Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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From Judah or Judea. In Jewish law (halakha ): anyone born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism; currently Reform Judaism includes those born of a Jewish father.

Hostility toward Jews has affected the definition of Jew . Spaniards in the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries suspected Jewish converts to Christianity (marranos) of retaining a Jewish identity. Similarly, Hitler defined anyone with one Jewish grandparent as subject to anti-Jewish decrees. These hostile definitions led to the inclusion of people in the Jewish community who were not halakhic Jews. The State of Israel accepted those persecuted as Jews by the Nazis and permitted them to enter Israel under the "Law of Return."

Since the early nineteenth century, the abandonment of Jewish religious practices led to a search for a new basis for Jewish identity by both Jews and their enemies. Secular Jews have sought to base Jewish identity on culture (including the Yiddish language), on communal ties (such as to Jewish organizations), or on living in a Jewish nation-state (Zionists). Anti-Semites who in earlier periods objected to Jews because of their religious practices, revised their stance and attacked Jewish culture and the Jewish "race," a biological categorization that Jews (even converts!) could not escape. More recently, Jews have been lumped together as "Zionists" and attacked for this.


A variety of methodological problems make it extremely difficult to estimate the world Jewish population almost into the twentieth century. Some guess that the population of Judah and Israel in 1,000 B.C.E. was about 1.8 million, then falling to 150,000 in 586 B.C.E. with the Babylonian exile. Shortly before the fall of Jerusalem (70 C.E.), the world Jewish population probably exceeded 8 million, and the population in Palestine was about 2.5 million. Following the defeat of Bar Kochba (135 C.E.), the population of what was then known as Palestine dwindled, and the center shifted to Babylon. In the eleventh century, it shifted to the Iberian Peninsula. Expelled from there at the end of the fifteenth century, the Jewish population moved to Poland. The center of Jewish population remained in the Mediterranean basin, and Sephardim (Jews in Arab lands) dominated demographically until the nineteenth century. At that point, a spurt in growth made Europe the population center. In the twentieth century, there has been a major shift in the center of Jewish population from eastern and central Europe to the United States and Israel.

In 1900, the Jewish population worldwide was estimated at 10.6 million, with 8.7 million in Europe and 1 million in the United States. By 1939, the world Jewish population was 16.7 million, with 9.5 million in Europe and 5 million in the United States. The best evidence still suggests that about 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II (the Holocaust). In 1993, the total world Jewish population was estimated at 13 million, distributed as follows: United States, 5.7 million; Israel, 4.3 million; France, 530,000; Russia, 410,000; Canada, 358,000; United Kingdom, 296,000; Ukraine, 245,000; Argentina, 210,000; Brazil, 100,000; South Africa, 98,000; Australia, 91,000.

Assimilation and Intermarriage

Historically, the "Ten Tribes" driven out of their land (the "Northern Kingdom," called in some biblical accounts "Israel") by Sargon II (722 B.C.E.) apparently assimilated and were lost to Judaism. On the other hand, during the Babylonian exile, Jews developed mechanisms for maintaining group identity in diaspora (dispersion from Judea), not least the synagogue as an alternative/adjunct worship experience to the Temple at Jerusalem. Numbers assimilating and intermarrying in premodern societies are not available. Nonetheless, it appears that except for periods of forced conversion, assimilation into and intermarriage with members of the larger societies in which Jews were embedded in the diaspora was almost nonexistent.

Political emancipation changed that by allowing Jews to leave their community (sometimes in Europe called a "ghetto") without requiring a conscious effort to do so. They could simply become part of the religiously "neutral" society. Of the total American population of 3 million in 1790,2,000 were Jews, and many intermarried. German Jews immigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century. They adopted Reform Judaism and abandoned religious practices that marked them off from the larger Christian society. East European Jews poured into the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. They too assimilated in the first generation and began to intermarry in the second generation. The rate of intermarriage increased from 4% in 1940 to 52% in 1990.

In western Europe, Jews assimilated into the larger societies and were intermarrying at a high rate prior to World War II. Political emancipation did not reach Jews in the Polish-Russian "pale of settlement" (which includes the Ukraine) until after World War I. Within a short period, the proportion of Orthodox among the Jews dropped from about 80% to about one-third of the population. But with World War II and the Nazi campaign of extermination, two-thirds of the total Jewish population was destroyed.

In Israel, until the latest wave of Russian immigrants, only about 4% of the population were intermarried with non-Jews. This reflects not only the tendency to join the majority but also the migration to Israel of more than 600,000 Jews from Arab lands. These Jews were traditional in orientation. The present large-scale immigration from the former Soviet Union, which includes about 30% non-Jews, has changed that pattern.

M. Herbert Danzger


S. W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952)

S. W. Baron (New York: NYU Press, 1995)

C. Goldscheider, The Transformation of the Jews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984)

C. S. Heller, On the Edge of Destruction (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977)

S. N. Herman, Jewish Identity (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1977)

J. Katz, Jewish Emancipation and Self-Emancipation (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1986)

M. A. Meyer, Jewish Identity in the Modern World (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990)

U. O. Schmelz, "Valuation of Jewish Population Estimates," in American Jewish Yearbook , ed. M. Fein and M. Himmelfarb (New York: American Jewish Committee, 1969)

U. O. Schmelz, Studies in Jewish Demography Survey for 1972-1980 (New York: Ktav, 1983)

U. O. Schmelz, Ethnic Differences Among Israeli Jews (Jerusalem: Institute of Contemporary Jewry, 1991)

D. Singer (ed.), American Jewish Yearbook (New York: American Jewish Committee, 1995).

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