Jews, including in Poland and the USSR.
“Many originally thought that if returning to the Middle Ages was not a positive thing, at least it was familiar from history,” Schwartz said. “There was an idea that ‘we lived in the ghetto before, we can live there again.’”
It dawned slowly that this was not a ghetto in any traditional sense of the term. It was something far worse
He added that it “only kind of dawned slowly that this was not a ghetto in any traditional sense of the term. It was something far worse… totally unmoored from Jewish history.”
Ironically, he said, “the Nazis in many cases prohibited the use of the word ‘ghetto.’ It had negative baggage. Warsaw was not officially referred to as the Warsaw Ghetto but the Warsaw Jewish Living District, a way to make it seem like a natural Jewish habitat.”
Many Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto recognized it as anything but natural and in April 1943 launched the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Crushed by mid-May, the uprising was widely commemorated even before the war ended, and in the postwar years it became the main focus of Holocaust commemoration. Schwartz said that this worldwide recognition represented a “reintegrating of the ghetto into Jewish history, a history of self-sacrifice and martyrdom” that connected the Warsaw Ghetto to the Maccabees.
“To some extent,” Schwartz said, it “reframed the ghetto, and also the word ‘ghetto,’ to evoke not only oppression and passivity, but also a sense of resistance.”
African-Americans adopt the term
In another change, the term “ghetto” was becoming increasingly used to refer to residentially segregated African-American enclaves whose inhabitants were prohibited from buying or renting homes in white neighborhoods, Schwartz explained. African-Americans began referring to these enclaves as ghettos as early as the 1910s, and after WWII, whites began using the term in this way as well.
Schwartz said that racially restrictive arrangements affected Jews and Asians in addition to African-Americans. But, he said, blacks were affected the most, noting the extreme difficulty in purchasing a home “contributed to the rise of the black ghetto.”
The author said that “often the areas African-Americans moved into were former Jewish enclaves or ghettos in a very different sense of the term.” In the book, he writes about tensions between blacks who moved into these areas and Jews who remained, including Jews who worked in the ghetto. The book also notes positive interactions, including a collaboration between blacks and Jews on a successful 1948 court challenge to restrictive covenants.
Schwartz notes that there were African-Americans and Jews who resisted the application of the term “ghetto” to black enclaves. African-American novelist Ralph Ellison “famously argued that we should not call an area like Harlem a ghetto,” Schwartz said, while “some Jewish people resisted calling these new areas ghettos. The memory of the Holocaust was fresh in their mind.”
“Part of what the book shows,” Schwartz reflected, “is that the whole history of the ghetto as an institution, a community, brings up struggle and argument about ‘ghetto’ as a word, what ‘ghetto’ means, how it has been defined and who gets to define [it]… The whole question ‘what is a ghetto?’ is an open question.”