One of the most difficult series of questions in the contemporary Jewish world concerns demography.

  • How many Jews are there today?
  • What is happening to the Jewish population in different parts of the globe?
  • What are the relative proportions of Israel and Diaspora in the general population of world Jewry?
  • Furthermore, as important as the numbers themselves are, the really crucial questions lie beneath the surface.
    • What is the meaning of these numbers?
  • What is the nature of the changing balance of demographic power between the State of Israel and the Diaspora?
  • What trends do they suggest?
  • What are the implications of today’s numbers for tomorrow’s future?
  • Perhaps the most difficult question of all, for those who spend their lives counting Jews, is:
    • who exactly do you count?
  • In other words, for the purpose of demographic calculations,
    • who is a Jew?

In this paper, we will attempt to address all of these questions, which come out of the contemporary Jewish world. In order to appreciate them, however, they will be presented in a number of contexts: of Jewish history as a whole; of modern Jewish history specifically, and of contemporary Jewish sociology. This is the only way in which it is possible to make sense of the meaning of the dry numbers and statistics.

There are few, if any, peoples today for whom geographic mobility has played such a large part in their story as the Jews. Traditionally a wandering people over the last millennia – since the days of the Biblical patriarchs – the latter have provided for much of humanity the very archetype of the wanderer. Even a cursory study of the Biblical books shows that, despite the idea that the roots of the Jews are so inextricably tied up with the Land of Israel, the Jews are extraordinary travelers. The Patriarchs wandered, as did the various tribes; the nation was exiled. Furthermore, despite the common misconception that it was only with the fall of the Second Temple that the Jews left their land, well before the end of that period (70 C.E.), more Jews lived in the Diaspora than in the Land of Israel. At that time, around the turn of the millennium, Jews could be found throughout the Roman Empire, Asia and North Africa. The total Jewish population of the known world at that point is estimated to have been between 4.5 and 7 million.

A great change occurred after the destruction of the Temple: within a few generations, not only did the majority of Jews live outside the Land of Israel, but the centers of gravity of the Jewish world also started to move beyond its borders. After the writing of the Mishnah in Eretz Yisrael (circa 200 C.E.), the old community of Babylon increasingly rose to prominence. On the other hand, the community of Judea went into a decline from which it would only recover thousands of years later, in the 20th century. From that point onward, Jewish life was predominantly focused in the Diaspora, as different Jewish centers rose and fell, in relatively swift succession.

In some generations, several great Jewish centers flourished simultaneously. However, it was only for a brief generation or two – in the 16th century – that any kind of a meaningful Jewish center existed in Eretz Yisrael. The general picture, then, is one of thousands of years of diverse, active Jewish centers in the Diaspora lands. As Babylon declined, Spain and Ashkenaz (the German lands) rose to prominence; as these in turn declined, North Africa and Poland came into their own. Still later, Jews returned to Northern and Western Europe, and the newly-discovered lands of the Americas became a new direction in Jewish community history.

As we look at the Middle Ages, some general comments need to be made. Firstly, there is no question that the size of the world Jewish population declined substantially during this period. Around the 15th century, for example, the global number of Jews is estimated to have been approximately one million. Secondly, right up to the early modern period, the majority of Jews lived in the east. Out of the same one million Jews estimated to have been living in the 15th century, only about 30% of them – some 300,000 – are thought to have lived in Europe. With the beginning of the modern world, from the mid-18th century onwards, things started to change in both of these respects. Absolute population numbers increased, as did the proportion of European Jews. Thus in 1800, of an estimated 2.5 million Jews world-wide, around 1.5 million lived in Europe.

The dynamic that laid the underpinnings of our present Jewish world, however, developed in the late 19th century. This was the period in which the great Jewish center of Eastern Europe began to discharge its Jews to North (and, to a lesser extent, South) America, the English speaking world as a whole and finally – and arguably most significantly – to the old/new Land of Israel. This is where the story must be examined a little more precisely.

Each of the following six historical phenomena helped to shape the demography of the modern Jewish world:

  • events in Russia at the end of the 19th century;
  • the Holocaust;
  • Zionism and the rise of the State of Israel;
  • the fall of Communism in Eastern and East-Central Europe;
  • economic factors causing migration, and
  • assimilation and intermarriage.




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26 Jul 2005 / 19 Tamuz 5765 0