JCORE chair Jewish Book Week session exploring the ghetto, and its role in Black-Jewish relations

The concept of the ghetto, and its place in Black and Jewish history and imagination, were discussed at a Jewish Book Week event on March 7th, run in association with JCORE and hosted by our Executive Director Dr Edie Friedman.

A virtual audience joined a thoughtful conversation featuring the University of Reading’s Professor Bryan Cheyette, and former the Guardian editor-at-large, and Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester, Gary Younge.

The session opened with an exploration of how the term ‘ghetto’ can best be defined, with the speakers emphasising that it can take both real and imagined forms. Gary Younge also underlined the importance of agency in defining and identifying ghettos, and emphasized the difference between self-definition, and external, often pejorative, labelling of ghettos.

Although both speakers stated that ghettos have mainly been viewed as places of limitation, whether real, imagined or both, and impoverishment, Bryan Cheyette highlighted how the original Italian ghettos generally provided a positive environment for Jews. Both speakers also explored how ghettos have often been culturally and spiritually enriched spaces, and considered how barriers to leaving ghettos have varied drastically for different communities at different points in history.

The issue of memorializing and remembering ghettos, without mythologizing the concept, was also considered. Both speakers explored how understandings and memories of the ghetto have often been misappropriated or exploited; ranging from Nazi propaganda and justifications for racial segregation, but also previous misrepresentations of the historical ghetto as a rural and medieval space.

The conversation then moved on to a consideration of similarities between past Black and Jewish experiences, and how these can help shape current day relations. Gary Younge highlighted how both communities hold a shared awareness of how racism and dehumanization can have catastrophic results, and also explored the disproportionate Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement.

However, Younge emphasized that such connections can also be over-mythologized and indulged, and reinforced the importance of continuing work on present day inter-community connections. With perceptions that distances have appeared between communities in recent years, both speakers stressed the necessity for more engagement, and an open and honest conversation, with proper dialogue, to reconnect and rebuild relations.

Dr Edie Friedman, Executive Director at the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, said: “I was delighted to chair this important and meaningful conversation. It is extremely important that we renew and build on Black-Jewish relations, and continue as communities to engage in dialogue with each other, to ensure that our proud history of shared struggle is maintained. It is also crucial that as a community, we look honestly at our history and involvement in anti-racist activism, and raise our game to stand against present day racism and hatred, wherever we find them.”