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How Venice invented the ghetto

Inventing the ghetto

Established 500 years ago, Venice’s Jewish ghetto still has some lessons to give

Established 500 years ago, Venice’s Jewish ghetto still has some lessons to give

Alexandra Fattal | April 1st 2016

Visiting Venice involves frequently shifting one’s eyes between wondrous beauty and maddening crowds of tourists. The city’s old Jewish ghetto, set back from the main attractions, has neither the hordes – though more and more people do stop by – nor the spectacular architecture of other neighbourhoods. But while it takes up just a few blocks, the ghetto offers ample space for reflection. Five hundred years since its creation, over two hundred since its demise, and amid a worsening global refugee crisis and increasingly incendiary anti-immigrant rhetoric, it offers plenty of food for thought, too.

Doge Leonardo Loredan established the Venice ghetto on March 29th 1516. It was not the first time Jews were forcibly confined to a defined area, but it gave birth to the term that has since become synonymous with segregation and discrimination. Its location – negotiated with the Jews, who were initially to be banished to one of the Lagoon’s islands – housed an old copper foundry, the Venetian dialect for which was “getto”.

Venice (1500), Jacopo de Barbari 

The two entrances were locked between sundown and sunrise. Jews were not permitted to own property and could practise only certain professions. In the day they could move around the city, but were forced to wear distinctive clothing beyond the ghetto’s walls.

Still, despite the restrictions, it was a relative haven compared with the ghettos later established in Rome and other Papal states, or with Madrid, Prague and other European cities of the time, from which Jews were periodically expelled. And it was a far cry from the Nazi ghettos which later served as antechambers for extermination camps. Venice’s rulers were pragmatists: they needed the Jews to be pawnbrokers for their impoverished population – plus, they made good doctors.

So Jews flocked to Venice, fleeing even harsher conditions elsewhere. The ghetto became a multicultural trading hub, where, by day, both Jews and gentiles mixed. It expanded as newcomers arrived, often upwards so that its buildings – some as high as seven or eight stories – remain some of the city’s tallest. At its most cramped it was home to 5,000 people, and it boasts five synagogues, including one Italian, one German, one Spanish and Portuguese, and one Levantine – all built by Christian architects, since Jews were not allowed to practise architecture.

Venice’s ghetto was dismantled in 1797 when Napoleon invaded, but the term has lived on. When speaking out against segregation in South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi compared the country’s treatment of its Indian minority to the discrimination faced by Jews in Europe, repeatedly referring to the concept of the ghetto. Today millions of people continue to live in effective social or ethnic ghettos, from the favelas of Brazil to the mostly black urban neighbourhoods of the United States and the predominantly north African banlieues of Paris. Now, a refugee crisis is creating new ghettoised populations, as those fleeing war or persecution find themselves in refugee camps and new lands with less-than-hospitable hosts.

At a concert to mark the 500th anniversary on March 29th at La Fenice, Venice’s majestic opera house, historian Simon Schama noted that the 1516 ghettoisation of the Venetian Jews – the very fact that they were moved to a single area and locked up at night, supervised by guards they had to pay for – may sound like a moment consigned to history. But he questioned whether we could be sure that what happened in 1516 couldn't possibly happen now, given that in response to the Brussels terrorist attacks on March 22nd, Ted Cruz recommended that police in the United States “patrol and secure Muslim neighbourhoods”. Donald Trump, of course, wants to build a wall on the country’s southern border, at Mexico’s expense. And the relatively heavy police presence at the Venice ghetto earlier that day – this time to protect rather than guard it – was a grim reminder that Europe has far to go before it banishes anti-Semitism.

The commemorations, which will continue throughout the year, are both a reminder of the tragedy of depriving innocent people of their liberty, and a reminder that it is possible to thrive despite adversity, and to retain one’s culture even while contributing to another.

Perhaps today’s politicians could learn something from the Venetians’ pragmatism, while, of course, repudiating their discriminatory practices. European fertility rates are declining, but people are living longer. The question for Europeans today is: who will pay the pensions of future generations? The Venetians sought to manage population movements to improve the living conditions of both newcomers and those already living in the city, says Gadi Luzzatto Voghera, lecturer in Italian history at Boston University in Padova. “European governments treat the migration question like an emergency and security issue,” he says. But groups of people have always moved from one place to another. “If we do not welcome young immigrant workers,” says Voghera, “this time integrating them into society not leaving them in ghettos, we will face an enormous financial crisis.”

Venice Ghetto 500 further events include the exhibition "Venice, the Jews, and Europe,” opening in  June, and “The Merchant of Venice”, which is being staged in July

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Bucephalus - April 12th 2016

This is a good article.