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Encyclopedia > Jewish people
Main article: Jew
Jewish religion
Etymology of "Jew"  · Who is a Jew?
Jewish leadership  · Jewish culture
Jewish ethnic divisions
Ashkenazi (German and E. Europe)
Mizrahi (Arab and Oriental)
Sephardi (Iberian)
Temani (Yemenite)  · Beta Israel
Jewish populations
Israel · United States · Russia/USSR
Germany  · France  · Latin America
Britain  · Famous Jews by country
Jewish languages
Hebrew: (Biblical / Modern) · Aramaic
Yiddish · Ladino · Judeo-Arabic
Jewish denominations
Orthodox · Conservative  · Reform
Reconstructionist  · Karaite
Jewish political movements
Zionism: (Labor / General / Revisionist)
Jewish Labor Union (The Bund)
Jewish history
Jewish history timeline  · Schisms
Ancient Israel and Judah
Temples in Jerusalem
Babylonian captivity
Hasmoneans and Greece
Jewish-Roman wars
Era of Pharisees  · The Talmudic Era
Middle Ages  · Muslim Lands
Enlightenment/Haskalah  · Hasidism
The Holocaust  · Modern Israel
Persecution of the Jews
Anti-Semitism: (Historical / Modern)

The word Jew (Hebrew: יהודי) is used in a wide number of ways, but generally refers to a follower of the Jewish faith, a child of a Jewish mother, or a member of the Jewish culture or ethnicity and often a combination of these attributes. This article discusses the term as describing an ethnic group; for a consideration of the religion, please refer to Judaism.

Most Jews regard themselves as a people, members of a nation, and the ancestry of Jewish national identity is traced from the Biblical patriarch Abraham through his son Isaac and in particular Jacob, Isaac's son, as well as to those who subsequently joined them over the course of history as converts. (See also Israelites.) The term Jew came into being when the Kingdom of Israel was split between the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah. Hence, the Israelites (who were later destroyed by the Assyrians) were those of the northern kingdom and the Jews (who survived) were those of the southern kingdom. Over time, the word Jew has come to refer to those of the Jewish faith rather than those from Judah. In modern usage, Jews include both those Jews actively practicing Judaism, and those Jews who, while not practicing Judaism as a religion, still identify themselves as Jews by virtue of their family's Jewish heritage and their own cultural identification.



Main article: Etymology of the word Jew

There are 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. The Latin simply means Judaean, from the land of Judaea.

Who is a Jew?

Main article: Who is a Jew?

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. Generally, in modern secular usage, Jews include three groups: people who practice Judaism and have at least one Jewish parent; people without Jewish parents who have converted to Judaism; and those Jews who, while not practicing Judaism as a religion, still identify themselves as Jews by virtue of their family's Jewish descent and their own cultural and historical identification with the Jewish people.

Jewish culture

Main article: Secular 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 the job of 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

Main article: Jewish ethnic divisions

The most commonly used terms to describe ethnic divisions among Jews presently are: Ashkenazi (meaning "German" in Hebrew, denoting the Central European base of Jewry); and Sephardi (meaning "Spanish" or "Iberia" in Hebrew, denoting their Spanish, Portuguese and North African location). They refer to both religious and ethnic divisions. (Some scholars hold that Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of those who originally followed the Palestinian Jewish religious tradition, and Sephardic Jews are descendants of those who originally followed the Babylonian religious tradition.)

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 Jews); and such smaller groups as the Gruzim and Juhurim from the Caucasus, the Bene Israel and Cochin Jews of India, the Romaniotes of Greece, the Italkim (Bené Roma) of Italy, various African Jews (most notably the Beta Israel or Ethiopian Jews), and the Bukharan Jews of Central Asia.


Main article: Jewish population, Jews by country, see also Jewish diaspora

Prior to World War II the world population of Jews was around 18 million. The Holocaust reduced this number to around 12 million. Today, there are an estimated 13 million 3 to 14.6 million5 Jews worldwide in over 134 countries.

Significant geographic populations

Please note that these populations represent low-end estimates of the worldwide Jewish population. Higher estimates place the worldwide Jewish population at over 14.5 million.

