A Jew is a follower of the Jewish faith (Judaism) or a descendent of Jews, or both.

Star of David
The six-pointed Star of David,
the most common Jewish symbol
The seven-branched Menorah
is an ancient symbol of Judaism

Judaism is the Jewish religion, but Jews, religious or not, also form a non-exclusive ethnic group. Those without Jewish parentage may become religiously accepted as Jews through a formal and usually difficult process of conversion, and they and their children may then come to be accepted as ethnically Jewish as well. This article discusses Jews as an ethnic group.

In an ethnic sense, the Jews are members of the people, or "nation", that traces its ancestry 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. Ethnic Jews include both "Observant Jews", meaning those who practice the Biblical and Rabbinic laws, known as the halakha, and those who, while not practicing Judaism as a religion, still identify themselves as Jews in a cultural or ethnic sense. These are sometimes called "Secular Jews".

United States: 5,671,000(est.)1
Israel: 5,094,000(est.)1
Europe: Less than 2 million(est.)
 • France: 600,000(1998 est.)
 • United Kingdom: 267,000(2001 census)
 • Germany: 100,000 (2004 est.)
 • CIS(the former USSR): 400,000(est.)2
Canada: 371,000(est.) 1
Argentina: 250,000(est.)
Brazil: 120,000(est.)
Australiaand New Zealand: 100,000(est.)
South Africa: 90,000(est.)
Mexico: 40,000(est.)
Asia(excluding Israel): 50,000(est.)
1Data based on a study by Jewish People Policy Institute(JPPI). See Jewish people near zero growthby Tovah Lazaroff, Jerusalem Post, June 24, 2004.
2Census 1993. Some experts (e.g. ISBN 580620068X) estimate the real number to be more than 1 million.
JewFAQJewish Virtual Library• Jews
  • AshkenaziJews
  • SephardicJews
  • Oriental or "Mizrahi" Jews
  • Yemenite Jews
  • Smaller Jewish groups include:
    • The Gruzim
    • The Juhurim
    • The Bene Israel
    • The Cochin Jews
    • The Maghrebim
    • The Romaniotes
    • Various African Jews       • Ethiopian Jews
Total population: 13 million (est.) 1
Significant populations in:
Statistics sources:
Language Hebrew is the liturgical language of Judaism (termed lashon ha-kodesh, "the holy language"), 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.
Religion Judaism
Related ethnic groups

1 Etymology

2 Who is a Jew?

3 Maintaining Jewishness versus assimilation

4 Ethnic divisions

5 Jewish languages

6 Migrations

7 Famous ethnic Jews

8 Conversion to Judaism

9 "Jew" in Israel and Israeli law

10 Ancient Israelites and Judeans

11 Ancient schisms among the Jews

12 Persecution

13 Leadership

14 World population

15 Decrease and growth

16 Related topics

17 External links

Table of contents


There are different views as to the origin of the 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. There is some scholarly controversy over whether Judaea is a patronymic or if it was a purely geographic term of uncertain Semitic origin. If indeed it is patronymic, it corresponds to the Hebrew y'hudi (or yehudi) "Judah" in English, a member of the Twelve Tribes of the Children of Israel — i.e., Jacob's sons. According to Genesis, Judah was the fourth son of the patriarch Jacob, from whom the tribe descended. The Old English equivalent was Iudeas, meaning "Judean".

Classical Rabbinic literature has a tradition which traces the word "Jew" to Genesis 29:35, which says that Judah's mother — the matriarch Leah — named him Judah because she wanted to praise God for giving birth to so many sons: "She said, 'This time let me praise (odeh) God,' and named the child Judah (Yehudah)." Thereafter in the Biblical narrative, Judah vouchsafes the Jewish monarchy, and the Israelite kings David and Solomon derive their lineage from Judah. Indeed, there is the tradition that the "Judaeans" (Jews) are named for him, their ancient tribal ancestor.

In Hebrew, the name "Judah" contains the four letters of the Tetragrammaton — the special, holy, and ineffable name of the Jewish God. The very holiness of the name of Judah attests to its importance as an alternate name for "Israelites" that it ultimately replaces.

