Ghetto: The History of a Word | Wilson Center
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Ghetto: The History of a Word

What is a ghetto? A compulsory, exclusive, and enclosed district for Jews? A voluntary and densely populated immigrant enclave? A segregated African-American neighborhood? In Ghetto: A History of a Word, Daniel Schwartz reveals how this most malleable and loaded of words—ghetto—has historically been all of the above, chronicling its various and contested meanings from when it was first used in sixteenth-century Venice in reference to Jews to the present. In his remarks at the Washington History Seminar, he will focus on the transfer of the word ghetto from Jews to blacks in the postwar U.S. The story of this migration concerns more than the changing nuance of a particular word. Arguments over the usage, application, and even ownership of ghetto served as a stage on which were played out fundamental debates over the meaning of integration and segregation, the uniqueness of the black and Jewish experiences, and the ethics of analogy and comparison.

Daniel Schwartz is an associate professor of history and the director of the Judaic Studies Program at George Washington University. He is the author of The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image (2012), which was co-winner of the Salo W. Baron Prize for best first book in Jewish studies and a National Jewish Book Award finalist, and most recently of Spinoza’s Challenge to Jewish Thought: Writings on His Life, Philosophy, and Legacy (2019) and Ghetto: The History of a Word (2019).

The Washington History Seminar is co-chaired by Eric Arnesen (George Washington University) and Christian Ostermann (Woodrow Wilson Center) and is sponsored jointly by the National History Center of the American Historical Association and the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program. It meets weekly during the academic year. The seminar thanks the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest and the George Washington University History Department for their support.



  • Christian F. Ostermann

    Director, History and Public Policy Program; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
    Woodrow Wilson Center
  • Eric Arnesen

    Professor of History, The George Washington University


  • Daniel Schwartz

    Professor of history and the Director of the Judaic Studies Program at George Washington University