Ghetto, Concentration Camp, Fascism: Why Words Matter with Daniel B. Schwartz

Why do historical terms matter, like Ghetto, concentration camp, and fascism? Daniel B. Schwartz joins us to discuss his book Ghetto: The History of a Word, and about why historical terms and words matter—why it’s important to understand their origins and how they’ve changed, and also how they can be applied to understanding our own world.

Thanks to Harvard University Press, we have a few copies of the book to offer to listeners! Enter our raffle for a free copy of Ghetto: The History of a Word.

Daniel B. Schwartz is Professor of History at George Washington University, and he’s the chair of the Department of History there. In addition to his recent book Ghetto, he is also the author of The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image, which was cowinner of the Salo Wittmayer Baron Book Prize for the best first book in Jewish Studies and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in History.

Ghetto: The History of a Word is an important, fascinating book that traces the history of the term “Ghetto” from sixteenth-century Italy to the twenty-first century. It considers the origins of the term, and how it has been put to use within both Jewish and non-Jewish contexts since then.

The term “ghetto” has become quite a multifaceted term, put to use as a metaphor to understand Jewish modernity in contrast with medieval Jewish life, in the context of the Holocaust, as well as in the United States. In this respect it brings us into a much wider set of issues about how we use historical terms—can we call contemporary political parties, movements, or leaders “fascists”? What about the term “Concentration Camp”? Is it exclusively about the Holocaust or can we apply it to other things, like contemporary detention centers?

As Dan argues in the book, words matter, and how we understand the life and afterlife of historical terms impacts how and why we can – or in some cases cannot – use them in a variety of contexts. It really gets at the heart of why history matters: Both that we should understand the history of ideas, concepts, and terms which have entered into the broad public lexicon, and also how we can understand the ways in which history and historical analogy can be used to understand broader contemporary issues, or when it should not.

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