Professor Talks History, Modern Understanding of Ghettos

Princeton University professor of sociology Mitchell Duneier emphasized both the negative history and modern-day understanding of ghettos in the United States in a discussion hosted by the Center for Jewish Civilization in Copley Formal Lounge on Thursday.

This event was centered on Duneier’s recent book “Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea.” He urged readers to look at history not rooted in urban America, but rather in 16th-century Europe, in order to understand ghettos — a part of a city where minority groups live, often because of oppression.

The first ghetto began in Venice in 1516, when the Venetian authorities confined the city-state’s Jews to a small island. The Pope then established the Roman Ghetto in 1555, and the practice spread to many European cities.

These ghettos were, to an extent, flourishing — places where Jewish culture thrived in times of relatively little persecution, according to Duneier. However, Duneier said a lack of economic benefits in the ghettos damaged the prosperity in Jewish communities.

“I think that the Jewish ghetto had certain high points in that regard that maybe due to the concentration of people in a physical space, having dense interactions with one another,” Duneier said. “But those benefits can’t come when people are cut off from the sources of income, when they are cut off from opportunities.”

The ghettos, which have endured for centuries, are overshadowed in the public consciousness by the ghettos of the Holocaust, according to Duneier. The largest ghetto during the Second World War was in Warsaw, where 400,000 Jews from across Poland were confined to 1.3 square miles.

Duneier said the intent of the Nazi ghettos was to dehumanize the Jews.

“From the very beginning of Hitler’s time as chancellor, he talked about the fact that he had it in his mind to put the Jews in ghettos, and for them to be displayed like wild animal,” Duneier said. The term came to apply more to poor, inner-city, black enclaves in the United States as Allied forces in Europe liberated the Nazi extermination camps, according to Duneier.

“Today it’s very little understood or known that the word ‘ghetto’ was taken up by African-American intellectuals, particularly sociologists, at exactly the moment where the Nazi ghettos, and the concentration camps, were being, in part, liberated by African-American soldiers,” Dunier said.

Duneier said African Americans sought to draw attention to the hypocrisy of America liberating people abroad while oppressing others at home.

“They were trying to make a moral claim about America. They were trying to say this is hypocritical. They were trying to say that ‘we are America’s Jews’,” Duneier said.

Marcus Lustig (COL ʼ19) said he disliked the use of the word ghetto and said it often has negative associations, especially in current times.

“I don’t use that word to describe really contemporary American neighborhoods ever because I think it has sort of a derogatory connotation, especially when it’s used as an adjective,” Lustig said. “It’s often used to talk about stereotypical behavior in a derogatory way, so it’s a pretty nasty word to use.”

Ben Mishkin (GRD ’18) said Duneier’s history offered a useful perspective to the problem of ghetto.

“It’s a helpful reminder that concepts don’t come from nowhere,” Mishkin said. “That maybe there’s something to comparisons between different contexts that can illuminate something about present-day situations.”

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