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Jews (Hebrew: יְהוּדִים, Yehudim; Yiddish: ייִדן, Yidn) are followers of Judaism or, more generally, members of the Jewish people (also known as the Jewish nation, or the Children of Israel), an ethno-religious group descended from the ancient Israelites and from converts who joined their religion. The term also includes those who have undergone an officially recognized formal process of religious conversion to Judaism. Although the total number of Jews is difficult to measure and controversial, most authorities place the number between 12 and 14 million, the majority of whom live in the United States and Israel. (see Jewish population)

Jews and Judaism

The origin of the Jews is traditionally dated to around 1800 BCE with the biblical account of the birth of Judaism.

The Merneptah Stele, dated at 1200 BCE, is one of the earliest archaeological records of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, where they further developed a monotheistic religion, Judaism, and enjoyed periods of self-determination. As a result of foreign conquests and expulsions starting in the 8th century BCE, a Jewish diaspora was formed. Defeats in the Jewish-Roman Wars in the years 70 CE and 135 notably contributed to the numbers and geography of the diaspora, as significant numbers of the Jewish population of the Land of Israel were expelled and sold to slavery throughout the empire. Since then, Jews lived throughout Europe, the greater Middle East and in India, surviving discrimination, oppression, poverty, and even genocide (see the articles anti-Semitism, The Holocaust), with occasional periods of cultural, economic, and individual prosperity in various locations (such as the United States).

Until the late 18th century, the terms Jews and adherents of Judaism were practically synonymous, and Judaism was the prime binding factor among the Jews, although it was not strictly required to be followed in order to belong to the Jewish people. Following the Age of Enlightenment and its Jewish counterpart Haskalah, a gradual transformation occurred where many Jews came to view being a member of the Jewish nation as separate from adhering to the Jewish faith.

The Hebrew name Yehudi (plural Yehudim) came into being when the Kingdom of Israel was split between the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah. The term originally referred to the people of the southern kingdom, although the term B'nei Yisrael (Israelites) was still used for both groups. After the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom leaving the southern kingdom as the only Israelite state, the word Yehudim gradually came to refer to people of the Jewish faith as a whole, rather than those specifically from Judah. The English word Jew is ultimately derived from Yehudi (see Etymology). Its first use in the Bible to refer to the Jewish people as a whole is in the Book of Esther.


There are many different views as to the origin of the English language word Jew. The most common view is that the Middle English word Jew is from the Old French giu, earlier juieu, from the Latin iudeus from the Greek Ioudaios (Ἰουδαῖος). The Latin simply means Judaean, from the land of Judaea. The Hebrew for Jew, יהודי , is pronounced ye-hoo-DEE. The Hebrew letter Yodh (or Yud), י, used as a 'y' in the Hebrew language (as in the word ye-hoo-DEE), becomes a 'j' in languages using the Latin-based alphabet when the Yodh is used as a consonant rather than as a vowel. Therefore, a rough transliteration of יהודי in English would be Jew.

The etymological equivalent is in use in other languages, e.g., "Jude" in German, "juif" in French, "jøde," in Danish, etc., but derivations of the word "Hebrew" are also in use to describe a Jewish person, e.g., in Italian (Ebreo) and Russian: Еврей, (Yevrey). (See Jewish ethnonyms for a full overview.)

Who is a Jew?

Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. (1878 painting by Maurice Gottlieb)
Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. (1878 painting by Maurice Gottlieb)

Judaism shares some of the characteristics of a nation, an ethnicity, a religion, and a culture, making the definition of who is a Jew vary slightly depending on whether a religious or national approach to identity is used. For discussions of the religious views on who is a Jew and how these views differ from each other, please see Who is a Jew?. Generally, in modern secular usage, Jews include three groups: people who practice Judaism and have a Jewish ethnic background (sometimes including those who do not have strictly matrilineal descent), people without Jewish parents who have converted to Judaism; and those Jews who, while not practicing Judaism as a religion, still identify themselves as Jewish by virtue of their family's Jewish descent and their own cultural and historical identification with the Jewish people.

