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The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea

By Mitchell Duneier
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Ghetto by Mitchell Duneier

Ghetto (2016) traces the socio-ideological development of the word “ghetto” – particularly how it’s been applied to black neighborhoods in America – and takes an unflinching look at the complex ways in which race, prejudice, policy and sociology interact. When it comes to fighting for racial equality, there are no easy answers.

Key idea 1 of 8

The Italian Jews were the first ghettoized people.

The term “ghetto” probably makes you feel a bit uncomfortable. Today, the word seems not quite politically correct, a slur directed at inner-city neighborhoods in the United States that, usually, are predominantly black.

But the word itself has some surprising origins.

In fact, the Jews were the first ghettoized people.

In sixteenth-century Italy, city rulers and the Catholic Church perceived Judaism as a threat to Christianity. In 1516, Venice issued a decree confining Venetian Jews to the Ghetto Nuovo, a high-walled district in the city. The word itself comes from the Venetian word for its copper foundry, the ghèto. Following Venice’s example, the city of Rome soon formed a ghetto of its own.

The Jews were forced to live separately in these ghettos, away from the rest of the population. Though they were still free to interact with other residents, their separation had consequences. It resulted in a strong culture and community, but the ghettos were also overcrowded, had high mortality rates and were rife with disease.

When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Italy in the early nineteenth century, he tried to bring ghettoization policies to an end. However, official and state-sanctioned ghettos persisted into the late 1800s.

The ghetto’s origins established a circular logic that continues to this day. The argument goes like this:

The Jews in the ghettos lived in worse conditions, and were less affluent, than the Christian citizens living outside the ghettos. Thus, generations of Christian Europeans concluded that the ghettoization of the Jews was natural and God-sanctioned – a physical manifestation of a moral order.

In reality, the poor conditions in the ghettos were due to the policy of forced separation. Consequently, a circular “justification” arose. Christians saw the ghettos as necessary to contain “innate” and “natural” Jewish squalor.

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