Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea

In Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, Mitchell Duneier traces the origins of the Ghetto, from its birth in Venice, to the horrors of the Nazi enclosures, and the African-American ghettos that continue to define urban American life. In doing so he simultaneously maps a certain amnesia that marks contemporary American culture and its reticence in facing up to the unfolding of its own present-day Ghetto narrative.

The Ghetto is at the centre of a matrix of historical events central to racist politics and economics. It is a theme threaded through modern European history, beginning with the first ghetto, established in 1516 by the Venetian Doge Lorenzo Loredan. Duneier’s intellectual history charts the story of the Ghetto through to our own times, exploring its implications in a brilliant sociological analysis that articulates a powerful moral discourse about the modern city, and investigates the way minorities are controlled through the establishment and policing of urban spaces.

As he unravels the history of the Ghetto — from its origins in Venice, to the Napoleonic pulling down of the gates in 1797, the optimism of late nineteenth-century Jewish Emancipation and the horrors of the Nazi ghetto, up to the story of the African-American ghetto that takes up much of the narrative — Duneier illustrates the continuing refusal of American society to acknowledge the manifold cultural implications of the Ghetto. The book works in two registers, reclaiming the impact of the word at its origin and its subsequent historical application, and deploying its explanatory power as a sociological concept. Reaching across the five hundred years since the founding of the Venice Ghetto, a panoply of meanings and implications open up in Duneier’s analysis like nesting dolls that have been unpacked for inspection, description and comprehension.

Linguistic history is part of Duneier’s narrative: the trajectory of the account of the Ghetto’s history engages the network of meanings that have accrued around the word “ghetto” itself, first used in 1516 as a designation for a “Venetian island that once housed a copper foundry or geto”, when the Venetian authorities required the city’s Jews to live on the island, in an area enclosed by walls. Although the ghettos that multiplied throughout Italy and Europe in the sixteenth century, as the Jews were forcibly segregated in enclosed spaces of continuous surveillance, were demolished in the nineteenth century, “in tandem with a gradually swelling wave of Jewish emancipation”, the word was increasingly used in the late nineteenth century to refer to “dense Jewish quarters in Europe and America”. In 1897 Abraham Cahan published his novella of immigrant Jewish life Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, following the lead of his English counterpart, Israel Zangwill, whose Children of the Ghetto had been published five years earlier. Zangwill emphasised the word’s psychological force, calling it, even after the abolition of the European ghetto, “the law” of Jewish existence. A folk saying was born: “You can take the Jew out of the ghetto but you can’t take the ghetto out of the Jew”.

The Ghetto of Venice changed both modern and Jewish history: for the first time Jews were forced to live within a segregated enclosure, in return for a measure of security, and at the price of becoming the usurers — let us call them pawn-brokers — of Venice and Europe. The Ghetto stereotyped the Jews. (No surprise that they were characterised with the ways of Shakespeare’s Shylock, still the most famous Jew of Venice and Europe.) Separating them from everyone else, the Ghetto fetishised them. Jews who hailed from three continents had to learn to live together in a semi-autonomous community, concentrated behind the walls of the Ghetto, where they were obliged to pay the guards assigned to keep them in, for what the Venetian government insisted was the greater good of the Venetian polity.

