Jews and the New Ghetto

We fool ourselves if we think the era of Jewish ghettos has come and gone. There’s a new Jewish ghetto forming and it is worldwide.

In 1555 Pope Paul IV issued a far-reaching papal proclamation, “Cum Nimis Absurdum.” It is one of the most important and influential decrees of any pope and it was issued just two years after he burned a copy of the Talmud in Rome. The title of the papal decree comes from the first sentence – “It is completely ridiculous…”.

What is ridiculous, Pope Paul IV says, is allowing Jews to participate in Christian society or even to live amongst Christians as they had for centuries. Jews, he says, are condemned to “eternal slavery.” As a slave people they are to be shunned and marginalized from the community of the free.

What lurks behind this papal decree is a highly toxic passage from the Christian Scriptures. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul the apostle maintained that Christians are descendants of Abraham and Sarah, the free woman; Jews, by contrast, are the offspring of Abraham and Hagar, the slave woman. So one community is free; the other, not. While this theological interpretation is historically absurd, Paul’s view influenced the Christian treatment of Jews for centuries.

Pope Paul IV was the former head of the Inquisition in Rome, his job being to stamp out heresies. The idea that people can be divided into free versus slave played into his mission to eradicate different views.

The Old Ghetto

The papal decree listed a variety of laws applicable to Jews. Jews in Rome were to be moved into a small territory section of land with only one gate. One synagogue was allowed; others, destroyed. Jewish means of livelihood and interactions with Christians were severely curtailed.  Jews were also to attend a Christian sermon every Shabbat in the hope that they’d be converted.

So contact between Jews and non-Jews was severely restricted. The Roman ghetto isolated Jews from the rest of society. The ghetto last 315 years, from 1555 until 1870. Pope Paul IV’s words had a powerful effect.

Let’s re-express the formation of the ghetto in modern terms. A “woke” pope comes to consciousness of Christians as the free people. He turns his attention to a dissident group on his doorstep, the Jews. He burns the Talmud: Jewish ideas and practices are to be “cancelled.” There is to be no debate or engagement with Jewish leaders or thinkers. Jewish voices don’t matter. They are to be silenced out of hand because the Jewish narrative does not fit with the dominant Christian narrative. Moreover, Jews are to be “re-educated,” hence the weekly Catholic sermons in church, a one-way communication.

From the pope’s point of view, the ghetto was highly effective. It isolated, marginalized and muted the Jewish community in Rome (and elsewhere) for three centuries.

The Impact of Intersectionalism

So, a ghetto. Over and done with? A relic of the past?

Not so. A new Jewish ghetto is being fashioned through the philosophy of intersectionality. That contemporary belief system claims that victims of one form of social oppression share common cause with victims other forms of social oppression. In typical terms, this means that members of the BLM movement, LGBTQ, feminism and others share common victimhood with others involved in their struggles.

Recently we have witnessed large protests in the streets and on social media around the world that are pro-Palestinian, pro-Hamas, anti-Israel and anti-Zionist. Many of these demonstrations vehemently deny the right of Israel even to exist and some veer off into expressions of Jew-hatred generally. Students are bombarded with anti-Jewish messages on social media daily. In covering the recent conflict, some media choose to cover only the impact on Gaza, ignoring the hundreds of rockets shot into Israel to terrorize citizens.

As a common cause social philosophy, intersectionality offers enormous benefits to its adherents. For one thing, it creates a larger group of victimhood than just the members of one particular cause. Victims of one group become integral supporters other victim groups. This means that one movement can share in the protests of other aligned groups, thus swelling the number of supporters. That gives comfort and a psychological boost to knowing that one is not alone in one’s struggle.

There are many drawbacks to the philosophy of intersectionality that go well beyond the objectives of any one cause. How does supporting other causes advance the cause of one’s own struggle? How does supporting Palestinians, for instance, help LGBTQ members when they themselves would be killed or imprisoned in Gaza? How does lambasting Israel benefit the LGBTQ cause when Israel is the only society in the Middle East that protects Gay, Lesbian or Trans-gendered individuals? How does supporting the Palestinian cause advance women to positions of corporate and social power? Or help Blacks seek justice in America? In many ways intersectionalism simply detracts from the struggle at hand.