A much less common view is that the word "Jew" is from "Jewry", from the Greek evrei meaning "Hebrew", which some speculate comes from the ancient Egyptian hiberu or habiru, which meant "stranger". Under the latter view, Abraham, Israel and other patriarchs are regarded as Jews while under the former only the descendants (ethnically or physically) of the Judaeans from the Kingdom of Judah would be Jews, strictly speaking. In the Hebrew language the word "Hebrew", ivri, means "one who 'passes' over" as did the patriarch Abraham who "passed over" from being a gentile to becoming a "convert" to the faith of Monotheism.

Ancient terminology

In some places in the Talmud the word Israel(ite) refers to somebody who is Jewish but does not necessarily practice Judaism as a religion: "An Israel(ite) even though he has sinned is still an Israel(ite)." More commonly the Talmud uses the term "Bnei Yisrael" , the Children of Israel (another name for Jacob)" to refer to Jews. This Talmudic distinction is comparable to the contemporary distinction between "religious Jews" and "secular Jews." In modern English, the term "Israelite" is never used to refer to contemporary Jews, but can be used to refer to Jews of the Biblical era.

Usage by non-Jews

The term "Israelite", has also been appropriated by various non-Jewish groups, for example the Rastafarians, who claim descent from the tribes of Israel.

The word "Jew" has been used often enough in a disparaging manner by anti-Semites that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was frequently avoided altogether, and the term "Hebrew" was substituted instead (e.g. Young Mens Hebrew Association). Even today some people are wary of its use, and prefer to use "Jewish". Indeed, when used as an adjective (e.g. "Jew lawyer") or verb (e.g. "to Jew someone"), the term "Jew" is purely pejorative. However, when used as a noun, "Jew" is preferred, as other circumlocutions give the impression that the term "Jew" is offensive in all contexts.

In the past, the term Jewess was sometimes used for Jewish women. This word, like "Negress" or "poetess" is now at best an archaism, and is generally taken as an anti-semitic and/or sexist insult.

Who is a Jew?

Jewish law

Halakha, Jewish tradition and law, defines a Jew as someone who is either This standard is mandated by the Talmud, the record of oral law that explicates the Torah, the text on which Jewish law is based. According to the Talmud, this standard has been followed since the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai some 3,300 years ago. Non-Orthodox Jewish historians claim that this standard has been followed only for the last 2,000 years.

Traditional Jewish views

According to traditional Jewish law, mere belief in the principles of Judaism does not make one a Jew. Similarly, non-adherence by one who is Jewish to Jewish principles of faith does not make one lose one's Jewish status.

Jewishness is determined by the mother (matrilineal descent); thus the immediate male descendants of a female Jewish apostate are still considered Jewish; all her female descendants, but only in a documented unbroken female line of descent, and their immediate male children are also considered Jewish. While most of these descendants probably would not be practicing Judaism, or in many cases aware of their Jewishness, their status as Jews technically still would be in effect. As such, all Jewish denominations welcome the return of any of these people back to the Jewish community; such people would be considered Jews in good standing without the need for a formal conversion.

Generally, people who have been raised as non-Jews (gentiles) would be expected to make some sort of public sign that they are returning to Judaism, for instance engaging in a course in Jewish Torah education, joining a synagogue, observing the Jewish Shabbat (Sabbath), the Jewish Festivals, keeping kosher, commencing "Family Purity" or niddah, having an adult "Bar Mitzvah" ceremony, and anything else they should try to observe. If not circumcised, males are required to have a brit milah (ritual circumcision).

Note that "circumcision" in the Jewish sense is not the medical procedure performed by a doctor but is a religious procedure performed by a mohel (also pronounced as mo'el).

Jewish peoplehood is not inherited from one's Jewish father alone, even if he were not an apostate from Judaism. This traditional rabbinic view is still held by many in the return-to-tradition wing of Reform Judaism, and by all of Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism.

View of the State of Israel

The situation in Israel is somewhat ambiguous. One area where the definition of Jew is relevant is in deciding who qualifies to make aliyah under the Law of Return. The requirements here differ significantly from the definition of a Jew under halakha, as the law attempts to include all those who might be subject to anti-Semitic persecution, including anyone with a Jewish grandparent, as well as non-Jewish spouses of Jews. However it specifically excludes Jews who have converted to a faith other than Judaism.