Historical definitions of Jewish identity have traditionally been based on Halakhic definitions of matrilineal descent, and halachic conversions. Historical definitions of who is a Jew date back to the codification of the oral tradition into the Babylonian Talmud. Biblical interpretations of sections in the Tanach, such as Deuteronomy 7:1-5, by learned Jewish sages, is used as a warning against intermarriage between Jews and non Jews because "[the non-Jewish male spouse] will cause your child to turn away from Me and they will worship the gods of others." Leviticus 24:10 speaks of the son in a marriage between a Hebrew woman and an Egyptian man to be "of the community of Israel.", which contrasts with Ezra 10:2-3, where Israelites returning from Egypt, vowed to put aside their gentile wives and their children. Since the Haskalah, these halakhic interpretations of Jewish identity have been challenged.

Jewish culture

Judaism guides its adherents in both practice and belief, and has been called not only a religion, but also a "way of life," which has made drawing a clear distinction between Judaism, Jewish culture, and Jewish nationality rather difficult. In many times and places, such as in the ancient Hellenic world, in Europe before and after the Enlightenment (see Haskalah), and in contemporary United States and Israel, cultural phenomena have developed that are in some sense characteristically Jewish without being at all specifically religious. Some factors in this come from within Judaism, others from the interaction of Jews with others around them, others from the inner social and cultural dynamics of the community, as opposed to religion itself.

Ethnic divisions

The most commonly used terms to describe ethnic divisions among Jews currently are: Ashkenazi (meaning "German" in Hebrew, denoting the Central European base of Jewry); and Sephardi (meaning "Spanish" or " Iberian" in Hebrew, denoting their Spanish, Portuguese and North African location). They refer to both religious and ethnic divisions.

Other Jewish ethnic groups include Mizrahi Jews (a term overlapping Sephardi, but emphasizing North African and Middle Eastern rather than Spanish history, and including the Maghrebim); Teimanim (Yemenite and Omani Jews); and such smaller groups as the Gruzim and Juhurim from the Caucasus, the Bene Israel, Bnei Menashe, Cochin and Telugu Jews of India, the Romaniotes of Greece, the Italkim (Bené Roma) of Italy, various African Jews (most notably the Beta Israel or Ethiopian Jews), the Bukharan Jews of Central Asia, Kaifeng Jews from China, and the Persian Jews of Iran.


Prior to World War II the world population of Jews was approximately 18 million. The Holocaust reduced this number to approximately 12 million. Today, there are an estimated 13 million to 14.6 million

Significant geographic populations

Please note that these populations represent low-end estimates of the worldwide Jewish population, accounting for around 0.2% of the world's population.

Country or Region Jewish population Notes
United States 5,671,000 (est.)
Israel 5,466,800 (est.) (about 79% of Israel's population)
Europe 2,000,000 (fewer than)
France 600,000 (est.)
Russia 800,000 (Territory of the former Soviet Union. Some estimates are much higher.)
United Kingdom 267,000 (2001 census)
Germany 220,000 (2004 est.), over 100,000 who are members of a synagogue
Turkey 30,000 (2001 census)
Italy 30,000 (Jewish communities est.)
Canada 371,000 (est.)
Argentina 250,000 (est.)
Brazil 130,000 (est.)
South Africa 106,000 (est.)
Australia 100,000 (est.)
Asia (excl. Israel) 50,000 (est.)
Iran 20,405 (est.)
Mexico 40,000–50,000 (est.)
Total 15,871,000 (est.)

State of Israel

David Ben Gurion (First Prime Minister of Israel) publicly pronouncing the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948
David Ben Gurion (First Prime Minister of Israel) publicly pronouncing the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948

Israel, the Jewish nation-state, is the only country in which Jews make up a majority of the citizens. It was established as an independent democratic state on May 14, 1948. Of the 120 members in its parliament, the Knesset, 9 members are Israeli Arabs and 2 are Israeli Druze. At the time of its independence, approximately 600,000 Jews lived in Israel. Since then, the country's Jewish population has increased by about one million over each decade as more immigrants arrived and more Israelis were born, resulting in one of the most significant global Jewish population shifts in over 2,000 years.

All the Arab Israeli Wars have not slowed Israel's growth. Israel opened its doors to the Holocaust survivors. It has absorbed a majority of the Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews from the Islamic countries. It has taken in hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former USSR, and has airlifted tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews (Falashas) to Israel. In the past decade nearly a million immigrants went to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Some Jews migrated from Israel elsewhere, known as yerida ("descent" [from the Holy Land]), due to its economic problems or due to disillusionment with political conditions and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Diaspora (outside Israel)

The waves of immigration to the United States at the turn of the 19th century, massacre of European Jewry during the Holocaust, and the foundation of the state of Israel (and subsequent Jewish exodus from Arab lands) all resulted in substantial shifts in the population centers of world Jewry during the 20th century.