We learn a great deal by untangling the differences between the ghetto of Venice and the Nazi ghetto. The Venice Ghetto segregated the Jews from the general population, but it also provided them with a measure of protection from marauding mobs that made it possible for them to thrive and at times even flourish. By contrast, the purpose of the Nazi ghetto was “economic enslavement, impoverishment, violence, fear, isolation, and overcrowding in the name of racial purity — all with no escape through conversion, and with unprecedented efficiency”.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the word had already begun to be used occasionally to refer to black urban neighbourhoods in America. “But in Europe, behind barbed wire in the late 1930s, [it was] given even greater prominence when it was re-appropriated by the Nazis.” World War II ushered in a biting irony, as Duneier explains: “As black Americans served in the military” and “witnessed the liberation of the Jews” they “saw parallels between the ghettos established by the Nazis and their own segregated neighborhoods, between the Caucasian purity that whites were seeking to preserve in the United States and the Aryan purity that Hitler was trying to impose on Europe”. This led African Americans to wonder, “have we been fighting once again for everybody else’s freedom except our own?” Duneier notes the impact of the Nazi ghetto on historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois when he visited Warsaw after the war: “I have seen something of human upheaval in this world,” he wrote. “The scream and shots of a race riot in Atlanta; the marching of the Ku Klux Klan; the threat of courts and police; the neglect and destruction of human habitation; but nothing in my wildest imagination was equal to what I saw in Warsaw in 1949.”

“Today it is largely forgotten that the Nazi ghetto, not the sixteenth century ghetto upheld by the Church, was ‘in the air’ when the term came into widespread use to describe black neighborhoods in the 1940s,” Duneier explains. “For many blacks after World War II, the Nazi ghetto provided a powerful metaphor for their own experience. Although in reality the Nazi ghetto was just as different from Harlem and the South Side of Chicago as it was from sixteenth century Rome and Venice, it nevertheless proved a crucial reference.” He goes on to show how designating the segregated spaces in twentieth-century American cities as ghettos changed African American history, further stereotyping and fetishising the lives of African Americans just as it had done centuries earlier for the Jews of Venice. The cultural associations nested in the word “Ghetto” continue to exert a contemporary force and to determine a powerful social, economic and spatial configuration.

Duneier’s critique of the now-classic 1945 study of the American ghetto, Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, argues for a fuller moral discourse. As he comments in his concluding chapter, “The Forgotten Ghetto”, a certain cognitive and moral dissonance in American public life is the “crucial underlying foundation” of our cultural condition. His rigorous and impassioned writing pushes us to ask about the future. There has been some positive change, evident, for example, in the Community School Program developed by President Barack Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, which offers a holistic approach that meets the tangle of Ghetto issues head-on by transforming neighbourhood schools into hubs of educational achievement for children of impoverished and oppressed backgrounds.

This City Connects initiative is the contemporary version of the nineteenth-century Settlement Houses founded by the progressive activist and sociologist Jane Addams, who believed that social ills are interconnected and must be approached holistically. As David Kirp noted in a recent New York Times article, “the mission of community schools is to confront the dogged persistence of conditions like untreated asthma, vision and dental problems, and emotional trauma, which mar the lives of children in hardscrabble neighborhoods”. The Settlement House movement, which began in Britain in 1884, with the establishment of Toynbee Hall in East London to provide social services and education to the poor workers who lived there, quickly spread to the United States as a response to growing industrial poverty. The Henry Street Settlement House, for example, founded in 1893 by social work and public health pioneer Lillian Wald on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, provided a wide range of social service, arts and health care programmes. It taught immigrants what it meant to live and function in a diverse urban environment. Settlement houses played a key role in both Britain and the US in the acculturation of immigrant Jews, including teaching them English and preparing them for the work that led to the astonishing success of their integration into their host societies.

Some of the great nineteenth and twentieth-century writers took as their subject the humiliation and shame of the poor and the disadvantaged, including women: from Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell, to Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Babel and Primo Levi, these writers have much to tell us of the impact of the persistent societal practices of humiliation with the purpose of controlling minorities, which were intrinsic to the imposition of social control practised in the Ghetto. Mitchell Duneier’s powerful book deserves a place in the same lineage of modern writing that speaks for the cause of human freedom.

Murray Baumgarten is Research Professor of Literature and the Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is a founding member of the Venice Center for International Jewish Studies. From 1994 to 2004 he was the editor of JUDAISM: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.

Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea 
By Mitchell Duneier
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016

This review appears in the Winter 2016 issue of Jewish Quarterly. Subscribe here.

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