A second area where the definition of Jew is relevant is in marriages and divorces, which are under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry. The Interior Ministry, unlike the Law of Return, defines Jews strictly according to halakha.

A third relevant area is in the registering of "nationality" on Israeli identity cards. This is also controlled by the Interior Ministry, which has generally only registered as a "Jew" those who meet the halakhic definition. However, in a small number of cases the Israeli Supreme Court has forced the Ministry to register individuals who did not meet that definition. See also Jew in Israel and Israeli Law

Views of Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism

In the last half of the 20th century, two theologically liberal (primarily American) Jewish groups — Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism — have allowed people who do not meet these criteria to define themselves as Jews. They no longer require converts to follow traditional Jewish procedures of conversion, and they accept a person as a Jew even if their mother is non-Jewish; in the case of Reform, so long as the father is a Jew and the person performs "appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people". This is commonly (though mistakenly) known as patrilineal descent.

This has thus resulted in a serious schism among the Jewish people; today many Reform Jewish and secular Jewish-Americans born from originally gentile mothers, (who were not born Jewish themselves), consider themselves to be Jews, although they are not considered Jewish by Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, and even by many Reform Jews outside of the United States.

Some Reform Jews view Judaism as a religion alone, and thus they view Jews who convert to another faith as non-Jews. This contrasts to the traditional rabbinic view of Judaism as a peoplehood, and not merely a religion. In the traditional view, those who leave Judaism by converting to another religion are still seen as Jewish people; however, they are seen as apostates who by their actions have chosen to remove themselves from the Judaic religion.

Maintaining Jewishness versus assimilation

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 differentiating between Jews and Judaism almost impossible.

In many times and places, such as the Hellenization during ancient Greece, the Enlightenment in Europe, and in the modern USA 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.

In most of Europe up until the late 18th century, and in some places to an even later date, Jews were prohibited by governments under the sway of the Roman Catholic Church, from owning land. Conversely, most forms of Christianity and Islam traditionally did not allow their members to lend money at interest. Also, the strong Jewish tradition of religious scholarship often left Jews well prepared for secular scholarship, although in some times and places this was countered by Jews being banned from studying at universities, or admitted only in limited numbers. Consequently, even into recent times Jews were little represented in the land-holding classes, but far better represented in the learned professions and in finance and commerce.

In some places where there have been relatively high concentrations of Jews, distinct secular Jewish subcultures have arisen. For example, ethnic Jews formed an enormous proportion of the literary and artistic life of Vienna at the end of the 19th century, or of New York City fifty years later, and for the most part these were not at all particularly religious people.

Ethnic divisions

The commonly-used terms Ashkenazi (meaning "German" in Hebrew, denoting the Central European base of Jewry), and Sephardic (meaning "Spanish" in Hebrew, denoting their Spanish and North African location), refer both to a religious and an ethnic division. 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.

Jews have historically been divided into four major ethnic groups:

  • Ashkenazi (Jews who lived in Germany or France before migrating to Eastern Europe)
  • Sephardic (Jews who lived in Spain or Portugal)
  • Oriental or "Mizrahi" Jews (edut hamizrach in Hebrew) (Jews who lived in the Middle East and North Africa, but later spread to Central Asia and South Asia). Note that in common usage, most Oriental Jews are now referred to as Sephardic, as the religious rites of Oriental and Sephardic Jews are essentially the same.
  • The Yemenite Jews (also known as Teimanim ). These are Oriental Jews whose geographical and social isolation from the rest of the Jewish community allowed them to develop a liturgy and set of practices sufficiently distinct from other Oriental Jewish groups so as to be recognized as a different group.
Of these communities, the largest by far are the Ashkenazim, comprising approximately 70% of the Jewish total, with Oriental Jews comprising most of the remainder. Many Sephardim live in France (most of its Jews), Eastern Europe and Central Asia (small numbers), and the USA (a very small number), but most are in Israel (about 50% of Israelis), where they have created their own large ethnic political party called Shas guided by their rabbis such as Ovadia Yosef.

Smaller groups

Smaller groups of Jews include the following: These groups number in the thousands or tens of thousands, with the Gruzim being most numerous at about 100,000. Many members of these groups have now emigrated from their traditional homelands, largely to Israel. For example, only about 10% of the Gruzim remain in Georgia.