Currently, the largest Jewish community in the world is located in the United States, with almost 5.7 million Jews. Elsewhere in the Americas, there are also large Jewish populations in Canada and Argentina, and smaller populations in Brazil, Mexico , Uruguay, Venezuela, Chile, and several other countries (see History of the Jews in Latin America).

Western Europe's largest Jewish community can be found in France, home to 600,000 Jews, the majority of whom are immigrants or refugees from North African Arab countries such as Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia (or their descendants). There are over 265,000 Jews in the United Kingdom. In Eastern Europe, there are anywhere from 500,000 to over two million Jews living in the former Soviet Union, but exact figures are difficult to establish. The fastest-growing Jewish community in the world, outside Israel, is the one in Germany, especially in Berlin, its capital. Tens of thousands of Jews from the former Eastern Bloc have settled in Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The Arab countries of North Africa and the Middle East were home to around 900,000 Jews in 1945. Systematic persecution after the founding of Israel caused almost all of these Jews to flee to Israel, North America, and Europe in the 1950s. Today, around 8,000 Jews remain in Arab nations. Iran is home to around 25,000 Jews, down from a population of 100,000 Jews before the 1979 revolution. After the revolution some of the Iranian Jews emigrated to Israel or Europe but most of them emigrated (with their non-Jewish Iranian compatriots) to the United States (especially Los Angeles).

Outside Europe, Asia and the Americas, significant Jewish populations exist in Australia and South Africa.

Population changes: Assimilation

Since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, a proportion of Jews have assimilated into the wider non-Jewish society around them, by either choice or force, ceasing to practice Judaism and losing their Jewish identity. Some Jewish communities, for example the Kaifeng Jews of China, have disappeared entirely, but assimilation has remained relatively low over much of the past millennium, as Jews were often not allowed to integrate with the wider communities in which they lived. The advent of the Jewish Enlightenment (see Haskalah) of the 1700s and the subsequent emancipation of the Jewish populations of Europe and America in the 1800s, changed the situation, allowing Jews to increasingly participate in, and become part of, secular society. The result has been a growing trend of assimilation, as Jews marry non-Jewish spouses and stop participating in the Jewish community. Rates of interreligious marriage vary widely: In the United States, they are just under 50%, in the United Kingdom, around 50%, and in Australia and Mexico, as low as 10%, and in France, they may be as high as 75%. In the United States, only about a third of children from intermarriages affiliate themselves with Jewish practice. Additionally, since non-religious Jews generally tend to marry later and have fewer children than the general population, the Jewish community in many countries is aging. The result is that most countries in the Diaspora have steady or slightly declining Jewish populations as Jews continue to assimilate into the countries in which they live.

Population changes: Wars against the Jews

Jews (identifiable by the distinctive hats that they were required to wear) being killed by Christian knights.  French Bible illustration from 1250.
Jews (identifiable by the distinctive hats that they were required to wear) being killed by Christian knights. French Bible illustration from 1250.

Throughout history, many rulers, empires and nations have oppressed their Jewish populations, or sought to eliminate them entirely. Methods employed have ranged from expulsion to outright genocide; within nations, often the threat of these extreme methods was sufficient to silence dissent. Some examples in the history of anti-Semitism are: the Great Jewish Revolt against the Roman Empire; the First Crusade which resulted in the massacre of Jews; the Spanish Inquisition led by Torquemada and the Auto de fé against the Marrano Jews; the Bohdan Chmielnicki Cossack massacres in Ukraine; the Pogroms backed by the Russian Tsars; as well as expulsions from Spain, England, France, Germany, and other countries in which the Jews had settled. The persecution reached a peak in Adolf Hitler's Final Solution, which led to the Holocaust and the slaughter of approximately 6 million Jews from 1939 to 1945.

According to James Carroll, "Jews accounted for 10% of the total population of the Roman Empire. By that ratio, if other factors had not intervened, there would be 200 million Jews in the world today, instead of something like 13 million."

