The term ghetto is a concept with many meanings. It is frequently used to describe any dense areas of Jewish residence, even if no compulsory policies of residential segregation were imposed. It is also employed as a description of the geographical and social isolation of minorities other than Jews; for example, it is applied to African Americans and other ethnic communities in the US and to minorities in Japan such as ethnic Koreans. Scholars recognize that the term has assumed a life of its own since its first application and have called for systematic examination of the history of its changing meaning from the time it was first used in connection with Jews until the present (Ravid 1992).

Originally, the term referred to the establishment of a compulsory segregated Jewish quarter, ghetto or ghetti in pre-Enlightenment Europe. Although compulsory, segregated, and enclosed Jewish quarters had existed prior to 1516 in a few cities in Europe such as Frankfurt, the first involuntarily segregated quarter called a ghetto was established in Venice in that year. The Venetian government, motivated by utilitarian economic considerations of raison d’etat, granted Jews charters, which allowed them to live in Venice. However, it required that as infidels Jews be kept in their place, both to demonstrate their inferiority for Christian theological reasons, and more practically, to restrict as much as possible social contacts, including sexual interaction, between them and the local Christian population. To ensure the complete segregation of Jews, the area allocated for their residence was walled up and the Christian owners of the dwellings within it were required by the Venetian government to evict their local Christian tenants. This was the first instance of a segregated compulsory quarter for Jews in a walled up form. The Venice ghetto existed for the next 281 years and was abolished in the early summer of 1797 in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Venetian government.

The term ghetto derives from the Italian word gettare (to pour or cast metal). The word was originally used to describe the old ghetto (Ghetto vecchio) and the new ghetto (Ghetto nuovo) for Jews in Venice. Both these quarters were located in the area where the municipal copper foundry was previously based. Subsequently, the term has been used loosely and imprecisely in Jewish history and sociology. The varied usages in different senses have created a certain blurring of the historical reality, especially when the term is used in phrases such as ‘‘age of the ghetto,’’ ‘‘out of the ghetto,’’ and ‘‘ghetto mentality,’’ which are often applied to the Jewish experience in Central and Eastern Europe in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries (Ravid 1992). The term in the original Italian sense of a compulsory, segregated, and walled up Jewish quarter cannot be used to describe the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe because the history of Jewish residence there lacks the main characteristic of the Italian ghetto. If the word ghetto is to be applied in its original literal sense in connection with Eastern Europe, then it must be asserted that the ghetto arrived there only during the German occupation of the region in World War II. However, unlike those Italian ghettos of the Counter Reformation era, which were designed to provide Jews with a clearly defined, permanent position in Christian society, the ghettos established in German occupied Eastern Europe constituted a stage in the Nazi anti Jewish policies, which culminated in the genocide of European Jewry.

The concept of the ghetto as a closed premodern environment that isolated Jews from the rest of society also had a major impact on early scholarly attempts to understand the forces that held together ethnic neighborhoods of European immigrants in American society in the early twentieth century. In 1928 the Chicago sociologist Louis Wirth published The Ghetto, in which he compared the Chicago ghetto – the voluntarily established Jewish immigrant neighbor hood on Chicago’s Westside – to the medieval Frankfurt Jewish quarter. Wirth assumed that Jewish immigrants in Chicago moved into a certain ethnocultural space because the centuries of separate settlement in Europe had imprinted  the  ‘‘ghetto experience’’ on the Jewish mind. Drawing on his mentor Robert Park, Wirth saw a correlation between the assimilation of immigrants and their residential mobility. For him, the Chicago ghetto was a passageway in time and space from premodern European ghettos into mainstream American society. Jeffrey Gurock (1979) dismisses Wirth’s thesis about the ghetto like pattern of settlement of Jewish immigrants in the US.

The idea of the ghetto has also often been applied to describe the African American experience in different geographical localities of the US between 1900 and the 1960s. The African American ghetto is a creation of the early twentieth century and its historical origins are linked to the large scale black migration to cities such as Chicago and Detroit. The African American ghetto is the result of the forces of racial segregation. Although the US Supreme Court banned explicit zoning by race in 1917, by 1920 the color line in Northeastern cities had been fully established. The reinforcement of ethnic and racial barriers was not limited only to anti black initiatives in Northern US cities. The South had created its vast array of Jim Crow laws at the end of the nineteenth century. In the West, whites also used restrictive covenants against Asians. African American segregation in ghettos – inner city communities such as Harlem in New York – continued to rise until it reached its peak in the 1960s. The abolition of legal restrictions in the 1960s meant that barriers that were needed to keep areas white were gone. However, this process has not resulted in the end of the African American ghetto. African American ghettos have not become any less black. The persistence of subtle forms of barriers and economic factors are cited in scholarly and public discussions about the persistence of the African American ghettos in  contemporary North American cities (Glasser 1997).

In recent scholarly literature the concept of the ghetto has been linked to the ideal of multiculturalism. Kymlicka (2001), for example, argues that the ideal of multiculturalism in Canada encouraged the idea that immigrants should form ‘‘self contained ghettos’’ alienated from the mainstream. He calls this process ghettoization, which may mark the latest manifestation of the concept in the social sciences.


  1. Glasser, (1997) Ghettos: The Changing Consequences of Ethnic Isolation. Regional Review (spring): 2 9.
  2. Gurock, (1979) When Harlem was Jewish 1870 1930. Columbia University Press, New York.
  3. Kymlicka, W. (2001) Politics in the Vernacular. Oxford University Press,
  4. Ravid, B. (1992) From Geographical Realia to Historiographical Symbol: The Odyssey of the Word In: Ruderman, D. B. (Ed.), Essential Papers on Jewish Culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy. New York University Press, New York, pp. 372 85.
  5. Ravid, B. (2003) Studies on the Jews of Venice, 1382 1797. Ashgate Variorum,
  6. Pullan, (1983) The Jews of Europe and the Inquisition of Venice. Blackwell, Oxford.
  7. Wirth, (1928) The Ghetto. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

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