Jewish languages

Yiddish (Judaeo-German; the very word means "Jewish") was the common language of Eastern European Jews until the Holocaust. Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish) was spoken by many Sephardim. Jews in Arab lands spoke Judaeo-Arabic; in other Islamic countries they spoke Aramaic or Persian. Many other smaller Jewish populations spoke "Jewish" versions of their respective local languages. See Jewish languages.


Following the Spanish Inquisition, the Sephardic Jews were dispersed, some migrating mainly to Southern Europe, where they were assimilated into the Ashkenazi, others migrating to North Africa and the Middle East where they were assimilated into the Oriental Jews. Most Oriental Jews practice Sephardic rite and are therefore sometimes referred to as Sephardic. Ashkenazi Jews practice Ashkenazi rite.

Famous ethnic Jews

See also: List of Jews
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 modern psychology, philosophy, socialism, capitalism and many important scientific and technological advances were first discovered by Jews.

The list of famous Jews includes Moses Maimonides (rabbi and philosopher), Baruch Spinoza (philosopher), Karl Marx (founder of Marxism, parents converted to Christianity when he was young), Benjamin Disraeli (baptised by parents into Anglican Church, British Prime Minister), Leon Trotsky (creator of the Russian Red Army and philosopher), Sigmund Freud (father of psychoanalysis), Albert Einstein (physicist who proposed the theory of relativity), Haym Solomon (financier of the American Revolution), Judah Benjamin (Confederate leader), Edward Teller (father of the hydrogen bomb), Theodor Herzl (founder of modern secular Zionism), Ludwig von Mises (economist), Ayn Rand (writer), Noam Chomsky (linguist, philosopher, and social theorist), Hyman Rickover (admiral, father of US nuclear navy), David BenGurion (founding Prime Minister of State of Israel), Henry Kissinger (US Secretary of State), Milton Friedman (economist), Kirk Douglas (movie actor), Steven Spielberg (movie producer), William Shatner (TV and movie actor), Michael Bloomberg (billionaire financier and New York City mayor), Moshe Feldenkrais (founder of the Feldenkrais Method), and Andrew Grove (co-founder and chairman of Intel).

Conversion to Judaism

Main article: Conversion to Judaism

The laws of conversion to Judaism are based in discussions in the Talmud. Jewish law is generally interpreted as discouraging proselytizing, and conversion is also discouraged. However, a rabbi convinced of the prospective convert's sincerity may allow him or her to follow the process of conversion. The convert is taught the basic laws and beliefs of Judaism, and must show an ability to keep the laws and make a commitment to keep them.

As discussed above, some denominations of present-day Judaism do not follow traditional Jewish laws concerning conversion. As a result, their converts may not be recognized by other Jewish denominations.

"Jew" in Israel and Israeli law

The State of Israel allows any Jew to acquire citizenship; this is known as the Law of Return for population groups in Israel. For the purposes of the Law of Return, anyone with a Jewish grandparent or who converted to Judaism is considered Jewish, and the law also allows the immediate non-Jewish family of immigrants to immigrate, but the law excludes anyone who has converted to a faith other than Judaism. This definition is not the same as that in traditional Jewish law; in some respects it is a deliberately wider, so as to include those non-Jewish relatives of Jews who were perceived to be Jewish, and thus faced anti-Semitism, but in other respects it is narrower, as the traditional definition includes "apostate" Jews.

Many secular Israelis consider themselves to be "Israeli" enjoying a new Israeli culture and reject the title "Jew" as derived from Jewish religious law (Halacha). They assert that one who is devoted to Zionism, believes and lives in the modern State of Israel, serves in the Israel Defense Force, and works for the Ingathering of the Exiles from the diaspora, is "the real Jew". According to this re-definition, even a gentile who meets these criteria can be an "Israeli". They scorn the older generation of European Jews who they believe went "like sheep to the slaughter" during the Holocaust and berate them for having a "galut (Exile) mentality". They have a particular dislike for Haredi Jews whom they regard as "old fashioned" and a relic of the Middle Ages, and whom they accuse of "religious coercion". This is part of an ongoing kulturkampf (cultural divide) in Israeli politics.