Population changes: Growth

Israel is the only country with a consistently growing Jewish population due to natural population increase, though the Jewish populations of other countries in Europe and North America have recently increased due to immigration. In the Diaspora, in almost every country the Jewish population in general is either declining or steady, but Orthodox and Haredi Jewish communities, whose members often shun birth control for religious reasons, have experienced rapid population growth, with rates near 4% per year for Haredi Jews in Israel, and similar rates in other countries.

Orthodox and Conservative Judaism discourage proselytization to non-Jews, but many Jewish groups have tried to reach out to the assimilated Jewish communities of the Diaspora in order to increase the number of Jews. Additionally, while in principle Reform Judaism favors seeking new members for the faith, this position has not translated into active proselytism, instead taking the form of an effort to reach out to non-Jewish spouses of intermarried couples. There is also a trend of Orthodox movements pursuing secular Jews in order to give them a stronger Jewish identity so there is less chance of intermarriage. As a result of the efforts by these and other Jewish groups over the past twenty-five years, there has been a trend of secular Jews becoming more religiously observant, known as the Baal Teshuva movement, though the demographic implications of the trend are unknown. Additionally, there is also a growing movement of Jews by Choice by gentiles who make the decision to head in the direction of becoming Jews.

Jewish languages

Hebrew is the liturgical language of Judaism (termed lashon ha-kodesh, "the holy tongue"), the language in which the Hebrew scriptures ( Tanak) were composed, and the daily speech of the Jewish people for centuries. By the fifth century BCE, Aramaic, a closely related tongue, had replaced Hebrew as the daily street speech of Jewish life. By the third century BCE, Jews of the diaspora were speaking Greek. Modern Hebrew is now one of the two official languages of the State of Israel (the other being Arabic). It was revived by Eliezer ben Yehuda, who arrived in Palestine in 1881 at a time when no one spoke the Hebrew language. Diaspora Jews (outside Israel) today speak the local languages of their respective countries. Yiddish is the historic language of many Ashkenazi Jews, and Ladino of many Sephardic Jews.

History of the Jews

Jews and migrations

Etching of the expulsion of the Jews from Frankfurt on August 23, 1614. The text says: "1380 persons old and young were counted at the exit of the gate"
Etching of the expulsion of the Jews from Frankfurt on August 23, 1614. The text says: "1380 persons old and young were counted at the exit of the gate"

Throughout Jewish history, Jews have repeatedly been directly or indirectly expelled from both their original homeland, and the areas in which they have resided. This experience as both immigrants and emigrants (see: Jewish refugees) have shaped Jewish identity and religious practice in many ways. An incomplete list of such migrations includes:

  • The patriarch Abraham was a migrant to the land of Canaan from Ur of the Chaldees.
  • The Children of Israel experienced the Exodus (meaning "departure" or "going forth" in Greek) from ancient Egypt, as recorded in the Book of Exodus.
  • The Kingdom of Israel was sent into permanent exile and scattered all over the world (or at least to unknown locations) by Assyria.
  • The Kingdom of Judah was exiled by Babylonia, returned to the Levant, and then the Kingdom was exiled again by Rome.
  • The 2,000 year dispersion of the Jewish diaspora beginning under the Roman Empire, as Jews were spread throughout the Roman world and, driven from land to land, and settled wherever they could live freely enough to practice their religion. Over the course of the diaspora the centre of Jewish life moved from Babylonia to Spain to Poland to the United States and to Israel.
  • Many expulsions during the Middle Ages and Enlightenment in Europe, including: 1290, 16,000 Jews were expelled from England, see the ( Statute of Jewry); in 1396, 100,000 from France; in 1421 thousands were expelled from Austria. Many of these Jews settled in Eastern Europe, especially Poland.
  • Following the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, the Spanish population of around 200,000 Sephardic Jews were expelled by the Spanish crown and Catholic church, followed by expulsions in 1493 in Sicily (37,000 Jews) and Portugal in 1496. The expelled Jews fled mainly to the Ottoman Empire, the Netherlands, and North Africa, others migrating to Southern Europe and the Middle East.
  • During the 19th century, France's policies of equal citizenship regardless of religion led to the immigration of Jews (especially from Eastern and Central Europe), which was encouraged by Napoleon Bonaparte.
  • The arrival of millions of Jews in the New World, including immigration of over two million Eastern European Jews to the United States from 1880-1925, see History of the Jews in the United States and History of the Jews in Russia and the Soviet Union.
  • The Pogroms in Eastern Europe, the rise of modern Anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and the rise of Arab nationalism all served to fuel the movements and migrations of huge segments of Jewry from land to land and continent to continent, until they arrived back in large numbers at their original historical homeland in Israel.
  • The Islamic Revolution of Iran, forced many Iranian Jews to flee Iran. Most found refuge in the US (particularly Los Angeles, CA) and Israel. Smaller communities of Persian Jews exist in Canada and Western Europe.