Country Jewish population
United States 5,671,000 (est.) 3
Israel 5,200,000 (est.) 4
Europe Fewer than 2 million (est.)
•  France 600,000 (est.) 3
•  United Kingdom 267,000 (2001 census)
•  Germany 100,000 (2004 est.) or 60,000 (est.) 3
•  The Former Soviet Union 400,000 (some estimates much higher) 1
Canada 371,000 (est.) 3
Argentina 250,000 (est.) 2
Brazil 130,000 (est.) 2
Australia 100,000 (est.) 2
South Africa 106,000 (est.) 2
Mexico 40,700 (est.) 2
Asia (excluding Israel) 50,000 (est.)
Total 13,900,000 (est.)

State of Israel

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

Israel is the only country in which Jews make up a majority of the citizens, although the United States has a larger number of Jews. It was re-established as an independent democratic state on May 14, 1948. Of the 120 members in its parliament, the Knesset, about ten members are Israeli Arabs who are not Jews. At the time of its independence, approximately 600,000 Jews lived there. Since then, its Jewish population has increased by about one million over each decade as more immigrants arrive, and more Israelis are born, 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. And it has taken in hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former USSR. In the past decade nearly a million immigrants came to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Many Jews who emigrated to Israel have moved 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 of 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 flight of Jews from hostile Arab nations) 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 around 5.6 million Jews. In the Americas, there are also large Jewish populations in Canada and Argentina, and smaller populations in Mexico, Brazil, and Cuba.

Western Europe's largest Jewish community can be found in France, home to 600,000 Jews, most of whom are immigrants or refugees from North African Arab countries such as Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. 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 Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Belarus and the other areas once dominated by the Soviet Union. Exact figures are difficult to establish. The fastest-growing Jewish community in the world, outside of 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.

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

Population Changes: Wars against the Jews

Many empires and rulers have sought to "liquidate" the Jews through wars of destruction, extinction, genocide, expulsions, exiles, and torture. Some examples in the history of anti-Semitism are: the Great Jewish Revolt against the Roman Empire as described by Josephus; the Spanish Inquisition led by Torquamada and the Auto de fe against the Marrano Jews; the Bohdan Chmielnicki Cossack massacres in Ukraine; the Pogroms backed by the Russian Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II; Blood libels. The persecution culminated in Adolf Hitler's Final Solution which led to the Holocaust of the European Jewry. Modern wars such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Jihad via "suicide bombing" of the Al-Aqsa Intifada with its violence against Israel's Jews have resulted in major loss of life.

While Jewish communities throughout the Islamic world were often treated well by their Muslim rulers, depending on the regime in power, Jewish communities in Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East were at times subject to persecutions, expulsions, and forced conversion.

Population Changes: Assimilation

Secular Jews tend to marry late and have smaller families with wide acceptance of birth control [1] (http://www.ujc.org/content_display.html?ArticleID=84256). When granted political, economic and religious freedom, many Jews, probably the majority, choose to adopt the ways and religions of their host nations, abandoning many vestiges of their own ethnicity and religion, and then frequently choose to marry non-Jews. In the United States, the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey [2] (http://www.ujc.org/content_display.html?ArticleID=60346) has shown that close to 50 percent [3] (http://www.ujc.org/content_display.html?ArticleID=83911) (and possibly up to 75 percent according to some calculations) of America's Jews presently marry non-Jewish partners. These figures are probably also true for the Jews of Europe today. Most non-Jewish spouses do not convert to Judaism, surveys show. This phenomenon is known as intermarriage [4] (http://www.ujc.org/content_display.html?ArticleID=83913), and is the leading cause for the shrinkage of almost all Jewish populations in Western countries since World War II. Some Orthodox Rabbis have used the controversial term Silent Holocaust to describe the loss of Jews to assimilation, intermarriage, conversion to other faiths and abortion. Ironically, many anti-Semites present this as key evidence for their claims of the "lack" of Jewish assimilation.

Population Changes: Growth

Only in the State of Israel have secular Jews increased due to natural growth and immigration, and both Orthodox Jews and Haredi Jews, who often shun birth control for religious reasons, have increased due to their large families.

Reform Judaism has an outreach effort to bring in not only the non-Jewish spouses of inter-married Jews, but to actively seek new members for the faith.