Ancient Israelites and Judeans

Historical geography

Looking at the timeline of Jewish history, the first two periods of the history of the Jews is mainly that of Palestine or Judea. It begins among those peoples of Syria which occupied the area lying between the Nile river on the one side and the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers on the other. Surrounded by ancient seats of culture in Egypt and Babylonia, by the mysterious deserts of Arabia, and by the highlands of Asia Minor, the land of Canaan, later Judea, then Palestine, then Israel, was a meeting place of civilizations. The land was traversed by old-established trade routes and possessed important harbors on the Gulf of Akaba and on the Mediterranean coast, the latter exposing it to the influence of the Levantine culture.

Kingdoms of 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. The Kingdom of Judah was conquered by a Babylonian army in the early 6th century BC. The Judahite 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 Dynasty which lasted from 165 BCE to 63 BCE. This was followed by a period of Roman rule.

The generally religiously tolerant Empire could not readily accommodate the exclusive monotheism of Judaism, and the religious Jews could not accept Roman polytheism. In 66 CE, the Judeans began to revolt against the 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:

Image:Sack of jerusalem.JPG

The Romans all but destroyed Jerusalem; only a single "Western Wall" of the Temple remained. The Roman legions pillaged and burned the city and stole the holy menorah and much more. 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, although this ban must have been at least partially lifted, since at the destruction of the rebuilt city by the Persians in the 7th century, Jews are said to have lived there.

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, and were only affected by the diaspora in its spiritual sense, as 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.

International scope

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; today in the United States and Israel gentiles still 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 who had converted to Judaism. As late as the 6th century the rump Roman empire (i.e. Byzantium) was issuing decrees against conversion to Judaism, implying that conversion to Judaism was still occurring.

Ancient schisms among the Jews

First Temple era

Based on the historical narrative in the Bible and archeology, civilization at the time was prone to idol worship, astrology, worship of reigning kings, and paganism. This was in direct contrast to the teachings in the Torah, and was condemned by the ancient Biblical prophets who attacked those Israelites and Judeans who became idol worshipers. The split by the Kingdom of Israel from the Kingdom of Judah was completed by Jeraboam who crowned himself king, and built a northern temple with calf-like idol images that were condemned by the Judeans of Judah. After the destruction and exile of the northern Kingdom of Israel by Assyria, the temptations to follow non-Judaic practices continued, so that according to the narratives of Jeremiah and others, it brought about the failure, destruction, and exile of the southern Kingdom of Judah by Babylonia.

Second Temple era

This was a time when the Jews lived under Persian, Greek, and Roman power and influence. The main struggles during this era were between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, as well as the Essenes and Zealots. The Pharisees wanted to maintain the authority and traditions of classical Torah teachings and began the early teachings of the Mishna, maintaining the authority of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish court. The Sadducees sought to adapt to more Hellenistic ideas, as espoused by Philo of Egypt. The Essenes preached a reclusive way of life. The Zealots advocated armed rebellion against any foreign power such as Rome. All were at violent logger-heads with each other, leading to the confusion and disunity that ended with the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the sacking of Jerusalem by Rome.

Break-offs: Samaritans and Christians

One small sect of Samaritans is still extant; however, their religion is not the same as rabbinic Judaism. The Samaritan faith and that of other Jews diverged over a millennium ago; they commonly refer to themselves as 'Samaritan Israelites' as oppossed to 'Jewish Israelites'. This is because they believe they are of the northern Israelite tribes.

Of course, the most famous schism in Jewish history was the split between the followers of Jesus (who were known as Notzrim or Nazarenes) with the claim by his disciples that he was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, and the majority Pharisees (the rabbinically led Jews) who rejected him 2,000 years ago and still do so until the present time. The abandonment of Jewish Law and the subsequent deification of Jesus by early Church leaders, by for example Paul of Tarsus and the publication of the New Testament, ensured that Christianity and Judaism would become completely different and often conflicting religions. The New Testament depicts the Pharisees as Jesus' opponents, whereas the Jewish perspective has the Pharisees as the justified followers of the rabbis who upheld the Torah.