Kingdoms of Israel and Judah

Allotments of Israelite tribes in Eretz Israel. (1695 Amsterdam Haggada)
Allotments of Israelite tribes in Eretz Israel. (1695 Amsterdam Haggada)

Jews descend mostly from the ancient Israelites (also known as Hebrews), who settled in the Land of Israel. The Israelites traced their common lineage to the biblical patriarch Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. A United Monarchy was established under Saul and continued under King David and Solomon. King David conquered Jerusalem (first a Canaanite, then a Jebusite town) and made it his capital. After Solomon's reign, the nation split into two kingdoms, the Kingdom of Israel (in the north) and the Kingdom of Judah (in the south). The Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian ruler Shalmaneser V in the 8th century BCE and spread all over the Assyrian empire, where they were assimilated into other cultures and came to be known as the Ten Lost Tribes. The Kingdom of Judah continued as an independent state until it was conquered by a Babylonian army in the early 6th century BCE, destroying the First Temple that was at the centre of Jewish worship. The Judean elite was exiled to Babylonia, but later at least a part of them returned to their homeland after the subsequent conquest of Babylonia by the Persians seventy years later, a period known as the Babylonian Captivity. A new Second Temple was constructed funded by Persian Kings, and old religious practices were resumed.

Persian, Greek, and Roman rule

See related article Jewish-Roman wars.

The Seleucid Kingdom, which arose after the Persians were defeated by Alexander the Great, sought to introduce Greek culture into the Persian world. When the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, supported by Hellenized Jews (those who had adopted Greek culture), attempted to convert the Jewish Temple to a temple of Zeus, the non-Hellenized Jews revolted under the leadership of the Maccabees and rededicated the Temple to the Jewish God (hence the origins of Hanukkah) and created an independent Jewish kingdom known as the Hasmonaean Kingdom which lasted from 165 BCE to 63 BCE, when the kingdom came under influence of the Roman Empire. During the early part of Roman rule, the Hasmonaeans remained in power, until the family was annihilated by Herod the Great. Herod came from a wealthy Idumean family and became a very successful client king under the Romans. He significantly expanded the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Arch of Titus depicts enslaved Judeans and objects from the Temple being brought to Rome.
The Arch of Titus depicts enslaved Judeans and objects from the Temple being brought to Rome.

Upon his death in 4 BCE the Romans directly ruled Judea and there were frequent changes of policies by conflicting and empire-building Caesars, generals, governors, and consuls who often acted cruelly or to maximize their own wealth and power. Rome's attitudes swung from tolerance to hostility against its Jewish subjects, who had since moved throughout the Empire. The Romans, worshiping a large pantheon, could not readily accommodate the exclusive monotheism of Judaism, and the religious Jews could not accept Roman polytheism. (It was in this tumultuous climate that Christianity first emerged, among a small group of Jews.) After a famine and riots in 66 CE, the Judeans began to revolt against their Roman rulers. The revolt was smashed by Titus Flavius, a Roman general who later succeeded his father Vespasian as emperor. In Rome the Arch of Titus still stands, showing enslaved Judeans and a menorah being brought to Rome. It is customary for Jews to walk around, rather than through, this arch.

The Romans all but destroyed Jerusalem; only a single " Western Wall" of the Second Temple remained. After the end of this first revolt, the Judeans continued to live in their land in significant numbers, and were allowed to practice their religion. In the second century the Roman Emperor Hadrian began to rebuild Jerusalem as a pagan city while restricting some Jewish practices. Angry at this affront, the Judeans again revolted led by Simon Bar Kokhba. Hadrian responded with overwhelming force, putting down the revolution and killing as many as half a million Jews. After the Roman Legions prevailed in 135, Jews were not allowed to enter the city of Jerusalem and most Jewish worship was forbidden by Rome. Following the destruction of Jerusalem and the expulsion of the Jews, Jewish worship stopped being centrally organized around the Temple, and instead was rebuilt around rabbis who acted as teachers and leaders of individual communities. No new books were added to the Jewish Bible after the Roman period, instead major efforts went into interpreting and developing the Halakhah, or oral law, and writing down these traditions in the Talmud, the key work on the interpretation of Jewish law, written during the first to fifth centuries CE.

