Saadia Mascarini

Neo-Ghettoization and the Geography of Hatred

"Free Palestine" graffiti on a plaque recounting the history of the Jewish ghetto of Bologna, Italy, December 2023. (Public Domain, Dean Bocconcino)
"Free Palestine" graffiti on a plaque recounting the history of the Jewish ghetto of Bologna, Italy, December 2023. (Public Domain, Dean Bocconcino)

Much has been written in the field of contemporary geography concerning the intricate relationship between geography and the dynamics of oppression experienced by various groups and minorities. From feminist geography to the analysis of migratory phenomena the space humans navigate is unfortunately often the stage where discriminatory power is exerted.

Yet the discussion surrounding how geography intertwines with the oppression of the Jewish people and antisemitism remains conspicuously absent, perhaps deliberately so. This is quite puzzling when we look at Jewish history over the past two thousand years because geographic space has been the backdrop and tool of hatred against Jews. Whether it is exile in the diaspora, expulsions such as the one that occurred in Spain in 1492, confinement to ghettos or the Nazi’s policy of the extermination of Jews through deportation and concentration of its victims, the actions taken by European antisemitic powers were that of consistently exploiting and distorting spaces to perpetrate discrimination and violence against Jews. Space thus emerges as a critical element within the power dynamics between Europe’s Christian majority and its subordinated and discriminated Jewish minority.

Linked also to space was the new form of self-emancipation that arose among the oppressed Jews of Europe in the face of the progressive failure of liberal emancipation in the nineteenth century: Zionism is undoubtedly also a geographical matter due to the fact that it is an expression of the natural right of the Jewish people to the land of which they constitute the indigenous population. Furthermore, as a cornerstone of Zionism, modern aliyah represented a migration wave aimed at fleeing spaces hostile to Jewish life.

But the analysis that is truly missing concerns the way in which present-day antisemitism conditions the space in which Jews living in the West inhabit. Antisemitism is a structural phenomenon in the West. Christian European society has been characterized by the widespread presence of anti-Jewish hatred for centuries to such an extent that the latter has permeated its culture and mentality with the poison of prejudice. This widespread phenomenon is part and parcel of the Old Continent’s identity and it has radically shaped both its perception and relationship not only with its Jewish populations, but also with Israel. In the wake of the Holocaust antisemitism in Europe was momentarily cast aside as it confronted post-WWII reconstruction, but it remained latent while waiting to come to the fore and rear its ugly head once again.

The conditions, tragically, are those that we witnessed on October 7. It may seem paradoxical that in the face of the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust, antisemitism instead of receding has reappeared forcefully within European society. However, the very nature of antisemitism explains the apparent absurdity of its newfound manifestation. As US Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt has highlighted: “[…] antisemites punch down and punch up simultaneously.” This is indeed the case because antisemitism throughout history has not only been a form racism but also a conspiracy theory, a way of explaining evil in the world through the presence of Jews in it. Jews have been depicted as puppeteers of politics, finance and as a powerful clique that rules the world from behind the scenes. Fundamentally, antisemites both despise and fear the Jew.

Precisely because antisemitism manifests itself with the fear of the Jew and the attribution of an alleged nefarious power to the Jewish people, the massacre of October 7 constituted not only an element of fibrillation for hatred in the Arab-Islamic world but also a catalyst that allowed the latent antisemitism of the West to resurface. The atrocities committed against the Jewish people by Hamas terrorists constitute for the latent antisemite a breach in that “Jewish power,” which feeds his prejudices and enables the normalization of hatred against diaspora Jews in general. The weaker the Jew is the more empowered the antisemite feels.

Today, as in the past, antisemitism in Europe operates primarily through the degradation of the quality of life for Jews and this also inevitably extends to the spaces they inhabit. Spaces of Jewish emancipation have long been limited in Europe. For decades by now, numerous European Jews have been forced to live almost “under escort,” with their community buildings protected by the police of their diaspora countries and any manifestation of Jewish identity in public from a kippah to a Star of David necklace carries the perilous potential of inviting targeted hostility. Unfortunately, this situation has become widely normalized both by the Christian majority and the Jewish minority alike.

In the wake of the Israel-Hamas war, Jewish life in Europe finds itself further limited to restricted safe spaces such as homes, community centers and synagogues. Outside these safe spaces, Jews run the risk of becoming victims of hate crimes. On university campuses, for example, Jews now endure deliberate and targeted harassment instead of protection. In this sense European Jews are facing a progressive trend of physical separation from society, which is driven by the escalating tide of animosity that increasingly casts the diaspora as a marginalized corpus separatum. This phenomenon constitutes not only a spatial confinement but also a de facto grotesque mutilation of Jewish emancipation and rights that can be defined as neo-ghettoization.

Jewish ghettos perhaps constitute the most complete form of how hatred has acted on space. The walled ghettos, a phenomenon almost exclusively Italian, certainly arose with different modalities and causes: the Ghetto of Venice established in 1516 was the result of the great influx on the island city of Jewish refugees from the mainland in the context of the so-called War of the League of Cambrai, while the creation of Rome’s ghetto in 1555 bore a strong religious connotation tied to conversion efforts. However, despite their contextual differences, both ghettos exercised a systematic oppression of Jews, leveraging spatial segregation to underscore their perceived “otherness” in contrast to Christian society.

The walls of the ghettos, which in some cases could be limitedly permeable, stood as the physical and material reality of the oppression of the diaspora and simultaneously were the spatial boundary of Jewish life. Within the ghetto, despite the context of subordination and limitation, Jews could express a form of Jewish life as is the case today in the context of the neo-ghettoization of European Jews.

The phenomenon of neo-ghettoization starkly contrasts with the reality of indigenous self-emancipation embodied by the State of Israel. How many among us experience a profound sense of liberation each time we step off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport? How many of us harbor the deep-seated awareness that we would feel safer in Israel in the midst of a war right now than within the confines of our homes in Rome, Paris or Berlin?

Neo-ghettoization across the Old Continent is difficult to accept; it marks a definitive failure of a vision of emancipation in which the Jews of the diaspora wholeheartedly believed. Nevertheless, it remains undeniable that once again, antisemitism and the oppression of European Jews pervade our lives through the constriction of our physical spaces.

About the Author
Saadia Mascarini is a Jewish and Zionist activist and youth leader from Italy. He is currently chair of Tamar Italia, the young adults movement of Italian Reform Judaism.
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