Karaite Judaism

Karaite Judaism is a Jewish denomination characterized by:

Karaites had a wide following in the 9th century (Karaites claim that at one time they comprised 40% of Jews), but over the centuries their numbers have dwindled drastically. Presently a small group, most Karaites live in Israel.

There is a divergence of views about the historical origins of Karaite Judaism. Most scholars and some Karaites maintain that it was founded at least in part by Anan ben David, whereas other Karaites believe that they are not the historical disciples of Anan ben David at all, and point out that many of their later sages such as Ya'acov Al-Kirkisani spoke critically about him.

The state of Israel, along with its Chief Rabbinate, ruled that Karaites are Jews, and while critical differences between Orthodox Judaism and Karaite Judaism exist, American Orthodox rabbis ruled that Karaism is much closer to Orthodoxy than the Conservative and Reform movements, which may ease issues of formal conversion.

Some Karaites are known to refer to themselves as not Jewish, some referring to themselves as a "Turkic People". These may be Christian descendants of Karaites, or an different group believing in a completely different Karaism which is a Turkish tribal religion. These same "Karaites" also denied they were Jews in the Holocaust.

For more information, please see the Karaite Judaism page

Sabbatians and Frankists

In 1648 Shabtai Tzvi declared himself to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah whilst living in the Ottoman Empire. Vast numbers of Jews believed him; but when under pain of a death sentence in front of the Turkish sultan Mehmed IV he became an apostate to Judaism by becoming a Moslem, his movement crumbled. Nevertheless, for centuries, small groups of Jews believed in him, and the rabbis were always on guard against any manifestations of this schism, always suspicious of hidden "Shebselach" (Yiddish for "little Sabbatians", a play on the word for "young dumb sheep"). Indeed, when the movement of Hasidism began attracting many followers, the rabbis were once again suspicious that this was Sabbatianism in different garb. It would take many centuries to sort out these complex divisions and schisms and see where they were headed.

After his mysterious death somewhere in the area of Turkish Albania, groups of Jews continued to be clandestine followers of Shabtai Tzvi even though they had outwardly converted to Islam, these Jews being known as the Donmeh. Jewish converts to Islam were, at times, therefore regarded with great suspicion by their fellow Moslems.

A few decades after Shabtai's death, a man by the name of Jacob Frank claiming mystical powers preached that he was Shabtai Tzvi's successor. He attracted a following, preached against the Talmud, advocated a form of licentious worship, and was condemned by the rabbis at the time. When confronted by the Polish authorities, he converted to Catholicism in 1759 in the presence of King Augustus III of Poland, together with groups of his Jewish followers, known as "Frankists". To the alarm of his opponents, he was received by reigning European monarchs who were anxious to see their Jewish subjects abandon Judaism and apostacise. The Frankists eventually joined the Polish nobility and gentry.

Reform vs. Orthodox: West vs. East

From the time of the French Revolution of 1789, and the growth of Liberalism, added to the political and personal freedoms granted by Napoleon to the Jews of Europe, many Jews chose to abandon the forboding and isolating ghettos and enter into general society. This influenced the internal conflicts about religion, culture, and politics of the Jews to this day.

Many Jews in Western Europe joined the religiously liberal new Reform Judaism movement, which drew inspiration from the writings of modernist thinkers like Moses Mendelson. They coined the name "Orthodox" to describe those who opposed the "Reform". They were criticized by the Orthodox Judaism rabbis such as Samson Raphael Hirsch in Germany, and condemned, particularly by those known today as followers of Ultra Orthodox Judaism, (or Haredim in Israel), and the leaders of Hasidic Judaism, the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, based mainly in Eastern Europe.

There was thus also created a cultural schism between the more westernised English, German and French speaking Western European Jews and their more religiously observant Yiddish speaking Eastern European brethren whom they denigratingly labelled Ost Yidden ("Eastern Jews"). These schisms and the debates surrounding them, continue with much ferocity in all Jewish communities today as the Reform and Orthodox movements continue to confront each other over a wide range of religious, social, political, and ethnic issues.