Conservative Judaism has an outreach effort to bring in the non-Jewish spouses of inter-married Jews. The Rabbinical Assembly, the international body of Conservative rabbis, issued a rabbinic letter on human sexuality which discussed the issue of the decrease in Jewish population low reproductive rates.

There is also a growing movement of Jews by Choice by gentiles who make the decision to head in the direction of becoming Jews. There is a "return to Judaism" movement known as the Baal Teshuva movement that has brought many secular Jews to become more religiously observant. There are a number of efforts undertaken by all the denominations to re-introduce alienated Jews to Jewish religion and customs through educational and beginners programs.

Jewish languages

Main article: Jewish languages

Hebrew is the liturgical language of Judaism (termed lashon ha-kodesh, "the holy tongue"), and is the language of the State of Israel. Jews 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

Main articles: Jewish history, Timeline of Jewish history

Jews and Migrations

The notion of migration seems to be intertwined with Jews and their history. Often in history, Jews have been both immigrants ("coming as settlers") and emigrants ("leaving countries", see also Jewish refugees.) Incomplete list of such migrations:

  • The patriarch Abraham was a migrant to the land of Canaan from Ur of the Chaldees.
  • The Children of Israel are strongly identified with 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 by Assyria.
  • The Kingdom of Judah was exiled first by Babylonia and then 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.
  • Many expulsions during the Middle Ages and Enlightenment in Europe, including: 1290, 16,000 Jews were expelled from England; in 1396, 100,000 from France; in 1421 thousands were expelled from Austria.
  • Forced migrations during the period of Almohades in Islamic Spain.
  • Following the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, the Spanish population of around 200,000 Sephardic Jews were expelled, followed by expulsions in 1493 in Siciliy (37,000 Jews) and Portugal in 1496. The expelled Jews fled mainly to the Ottoman Empire, Holland, 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 (esp. 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 1,000,000 Eastern European Jews to the United States from 1890-1925, see History of the Jews in the United States.
  • 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 have now arrived back in large numbers at their original historical homeland in Israel.

Kingdoms of Israel and Judah

See related article History of ancient Israel and Judah.

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 kingdom 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 BC and spread all over the Assyrian empire commencing the era of the "Ten Lost Tribes". The Kingdom of Judah was conquered by a Babylonian army in the early 6th century BC. 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. This period of exile is known as the Babylonian Captivity.

Persian, Greek, and Roman rule

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 in Jerusalem 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 Hanukah) and created an independent Jewish kingdom known as the Hasmonaean Kingdom which lasted from 165 BC to 63 BC. This was followed by a period of Roman rule.

Under the Roman Empire, with frequent changes of policies by conflicting and empire-building Caesars, generals, governors, and consuls who were often cruel and always ready for war, Rome's attitudes swung from tolerance to hostility against its Jewish subjects. The Romans, worshipping a large pantheon, could not readily accommodate the exclusive monotheism of Judaism, and the religious Jews could not accept Roman polytheism. In AD 66, the Judeans began to revolt against their Roman rulers. The revolt was smashed by the Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus Flavius. In Rome the Arch of Titus still stands, depicting the enslaved Judeans and the menorah with trumpets being brought to Rome (illustration, right).

In Rome the Arch of Titus still stands, depicting the enslaved Judeans and the menorah with trumpets being brought to Rome.

The Romans all but destroyed Jerusalem; only a single "Western Wall" of the Second Temple remained. The Roman legions pillaged and burned the city. Yet, the Judeans continued to live in their land in significant numbers, and were allowed to practice their religion, until the 2nd century when Hadrian ravaged Judea while putting down the bar Kokhba revolt. After 135, Jews were not allowed to enter the city of Jerusalem. The Byzantine Empire, which came to control the region after the split of the Roman Empire, cherished the city for its Christian history. However, in accordance with traditions of religious tolerance often found in the ancient East, Jews were allowed into it in the 5th century.

Roman exile

Many of the ancient Jews were sold into slavery, while others became citizens of other parts of the Roman Empire. This is the traditional explanation to the 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 the Hellenistic civilization, seems to have ended with the wars against the Romans and the following reconstruction of Jewish values for the post-Temple era.