Beginning of the Diaspora

Though Jews had settled outside Israel since the time of the Babylonians, the results of the Roman response to the Jewish revolt shifted the centre of Jewish life from its ancient home to the diaspora. While some Jews remained in Judea, renamed Palestine by the Romans, some Jews were sold into slavery, while others became citizens of other parts of the Roman Empire. This is the traditional explanation to the Jewish diaspora, almost universally accepted by past and present rabbinical or Talmudical scholars, who believe that Jews are almost exclusively biological descendants of the Judean exiles, a belief backed up at least partially by DNA evidence. Some secular historians speculate that a majority of the Jews in Antiquity were most likely descendants of converts in the cities of the Graeco-Roman world, especially in Alexandria and Asia Minor. They were only affected by the diaspora in its spiritual sense and by the sense of loss and homelessness which became a cornerstone of the Jewish creed, much supported by persecutions in various parts of the world. Any such policy of conversion, which spread the Jewish religion throughout Hellenistic civilization, seems to have ended with the wars against the Romans and the following reconstruction of Jewish values for the post-Temple era. DNA evidence of this theory has been spotty, however, some historians believe based on some historical records that at the dawn of Christianity as many as 10% of the population of the Roman Empire were Jewish, a figure that could only be explained by local conversion. This theory could also solve the paradox of DNA studies noted above that show Ashkenazi Jews to be somewhat related to the peoples of the nations surrounding Israel despite physical features that more closely resembles that of the peoples of southern and central Europe; as one explanation would be a large miscegenation millennia ago followed by almost no outside genetic contact thereafter.

The Amsterdam Esnoga, the synagogue for the Portuguese-Israelite Sephardic community
The Amsterdam Esnoga, the synagogue for the Portuguese-Israelite Sephardic community

During the first few hundred years of the Diaspora, the most important Jewish communities were in Babylonia, where the Talmud was written, and where relatively tolerant regimes allowed the Jews freedom. The situation was worse in the Byzantine Empire which treated the Jews much more harshly, refusing to allow them to hold office or build places of worship. In the belief of restoration to come, the Jews made an alliance with the Persians who invaded Palestine in 614, fought at their side, overwhelmed the Byzantine garrison in Jerusalem, and for three years governed the city. But the Persians made their peace with the Emperor Heraclius. Christian rule was re-established, and those Jews who survived the consequent slaughter were once more banished from Jerusalem.

The conquest of much of the Byzantine Empire and Babylonia by Islamic armies generally improved the life of the Jews, though they were still considered second-class citizens. In response to these Islamic conquests, the First Crusade of 1096 attempted to reconquer Jerusalem, resulting in the destruction of many of the remaining Jewish communities in the area. The Jews were among the most vigorous defenders of Jerusalem against the Crusaders. When the city fell, the Crusaders gathered the Jews in a synagogue and burned them. The Jews almost single-handedly defended Haifa against the Crusaders, holding out in the besieged town for a whole month (June-July 1099). At this time, a full thousand years after the fall of the Jewish state, there were Jewish communities all over the country. Fifty of them are known to us; they include Jerusalem, Tiberias, Ramleh, Ashkelon, Caesarea, and Gaza.

Image of a cantor reading the Passover story in Moorish Spain, from a 14th century Spanish Haggadah.
Image of a cantor reading the Passover story in Moorish Spain, from a 14th century Spanish Haggadah.

Middle Ages: Europe

Jews settled in Europe during the time of the Roman Empire, but the rise of the Roman Catholic Church resulted in frequent expulsions and persecutions. The Crusades routinely attacked Jewish communities, and increasingly harsh laws restricted them from most economic activity and land ownership, leaving open only moneylending and a few other trades. Jews were subject to expulsions from England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire throughout the Middle Ages, with most of the population moving to Eastern Europe and especially Poland, which was uniquely tolerant of the Jews through the 1700s. The final mass expulsion of the Jews, and the largest, occurred after the Christian conquest ( reconquista) of Spain in 1492 (see History of the Jews in Spain). Even after the end of the expulsions in the 17th century, individual conditions varied from country to country and time to time, but, as rule, Jews in Western Europe generally were forced, by decree or by informal pressure, to live in highly segregated ghettos and shtetls. By the beginning of the twentieth century, most European Jews lived in the so-called Pale of Settlement, the Western frontier of the Russian Empire comprised generally of the modern day countries of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and neighboring regions.