Modern persecution of the Jews reached its peak under the Nazis from 1933 to 1945. The Nazis, who thought of themselves as a "Master Race", considered the Jews inferior and subhuman. Upon capturing most of the European mainland, and in accordance with its Wannsee Conference, Nazi Germany built concentration camps designed to kill Jews for the mere "sin" of being born ethnically Jewish. Over 6,000,000 Jews perished. Even Jews who had long assimilated and had been baptized into Christianity were not spared. These racist laws were embodied in the Nuremberg Laws specifically designed to discriminate against Jews. With the defeat of the Axis Powers by the Allied Nations, many high German officials were punished by the Nuremberg Trials and Germany paid reparations to Holocaust survivors and to the State of Israel.

Soviet Union

Even though many of the Old Bolsheviks were ethnically Jewish, they sought to uproot Judaism and Zionism and established the Yevsektsiya to achieve this goal. By the end of 1940s the Communist leadership of the former USSR liquidated almost all Jewish organizations, with the exception of a few token synagogues. These synagogues were then placed under police surveillance, both openly and through the use of informers. The anti-Semitic campaign of 1948-1953 against so-called "rootless cosmopolitans," the fabrication of the "Doctors' plot," the rise of "Zionology" and subsequent activities of official organizations such as the Anti-Zionist committee of the Soviet public were officially carried out under the banner of "anti-Zionism," but the use of this term could not obscure the anti-Semitic content of these campaigns, and by the mid-1950s the state persecution of Soviet Jews emerged as a major human rights issue in the West and domestically. See Jackson-Vanik amendment, refusenik.


Christianity, which owes its origins and theology to Jewish teachings about the Messiah, has long had an ambiguous relationship with Judaism, giving rise to Christianity and anti-Semitism. Christians had difficulty with the Jews' claim as the "chosen people" of God, and they were seen as having contributed to Jesus' demise. In medieval Europe, many notorious persecutions of Jews in the name of Christianity occurred, notably during the Crusades - when Jews all over Germany were massacred - and in the Spanish Inquisition, when the entire Jewish population that refused to baptise was expelled and found refuge mainly in the Ottoman Empire and the Low Countries. From Alexander III's reign until the end of Tsarist times in Russia, Jews were restricted to the Jewish Pale of Settlement and subjected to frequent pogroms. On the other hand, in the 16th century, the Council of Trent (article 4) declared that the Jews were no more responsible for death of Christ than Christians, and this was later reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council.

Arab and Islamic

Islam and Judaism have a complex relationship. Jews have generally enjoyed the benefits of "protected" Dhimmi status under Islam; yet the political conflict between Muhammad and the Jews of Madina in the seventh century left ample ideological fuel for Islam and anti-Semitism through the centuries. During the Middle Ages, Jews had a better status in the Muslim world than in Christendom, though still short of full equality with Muslims. During the Holocaust the Middle East was in turmoil: in Egypt, with a Jewish population of 75,000, Anwar Sadat was imprisoned for conspiring with the Nazis to bring independence from the British Empire; the British-appointed Mufti of Jerusalem was in Berlin supporting Hitler; a coup briefly brought a pro-Axis government to power in Iraq terrifying Iraq's Jews; and the Jewish Stern Gang assassinated Lord Moyne for closing Palestine to Jewish immigration. The tensions of the Arab-Israeli conflict was 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. The vast majority of the Jews of Iraq fled in 1952.



Traditionally only the greatest scholars of the Torah and Talmud rise to become the spiritual and even temporal leaders of the Jewish people. This requires deep study of the Talmud and the Shulkhan Arukh Code of Jewish Law as well as many other classical texts of Jewish scholarship. Normally, one must study many years in a Yeshiva to become a rabbi. Synagogues are led by rabbis meaning "great ones or teachers". In many synagogues there is a hazzan (cantor) that leads many parts of the prayer service. Many Sephardic rabbinic Jewish communities refer to their leaders as hakham. Among Yemenite Jews, known as Teimanin, the term mori (teacher) is used.


Following the Renaissance and the Enlightenment in Europe (with its Jewish "extension" the Haskalah movement, which led to much modern-day assimilation into the cultures of their native countries), most Jews dropped much of Judaism. Many even became Christians, and adopted secular values and life-styles. Thus most modern local Jewish communities, or international ones such as the World Jewish Congress, are guided by secular leaders who may not be religiously knowledgeable or observant at all and they are most often very Zionistic.