Ancient Migration

Before the rise of Islam, Jews were to be found throughout the entire Roman empire; with the Arab expansion, some of them would move as far as India and China. Some Jewish people are also descended from converts to Judaism outside the Mediterranean world. While the Avars' Hebrew origins/conversion debate continues, it is known that some Khazars, Edomites, and Ethiopians, as well as many Arabs, particularly in Yemen earlier, converted to Judaism in the past; even today Gentiles in the United States and Israel convert to Judaism. In fact, there is a greater tradition of conversion to Judaism than many people realize. The word proselyte originally meant a Greek person who had converted to Judaism. As late as the 6th century the rump Roman empire (i.e. the early Byzantine Empire) was issuing decrees against conversion to Judaism, implying that conversion to Judaism was still occurring.

Middle Ages: Europe

Main article: Jews in the Middle Ages

Jews settled in Europe during the time of the Roman Empire. With the rise of the Catholic Church, Jews were subject to frequent expulsions and persecutions. At the same time, Church laws against usury, which was interpreted as the charging of interest, left Jews as one of the few sources of loans for the Christian population, leading to increasing influence for some Jews. Individual conditions varied from country to country and time to time, but, as rule, Jews generally were forced, by decree or by informal pressure, to live in highly segregated ghettos and villages. See Persecution, below.

Middle Ages: Islamic Europe and North Africa

Main article: Islam and Judaism

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. However, after the conquest of the Almohades, the situation of the Jews worsened.

Renaissance and Enlightenment

Main article: Haskalah

During the period of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, significant changes were happening within the Jewish community. The Haskalah movement paralelled 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. Haskalah gave birth to the Reform and Conservative movements and planted the seeds of Zionism while at the same time 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 Judiasm began in the 1700s by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, and quickly gained a following with its more exubarent, mystical approach to religion. These two movements, and the traditional orthodox approach to Judiasm from which they spring, formed the basis for the modern divisions within Jewish observance.

At the same time, the outside world was changing. Though persecution still existed in some European countries (hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed in pogroms in the 18th and 19th centuries), Napoleon invited Jews to leave the Jewish ghettos in Europe and seek refuge in the newly created tolerant political regimes that offered equality under Napoleonic Law (see Napoleon and the Jews).

Modern times

During the late 19th century, Jews began to flee the persecutions of Eastern Europe in large numbers, mostly by heading to the United States. By 1924, almost two million Jews had immigrated to the US, 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. This anti-Semitism reached its most virulent form in the killing of approximately six million Jews during the Holocaust, almost completely obliterating the two-thousand year history of the Jews in Europe. In 1948, the Jewish state of Israel was founded, creating the first Jewish nation since the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. Subsequent wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and the flight in the face of persecution of almost all of the 900,000 Jews previously living in Arab countries, were further events of importance to the Jewish people in the last fifty years.


Main article: Persecution of the Jews
Related articles: Anti-Semitism, History of anti-Semitism, Modern anti-Semitism

Historical schisms among the Jews

Main article: Schisms among the Jews

Jewish leadership

Main article: 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

Main articles: List of Jews, List of Jews by country

Despite the relatively small number of Jews worldwide, many influential thinkers and leaders in modern times have been ethnically Jewish. Ethnic Jews have stood at the basis of religion and modern psychology, philosophy, socialism, capitalism and many important scientific and technological advances were first discovered by Jews.

The following is only a sampling of famous ethnic Jews from all kinds of backgrounds, a number even having abandoned Judaism:

Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) (rabbi and philosopher); Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) (philosopher); Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) (German romantic poet); Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) (British Prime Minister, was a baptized Christian); Karl Marx (1818–1883) (founder of Marxism); Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) (father of modern psychoanalysis); Theodor Herzl (1860–1904) (founder of modern secular Zionism); Leon Trotsky (1879–1940) (creator of the Red Army and philosopher); Albert Einstein (1879–1955) (physicist who proposed the theory of relativity); Ludwig von Mises (1881–1973) (economist); David BenGurion (1886–1973) (founding Prime Minister of Israel); Marc Chagall (1887–1985) (surrealist artist); Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) (philosopher); Hyman Rickover (1900–1986) (admiral, father of U.S. nuclear navy); Ayn Rand (1905–1982) (writer); Edward Teller (1908–2003) (father of the hydrogen bomb); Henry Kissinger (1923–) (

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