Middle Ages: Islamic Europe, North Africa and Asia

During the Middle Ages, Jews in Islamic lands generally had more rights than under Christian rule, with a Golden Age of coexistence in Islamic Spain from about 900 to 1200, when Spain became the centre of the richest, most populous, and most influential Jewish community of the time. The rise of more radical Muslim regimes, such as that of the Almohades ended this period by the thirteenth century, and Jews were soon expelled from Spain after the Christian reconquest. Many of these Jews found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, which remained tolerant of its Jewish population for much of its history.

Enlightenment and emancipation

Napoleon emancipating the Jews, represented by the woman with the menorah, an 1804 French print.
Napoleon emancipating the Jews, represented by the woman with the menorah, an 1804 French print.

During the Age of Enlightenment, significant changes occurred within the Jewish community. The Haskalah movement paralleled the wider Enlightenment, as Jews began in the 1700s to campaign for emancipation from restrictive laws and integration into the wider European society. Secular and scientific education was added to the traditional religious instruction received by students, and interest in a national Jewish identity, including a revival in the study of Jewish history and Hebrew, started to grow.

The Haskalah movement influenced the birth of all the modern Jewish denominations, and planted the seeds of Zionism. At the same time, it contributed to encouraging cultural assimilation into the countries in which Jews resided. At around the same time another movement was born, one preaching almost the opposite of Haskalah, Hasidic Judaism. Hasidic Judaism began in the 1700s by Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, and quickly gained a following with its exuberant, mystical approach to religion. These two movements, and the traditional orthodox approach to Judaism from which they spring, formed the basis for the modern divisions within Jewish observance.

At the same time, the outside world was changing. France was the first country to emancipate its Jewish population in 1796, granting them equal rights under the law. Napoleon further spread emancipation, inviting Jews to leave the Jewish ghettos in Europe and seek refuge in the newly created tolerant political regimes (see Napoleon and the Jews). Other countries such as Denmark, England, and Sweden also adopted liberal policies toward Jews during the period of Enlightenment, with some resulting immigration. By the mid-19th century, almost all Western European countries had emancipated their Jewish populations, with the notable exception of the Papal States, but persecution continued in Eastern Europe including massive pogroms at the end of the 19th century and throughout the Pale of Settlement. The persistence of anti-semitism, both violently in the east and socially in the west, led to a number of Jewish political movements, culminating in Zionism.

Zionism and immigration

Many of the newly secular Jews who had embraced Haskalah found themselves deeply troubled by the continuing virulent anti-semitism of the late 1800s, especially the massive pogroms of the 1880s in Russia and the Dreyfus Affair, which occurred in France in 1894, a country many Jews had previously thought of as particularly accepting. Many Jews in Eastern Europe embraced socialism as a potential escape from persecution, but another group, the Zionists, led by Theodor Herzl, viewed the only solution as the creation of a Jewish state. The interplay between Jewish national and religious identities was evident in Zionism, which was initially an entirely secular movement, but drew inspiration and support from the religious connection between Jews and the Land of Israel. Zionism contributed to the growth of the Jewish population there, which at the time was the Palestine province of the Ottoman Empire, and later the British Mandate of Palestine. Zionism, initially one out of a number of competing Jewish political movements, gained nearly universal support from the world Jewish population following the near-complete destruction of the Jews of Europe in the Holocaust, and led to the foundation of the State of Israel.

In addition to responding politically, during the late 19th century, Jews began to flee the persecutions of Eastern Europe in large numbers, mostly by heading to the United States, but also to Canada and Western Europe. By 1924, almost two million Jews had emigrated to the US alone, creating a large community in a nation relatively free of the persecutions of rising European anti-Semitism (see History of the Jews in the United States).