USA communities

In the USA today, the mainly secular United Jewish Communities (UJC), formerly known as the United Jewish Appeal (UJA), represents over 150 Jewish Federations and 400 independent communities across North America. Every American city has its local "Jewish Federation", and many have sophisticated community centers and provide services, mainly health care related. They raise record sums of money for philanthropic and humanitarian causes in the USA and Israel. Other organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, and the Bnai Brith represent different segments of the American Jewish community on a variety of issues.


A Karaite synagogue is run by a board of directors, and its spiritual leader is often called a Hakham, the equivalent of a "rabbi", but is not required for it to function. The Gabbai is the treasurer, the Shammash is the custodian, the Hazzan leads prayers, and in some the Ba'al Qeri'ah leads in the reading of the Torah.

World population

Pre- and post-Holocaust

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 14 million Jews worldwide in over 134 countries. Of these, around 6 million live in the United States and Canada, about 2 million in Europe, about 100,000 in Australia and 100,000 in South Africa. Over 5 million live in Israel. At the moment, an increasing number of Russian Jews are emigrating to Germany.

Latin America

Approximately 500,000 Jews live in Latin America. Over half of them live in Argentina, while large communities also exist in Brazil (about 120,000) and Mexico (about 50,000).

[[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 form a majority of the population. 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. 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 almost all the Sephardic Jews from the Islamic countries. And it has taken in hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former USSR. Jews from all over the world continue to move to Israel as they view it as their only true home in a world rife with Anti-Semitism rooted in a long history of anti-Semitism and hostile to the Jewish people.

The symbol on the Israeli flag is known as the Star of David (Magen David in Hebrew).


Western Europe's largest Jewish community can be found in France, home to 600,000 Jews, most immigrants or refugees from North African and Arab lands such as Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. There are over 300,000 Jews in Great Britain. In Eastern Europe, there are probably over one and a half million Jews living in Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Belorussia, and the other areas dominated by the former USSR. Exact figures are difficult to establish.

The fastest-growing Jewish community in the world, outside of Israel, is in Germany, especially in its capital Berlin. Tens of thousands of Jews from the former Eastern Bloc have settled in Germany since the fall of the Berlin wall. Some factors that make Germany amenable: A cosmopolitan atmosphere; a welcoming, liberal, post-war education; and the political freedoms garnered since the 1960s have created an atmosphere of tolerance in Germany which is still missing in some post-communist states. Familiarity with Yiddish for older Russian Jews, may make it easier to adapt to German.

German Jews belong to either the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland with about 100,000 members or the liberal Union progressiver Juden in Deutschland. However, there are many secular Jews who do not belong to any organisation or synagogue.

Decrease and growth

Both persecution and assimilation have resulted in small Jewish numbers vis-a-vis the world's population.

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 the Ukraine; the Pogroms by the Russian Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II and the Cossacks; Blood libels; Adolf Hitler's Final Solution which lead to the Holocaust and the World War II atrocities in Poland and elsewhere; and modern wars and Jihad via "suicide bombing" against Israel and its Jewish citizens.

In addition to the above examples, one must review the historical record of the destruction and persecution of the Jewish communities throughout the Islamic Empire. As the empire expanded during the centuries, the status of the non-Muslim communities remained precarious and subject to dhimmi laws. The Jewish communities were not second class citizens, they were not considered to be citizens of the larger community at all. Repressive measures against their persons occurred with regularity as the Muslim majority massacred them with impunity. There was no protection under the laws and the word of a Muslim was sufficient to subject any Jew to harsh punishment.


Secular Jews tend to marry late and have smaller families with wide acceptance of birth control. 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 when living outside of Israel. In the United States, the National Jewish Population Survey has shown that over 50%, and as high as 75% 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" and is the leading cause for the shrinkage of almost all Jewish populations in Western countries since World War Two, it has been called the "Silent Holocaust" by some social observers.


Only in the State of Israel have secular Jews increased due to natural growth and immigration, and both Orthodox Jews and Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who shun birth control for religious reasons, have increased due to their large families. The Reform Judaism movement has officially launched an "outreach" effort to bring in not only the non-Jewish spouses of Jews, but to actively seek new members for the faith. 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.

Related topics

External links



Major secular organizations

Zionist and Israeli institutions