Article Library / 2015

2014-2015 Annual Assessment

At the end of World War II, the global Jewish population was estimated at 11 million.1 Since then and through the beginning of 2015, the Jewish people has grown gradually to 14.3 million,2 an addition of approximately one-third. Hence, the overall trend of world Jewish demography is clearly in a direction of growth.

In each of the last seven decades, there has been an increase in the total number of Jews in the world.3 This was especially salient in the first two decades following WWII; thereafter, it has somewhat moderated. Nevertheless, in the decade between 2005 and 2015, world Jewry increased by more than 8 percent – the largest relative growth in any decade since the end of WWII. Last year, 2014, saw an increase of some 100,000 Jews (or 0.6 percent).4

These Jewish population estimates combine objective and subjective definitions of group belonging. They are based on halachic criteria for those residing in Israel, and self-definition for those living elsewhere, whether they view Judaism as a religion or in terms of ethnicity, culture, nationality, or something else. This approach is consistently adopted in the study of Jewish demography allowing assessment of trends in the number of Jews over time.

Notably, there are two additional sub-groups with current orientation to the Jewish people. One is immigrants to Israel, and their offspring, who meet the criteria of the Law of Return but do not define themselves according to any religion. Not halachic Jews, they are designated people of “no religion” in the official statistics of the State of Israel. However, they are deeply integrated into the Israeli society, where public affairs follow the Jewish calendar year, and have been exposed to the Jewish educational system. They operate smoothly within Jewish geographic and social environments, and they speak Hebrew. They have, hence, undergone a “sociological conversion.”5 It stands to reason that they feel strongly attached to Israeli nationality. This group comprises some 350,000 people.6

Another group in the United States includes approximately one million people who regard themselves as “partially Jewish.”7 The overwhelming majority of them are the offspring of mixed parentage. Many have a Jewish mother (i.e., they are halachic Jews) and express pride in their Jewishness; some also exhibit forms of Jewish practice. Some researchers view them as a separate group with “Jewish background”;8 while others include them in the total American Jewish population.9 Although yet unexamined, it is likely that the “partially Jewish” can also be found elsewhere in the Diaspora. Whether to apply a distinct definition of these sub-groups, or alternatively, merging them with the Jewish population, is an entirely subjective decision. Nevertheless, there are two major implications: one is associated with the ratio between the number of Jews in Israel and the number of U.S. Jews, i.e., a larger number in Israel is claimed by those who do not include them in the Jewish population, and a higher number in the United States is asserted by those who do incorporate them; the second implication regards the total number of Jews in the world, i.e., including these sub-groups increases the size of world Jewry so that it is very close (15.5-16 million) to the global Jewish population on the eve of WWII (16.5).

In the midst of this population growth, Jewish geographic dispersion has also changed dramatically. While in 1945 only 5 percent of world Jewry resided in Palestine/Israel, today it is a home to 43 percent of the Jewish population (of 14.2 million).10 This change in population equilibrium in favor of Israel is consistent, and despite some fluctuations in the rate of growth, has been uninterrupted over the years. At the same time, Jewish communities in countries in the early stages of modernization – in Asia and North Africa – have been almost emptied.11 With the more recent influxes from the FSU, Jews have converged in a small number of democratic, economically advanced, and culturally pluralistic countries. This geographic dispersion attests to a salient Jewish presence in strong and influential countries such as the United States, Canada, France, United Kingdom, Germany, and Russia.12 In some of these communities, the number of Jews has recently been on the rise; in others, like Russia, despite the large out-migration, those who stayed have institutionalized themselves in various parochial organizations and activities, they maintain contacts with the general political regime, and lobby for Jewish and Israeli interests in a much more efficient way than what was allowed before perestroika. The presence of Jews in Diaspora countries is characterized by concentration in a few major cities and metropolitan areas.13

Between 2010 and 2014, among the five largest Jewish communities in the world, which jointly constitute 90 percent of world Jewry, three have experienced demographic growth: Israel, the United States, and Canada. Another major Jewish community with a slight increase in numbers is Australia. In contrast, there has been a decline of several thousands of Jews in the large communities of Russia, France, and the United Kingdom. In the remaining of countries, changes in the number of Jews were negligible.14

Jews have achieved extraordinary social and economic attainment in their countries of residence. The developed environment in which they operate encourages them to acquire higher education and to work in professional jobs. They are, hence, concentrated in the upper-most stratum of earnings. Jews hold high positions in politics, media, business and finance, and culture in their countries of residence. More than ever before, they do not hide their Jewishness. These processes have not skipped Israel where groups once on the fringes of society, especially those of Asian-African extraction, the ultra-Orthodox sector, and women, penetrate and integrate into various areas of activity and influence.15

Thus, a grand view of the last seventy years of Jewish demography postulates a steady increase in the number of Jews in the world, their concentration in several major developed countries, Israel included, and a high socio-economic stratification. This background allows us to analyze specific aspects associated with a given place or demographic component. Each such aspect is situated in an appropriate historical context, because only the linkage between past and present can provide useful guidance for policy.