The Holocaust

This anti-Semitism reached its most destructive form in the policies of Nazi Germany, which made the destruction of the Jews a priority, culminating in the killing of approximately six million Jews during the Holocaust from 1941 to 1945. Originally, the Nazis used death squads, the Einsatzgruppen, to conduct massive open-air killings of Jews in territory they conquered. By 1942, the Nazi leadership decided to implement the Final Solution, the genocide of the Jews of Europe, and to increase the pace of the Holocaust by establishing extermination camps specifically to kill Jews. This was an industrial method of genocide. Millions of Jews who had been confined to diseased and massively overcrowded Ghettos were transported (often by train) to "Death-camps" where some were herded into a specific location (often a gas chamber), then either gassed or shot. Afterwards, their remains were buried or burned. Others were interned in the camps were they given little food and disease was common. Many Jews tried to escape Europe before or during the Holocaust, but were unable to find refuge, giving new urgency to the Zionist goal of establishing a Jewish homeland.


In 1948, the Jewish state of Israel was founded, creating the first Jewish nation since the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. After a series of wars with neighboring Arab countries, almost all of the 900,000 Jews previously living in North Africa and the Middle East fled to the Jewish state, joining an increasing number of immigrants from post-War Europe. By the end of the 20th century, Jewish population centers had shifted dramatically, with the United States and Israel being the centers of Jewish secular and religious life.


Related articles: Anti-Semitism, History of anti-Semitism, New anti-Semitism

The Jewish people and Judaism have experienced various persecutions throughout Jewish history. In medieval Europe, many persecutions of Jews in the name of Christianity occurred, notably during the Crusades—when Jews all over Germany were massacred—and a series of expulsions from England, Germany, France, and, in the largest expulsion of all, Spain. In the Papal States, which existed until 1870, Jews were required to live only in specified neighborhoods called ghettos. In the 19th and (before the end of the second World War) 20th centuries, the Roman Catholic church adhered to a distinction between "good anti-Semitism" and "bad anti-Semitism". The "bad" kind promoted hatred of Jews because of their descent. This was considered un-Christian because the Christian message was intended for all of humanity regardless of ethnicity; anyone could become a Christian. The "good" kind criticized alleged Jewish conspiracies to control newspapers, banks, and other institutions, to care only about accumulation of wealth, etc.

Islam and Judaism have a complex relationship. The political conflict between Muhammad and the Jews of Medina in the 7th century left ample ideological fuel for Islam and anti-Semitism through the centuries. During the Middle Ages, Jews typically had a better status in the Muslim world than in Christendom. As the Muslim empire expanded during the centuries, the status of the non-Muslim communities was at times precarious, and they were generally subject to dhimmi laws. These laws freed them from military service and paying zakah, but placed additional jizyah and land taxes on them.

The most notable modern day persecution of Jews remains the Holocaust — the state-led systematic persecution and genocide of the Jews and other minority groups of Europe and North Africa during World War II by Nazi Germany and its collaborators During the Holocaust, the Middle East was in turmoil. Britain prohibited Jewish immigration to the British Mandate of Palestine. While the Allies and the Axis were fighting for the oil-rich region, the Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husayni staged a pro-Nazi coup in Iraq and organized the Farhud pogrom which marked the turning point for about 150,000 Iraqi Jews who, following this event and the hostilities generated by the war with Israel in 1948, were targeted for violence, persecution, boycotts, confiscations, and near complete expulsion in 1951. In the French Vichy territories of Algeria and Syria plans were drawn up for the liquidation of their Jewish populations were the Axis powers to triumph.

The tensions of the Arab-Israeli conflict were also a factor in the rise of animosity to Jews all over the Middle East, as hundreds of thousands of Jews fled as refugees, the main waves being soon after the 1948 and 1956 wars. In reaction to the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Egyptian government expelled almost 25,000 Egyptian Jews and confiscated their property, and sent approximately 1,000 more Jews to prisons and detention camps. The population of Jewish communities of Muslim Middle East and North Africa was reduced from about 900,000 in 1948 to less than 8,000 today.

Jewish leadership

There is no single governing body for the Jewish community, nor a single authority with responsibility for religious doctrine. Instead, a variety of secular and religious institutions at the local, national, and international levels lead various parts of the Jewish community on a variety of issues.

Famous Jews

Jews have made contributions in a broad range of human endeavors, including the sciences, arts, politics, business, etc. The Jewish people have the largest concentration of Nobel prize winners ( approximately 160 in all) of any ethnic or religious group.

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