Denmark, once home to a king who famously objected to Nazi deportation plans, recently horrified the world by publicizing a “ghetto list” and enacting new laws pertaining to those who live in what the government classified as a ghetto.
What does that mean, exactly?
“Starting at the age of 1, ‘ghetto children’ must be separated from their families for at least 25 hours a week, not including nap time, for mandatory instruction in “Danish values,” including the traditions of Christmas and Easter, and Danish language,” The New York Times reports.
But horrifying as that sentence is, it still doesn’t explain the word ghetto. For a long time, defining the word “ghetto” has been a problem — and right now, that vagueness is pointing to something very dangerous.
NPR accurately termed ghetto an “etymological mystery” when it featured the word for “Code Switch” in 2014, and Tel Aviv University linguistics professor and Haaretz columnist Elon Gilad concluded much the same thing when he memorably investigated the term in 2016.
Of course, many people immediately associate ghetto with Nazis, and the fact that this year is the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising should not be lost on us. The world apparently couldn’t let a century pass without reviving the ghetto idea.
Meanwhile, linguists have cited everything from the Hebrew word get or “divorce” to the Italian word ghèto, or the “copper foundry” that existed in that part of Venice before Jews were confined there as possibilities for the source of the term.
Dictionaries don’t necessarily provide clarity.
Anatoly Liberman, whose etymology column appears at the Oxford University Press website, even wrote a detailed essay arguing against various dictionary definitions of ghetto. Liberman says that the bottom line is we don’t know “whether ghetto is a Hebrew, Latin, Italian, or Yiddish word.”
“While evaluating a dozen or so mutually conflicting theories, one should not be swayed by authority,” Liberman writes. “Some of the least persuasive conjectures stem from the works of distinguished scholars.”
But maybe this isn’t about what’s in the dictionary, but what isn’t in the dictionary. And “persuasive conjecture” — to borrow Liberman’s phrase — is, at the moment, a genuine threat in public life.
We are not just fighting hatred, but conjecture.
And most of all, we are fighting vague language that doesn’t tell us exactly what is happening — and in fact, may be intentionally masking what’s happening.
The history of ghettos is instructive on this front. The first instance of using an enclosed space to confine people and calling it a “ghetto” appeared in Venice in 1516, when Jews were locked in at night.
I thought of the Venice ghetto and its locks when I read this line in The New York Times story on Denmark and its attitude toward mostly Muslim migrants: “Some proposals have been rejected as too radical, like one from the far-right Danish People’s Party that would confine “ghetto children” to their homes after 8 p.m.”
We should be alert, because history tells us that the ghetto idea caught on fast.
By 1555, Pope John Paul IV — who had overseen the burning of the Talmud two years earlier — forced all Jews of the Papal States, including Rome, to live in “ghettos,” removed from Christians. That same Pope also decreed that Jews had to wear identifying marks: yellow hats for men and veils or shawls for women.
The word ghetto first appeared in a Papal bull in 1562, and it took hundreds of years for ghettos to be taken down. Or maybe they never left us.
In today’s Denmark, “ghetto” is a legal definition. A ghetto is a neighborhood with more than 1000 people that meets two of these three criteria: at least 50 percent of residents are immigrants from non-Western countries; at least 40 percent of residents are not working and at least 2.7 percent of residents have a criminal record.
As I read about “ghetto children” in Denmark, and as I watched in horror as ghetto trended on Twitter, I found myself thinking about the centuries before the word ghetto existed — and about how old hatred of the “other” is.
Medieval Jews were often forced to live in undesirable neighborhoods and endure humiliation. In Rome, for instance, which is the oldest Jewish community in Europe, dating back to the second century B.C.E., Jews were forced to run naked through the city during Carnival each February; some collapsed and died. That run was codified by Pope Paul II (1464-1471), well before the first ghetto.
And of course, Jews were repeatedly subject to “persuasive conjecture”. They were blamed for the Black Death — and massacred for it.
In recent decades, we may have become a bit complacent about both the history of hatred in general and ghetto history in particular, thinking of the ghetto as attractive real estate. Tour guides claim that Sophia Loren owns an apartment in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto and today, the neighborhood’s charming outdoor cafes even offer kosher food. It’s hard to believe it’s the same space where local Christians lined up to hand over their gold to save their Jewish neighbors from deportation, as was the case in a film I saw in Rome’s Jewish Museum documents. (The Nazis took the gold ransom they demanded; Jews were deported to their deaths anyway.)
The word ghetto has had its own makeover, too. It can sometimes be used positively; “ghetto fabulous” is an example. “Motown is the first thing that ever taught you about the ghetto as fabulous,” the record executive Andre Harrell told The New Yorker in 1996. But there is nothing fabulous about what is happening in Denmark.
Instead, we are facing something both ominous and vague.
The murkiness of the source of the word ghetto mirrors the fact that the precise original source of the current backlash against refugees and migrants from Boise to Berlin to the U.S. border — to yes, once firmly anti-Nazi Denmark — is unclear.
There are many factors; and if that sounds scarily Trump-y, it’s because the “many factors” or “many sides” line has been used to smoothly describe several seismic earthquakes of our recent political past, from Brexit to Charlottesville to Trump himself.
That lack of clarity should strike fear in us.
As George Orwell warned, unclear language, at its worst, can lead to murder. Political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable,” Orwell famously wrote in his essay “Politics and the English Language.”
Vague language — from “travel ban” to “homeland security” to “final solution” to even yes, that etymologically mysterious word we all think we understand in our gut, “ghetto” — has historically been a trap. Don’t fall for it.
Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of “The Grammar of God.” (Spiegel & Grau). Follow her on Twitter @AviyaKushner