Books — 'Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, The History of an Idea'

A history of the ghetto, from imprisoning European Jews to segregating African Americans.

Jews forced out of bunkers by SS police during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Jews forced out of bunkers by SS police during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Mitchell Duneier’s Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, The History of an Idea provides fascinating insight into the history and the similarities and differences of the now-extinct European-Jewish ghetto and the very much alive African-American ghetto in the United States.
Though it is a book geared toward a scholarly audience and isn’t a beach read by any means, it’s full of interesting facts from the very first page of the preface which explains the derivation of the word “ghetto” (it comes from the name of the island on which Venice’s Jews were enclosed, which had a copper foundry or geto on it). Other interesting tidbits involve none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, who was the first person to attempt to demolish Italy’s ghettos and free its inhabitants. The French general did not succeed, and it wasn’t until 1870 that the Roman ghetto was abolished. Rome’s Jews, “among the first in the world to be ghettoized, became the last Jews in Western Europe to win the rights of citizenship in their own country.”
Duneier writes evocatively about that first ghetto in Venice: “The ghetto offered visual proof [to tourists and pilgrims] of the difference between old and new, Jews and Christians, damned and saved. Its existence enabled ecclesiastical officials to point out the immediate and stark contrast between the physical environment of those who embraced the “true” faith and those who rejected it.”
He also argues that though the European ghettos served their bigoted purpose by keeping Jews segregated from mainstream populations in Europe, they may have also had some beneficial cultural effects for the Jewish people. For example, Duneier claims that “the ghetto encouraged Jews to turn inward, concentrating in fruitful ways on their own culture.”
Even so, the medieval ghettos were a totally different atmosphere from the Nazi ghettos of World War II. There is quite a difference “between a ghetto where people can flourish under conditions of relatively tolerant regulation and one where they are doomed to perish,” he writes.
The book is a study in how history repeats itself – how the fear and loathing of one people leads to the segregation of another. “The pernicious circular logic of the ghetto is evident,” Duneier says.
“Isolation from mainstream society, as well as the decrepitude caused by overcrowding...
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.”
This type of circular logic was applied to both Jewish and black ghettos.
Though the cover jacket is divided almost equally between two photos, one of SS officers driving a car through a Jewish ghetto and one of two black women walking through an African-American ghetto, it shouldn’t be taken to mean that the book evenly splits its pages between the two cases. Much more ink is spilled in writing about America’s black ghettos, which is fitting given that they are relevant today in a way that Jewish ghettos are not, but anyone who picks up the book thinking that it will take anything more than a brief look at the Warsaw or Lodz ghettos may be disappointed.
The book’s latter pages are split into chapters telling the stories of African-American sociologists and social activists who have worked or are working to improve the situations of African-American residents in Chicago and Harlem. They include Horace Cayton, whose 1945 book Black Metropolis revolutionized how sociologists discussed the ghetto, and Geoffrey Canada, a New York-born educator who serves as president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, an organization that works to increase high-school and college graduation rates among students in Harlem.
But even so, Duneier does give the Jewish ghetto its due, though he acknowledges that one of his inspirations in writing the book was because “ghettos can get lost.” This is evident among his students, for whom, he remarks, “it comes as news that Jews, not blacks, were the original ghettoized people.”
Ghetto is a timely read in 2016 since this year marks 500 years since the Venetian ghetto was established. The Israel Museum is marking the anniversary with an exhibit: “Venetian Splendor: Marking 500 Years of the Venice Ghetto.” It features elaborately decorated Judaica from the Venetian-Jewish community, on view for the first time. Duneier’s book would make for a good read before or after a visit to the exhibit.