Global Metaphor


Ca’ Dolfin

While in Venice a few weeks ago, I attended the afternoon session of the symposium The Ghetto as Global Metaphor. the-ghetto-as-global-metaphor

Though it was about 100 degrees in the Ca’ Dolfin, I could still enjoy the frescoed walls and elaborate chandeliers, a rather strange juxtaposition as we learned about ghettos.


Here are a few highlights from the speakers, introduced by Shaul Bassi:

Princeton’s Mitchell Duneier reminded us that the Venetians, in instituting the first ghetto 500 years ago, didn’t intend the term “ghetto” to refer to all such segregations of Jews, but that it was meant to solve a particular issue at a particular time. The Venetian State had no grand plan, like Hitler later did. In 1555, Rome issued a papal bull “as a cognitive category” that legitimized the idea of a ghetto as a segregated community. The Frankfurt ghetto, which came later, shows a time when “Jews put invisible walls around themselves,” Duneier said. This self-segregation, he believes, led to easier persecution by outsiders.

As a very interesting comparison, African Americans began using the term “ghetto” in the U.S. more intentionally after veterans returned from WWII. They had seen the Nazi concentration camps, in fact had helped to liberate them, and then applied the term to American segregated neighborhoods to highlight the hypocrisy they saw in the U.S. They had fought in Europe to free Jews and then returned home to be discriminated against. There was no intention to say that a black ghetto was similar to Nazi ghettos or camps in specific details, but it was more about being a place where people have lost rights to their freedoms that are usually protected by their government. Interesting, no?

Next, Elijah Anderson from Yale spoke about an “iconic ghetto” as a “moment of acute disrespect based on one’s particularity,” be it skin color, religion, etc. This image or stereotype began after the end of slavery in the U.S. when blacks moved into cities but remained segregated from the white community. This segregation became institutionalized and accepted as a norm. See how we got to where we are today?

George Chauncey, also from Yale, next applied the term “ghetto” to the LGBTQ community. He spoke of gay men moving to San Francisco as “refugees” fleeing unsafe places and forming their own “ghetto” for self-preservation, safety, and development of culture. Some saw this use of the term “ghetto” as offensive since the LGBTQ community didn’t suffer the same experiences as Jews or African Americans, but the philosophy of oppression was similar. He described it as a “ghetto rather than a free space because it is theirs” by choice, though it is still policed by a heteronormative government. A ghetto, he contends, is a “spatial relationship or concentration coupled with a social expectation.”


George Chauncey

Igiaba Scego then applied the term “ghetto” to the migrant community, that the “body of migrants is a new ghetto in Europe.” She went so far as to say the migrant issue is almost akin to a new form of genocide, with the systematic killing off of a group of people but in a subtle way that will not be noticed by onlookers, an idea which she supported with examples from the current crisis.

A late addition speaker was Saskia Sassen, who spoke of “othering” and the “question of the outsider.” “What creates this distancing of the outsider?” she asked. She brought in examples of land grabs, economic development, and climate change consequences that lead to the displacement of local peoples.

The closing speaker was Homi Bhabha from Harvard. He spoke of philosophical issues, such as the “self-protective xenophobia” many people adopt against those perceived as outsiders. “American exceptionalism is an illusion,” he continued. The reality is “American exclusionism,” and our guilt is the easy way out of the emotional distress resulting from learning about others’ suffering. How does one acknowledge and respect the past while not being mired in inactivity? How does one move towards a new and brighter future? This was particularly interesting to me since I can apply these concepts to the high school course I teach on witness literature.


Homi Bhabha

Lots of heady stuff this day, while I mopped my brow and neck in the heat. I’m sorry to have missed the morning speakers, though I’m not sorry for the reason–my friend was in town from Rome, and I wanted to spend the time with him. Still, cool topics on a hot day to spark a new fire in my mind. I bet the Venetians of 1516 would be surprised to know that their term “ghetto” and their edict to segregate the Jewish community would have such far-reaching consequences 500 years later.


About seductivevenice

Teacher, writer, traveler, dancer, reader, photographer, gardener.
This entry was posted in Venice, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Global Metaphor

  1. Cecelia Pierotti says:

    I would have also been mopping up some tears as well…what a fascinating and heartfelt topic….so glad you had the opportunity to attend!!!

    • Yes, Dr. Anderson’s introductory words were especially moving and heartbreaking, as he told the story of an African American law student harassed by police over “mistaken identity.” And the plight of refugees, as narrated by Ms. Scego, was also especially moving.

      • Cecelia Pierotti says:

        I’ll be in Venice soon…..I need to check and see if there are other talks happening!!! Do you know of any?

  2. Here’s the website with the full listing of events:
    I’d also highly recommend the special exhibit at the Doge’s Palace on Jewish history. Give yourself plenty of time–many of the parts are interactive and very interesting.

  3. Mitchell Duneier says:

    Thanks for attending the conference and for reporting on it. A small point:
    The Frankfurt “ghetto” came earlier than the one Venice. For centuries, it was the most well known compulsory Jewish quarter, long before the word “ghetto” came to originate with the Jews of Venice. It was later viewed by sociologists as showing a time when Jews brought about their own ghettoizaton by building invisible walls around themselves — in other words, by self segregating. I argued in my talk, however, that the Frankfurt ghetto was, like Venice and imposed from above. Thanks for your enthusiastic response to the conference.

    Mitch Duneier

    • Hello, Mr. Duneier,
      Thank you for writing to clarify my remarks. I’m confused at this point because I had learned from another source, Riccardo Calimani, that Venice’s ghetto was the first one. Could that statement still be true because of the use of that term? Does the confusion stem from a matter of terminology rather than definition? I apologize if I misconstrued your ideas. I’d like to blame the heat that day, but maybe it was just my incomplete understanding of the history. I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

      • Mitchell Duneier says:

        Yes, that’s correct. The phenomenon of forced Jewish segregation in Frankfurt and other places predates the term “ghetto,” which originates in Venice in 1516.

  4. Bert says:

    It seems that there may be many books that could do with correcting, if only it were possible. I’m sure I’ve read many times that Venice had the first ghetto. Would it be more correct to say that the word ‘ghetto’ originates from Venice, but that there were ghettos before that? They just weren’t called ghettos.

    • Yes, that’s more precise. Also, what is the exact definition of ghetto? Must it be a space imposed by others? Or can it be a space “imposed” or chosen by the group itself? The symposium explored so many uses and meanings of the term, in different settings and eras and for disparate groups, which expands the definition and invites many more questions.

  5. peter maher says:

    Calling what became the Jewish quarter (street/ quarter/ island) in Venice the “first ghetto” is to confuse things and the names of things. Such segregated quarters abound in world history and antedate 1516 Venice all over Europe, Japan, China, or the Ottoman and Arab worlds. The sestieri of Cannaregio and Castello are at opposite ends of the conurbation that we today call Venice. The toponym GETO ~ Gheto was a garden-variety word for a cluster of poor houses on an island remote from the castle. Spanish pueblo ‘village’ is the reflex of Latin populus ’people’. One shtetl in the Ukraine is simply ‘houses” – Chyzhy. The street is where the action is. The same kaleidoscope operates in Arabic, where hâra means ‘quarter, part, section of a city, ghetto. Hâra and Cairo Arabic darb both signify at one and the same time or alternatively an ethnic neighborhood, its inhabitants, the ‘people of the street’’ (Lévy 1992; UNESCO).

  6. Nancy Schwalen says:

    A powerful symposium. Almost makes me wish I were back in a classroom.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s