Where does intersectionalism stop? Why doesn’t intersection include common cause with Tibetans, another victim group? Should an intersectionalist then be anti-China? The Irish and Scots have been oppressed by the English for centuries. Should the English be added to the list of powerful oppressors? Christians in Muslim countries have been persecuted. Perhaps then Intersectionalists should shout anti-Muslim slogans, too? The intersectionalist is faced with quite a buffet of causes to advance as well as positions and peoples to oppose.

The list grows. Jews have been persecuted in Iraq, Iran and many other Islamic countries. Should intersectionalists then be pro-Jewish and anti-Islam? Now here we have a real paradox and logical conundrum: intersectionalists should be both anti-Jewish as well as pro-Jewish.

Moreover, how should participation in specific intersectionalist causes be chosen? If an intersectionalist only favors only one cause to the exclusion of all other intersectional possibilities then this decision is skewed by some factor other than intersectionalism.

In particular why should an intersectionalist chose the pro-Palestinian anti-Israel and anti-Jewish narrative to the exclusion of all others? Is conscious or unconscious Jew-hatred driving intersectionalists to select this one cause rather than focusing on all other causes across the entire intersectional board? If this one cause – the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel one — is the only cause that generates passion, then intersectionalism really becomes just a cover for Jew-hatred.

Favoring this one intersectional cause over others rips off the mask. The real intent of intersectionalism is exposed: it is familiar Jew-hatred but in a different guise. Only the Jew of all the other ethnic groups gets beaten up; only Israel of all the nations of the world gets berated. Only the pro-Palestinian cause gets intersectionists riled up. Exclusive focus on this one cause gives the real game away: it is Jew-hatred.

The New Ghetto

 The real damage, however, is that Jews are being herded into a new ghetto, shunned by intersectionalists and their supporters. The new ghetto is social, not geographical. There is a new division amongst people, not free-slave dichotomy as in the 16th century but two new zones: one “Jew-free;” the other, “Jew only.”

Let’s consider the plight of those Jews who support feminism, or LGBTQ or BLM. We also happen to support Israel as a Jewish democratic state in which minorities have legal rights. We also believe that Israel has the right to exist. We are passionate about helping to create some sort of arrangement that will permit coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. There are many of us but we quickly find ourselves ostracized by the very causes we wish to support. We can’t attend parades, protests or share space on social media. We are isolated from these social movements particularly because these causes have intersectional baggage that precludes support for Israel.

Thus we are shunted out of these movements in gatherings and on social media. These activist groups become Judenfrei. At the same time, we are relegated against our will into a zone of our own. Our participation is refused by these movements; our ideas muted. Like the Jews of Rome walled up by Pope Paul IV, we are today confined to quarters.

And so we have a new ghetto walled off by hateful anti-Jewish prejudice that precludes dialogue and social interaction.

The Challenge

From 1555 to 1870 Jews in Rome were silenced. In a sense, however, the old ghetto did not end in 1870.  In October 1943, over a thousand Roman Jews were deported, under the pope’s windows, and sent to concentration camps. Pope Paul IV’s thirty-seventh successor, Pope Pius XII, did not intervene. Few deportees survived. From ghetto to camps, Jew-hatred packs a powerful punch.

What then are our prospects today when the only conversation we can have is with ourselves? How do we break out of the new ghetto?

About the Author
An award-winning educator, Barrie Wilson, PhD, is Professor Emeritus & Senior Scholar, Religious Studies, York University, Toronto. An investigative historian, he specializes in Early Christianity. Publications include How Jesus Became Christian (2008) awarded the Tanenbaum Prize for History at the Canadian Jewish Book Awards (2009); The Lost Gospel (2014) co-authored with the Emmy-award winning Canadian-Israeli film director and producer Simcha Jacobovici; Paul vs James (2018); Searching for the Messiah (2020). Wilson is a member of Beth-Tzedec Congregation, Toronto.