Historical Jewish population comparisons
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Jewish population centers have shifted tremendously over time, due to the constant streams of Jewish refugees created by expulsions, persecution, and officially sanctioned killing of Jews in various places at various times. In addition, assimilation and forced conversions have also impacted Jewish population sizes throughout Jewish history.
The 20th century saw a large shift in Jewish populations, as a result of large-scale migration to the Americas and to Palestine due to pogroms in the Russian Empire followed by the Holocaust. The independence of Israel sparked mass emigrations and expulsions of Jews from the Arab world.
Ancient and medieval times
Further information: Jewish history
The Torah contains a number of statements as to the number of (adult, male) Jews that left Egypt, the descendants of the seventy sons and grandsons of Jacob who took up their residence in that country. Altogether, including Levites, the number given is 611,730. For non-Levites, this represents men fit for military service, i.e. between twenty and sixty years of age; among the Levites the relevant number is those obligated in temple service (males between twenty and fifty years of age). This would imply a population of about 3,000,000. The Census of David is said to have recorded 1,300,000 males over twenty years of age, which would imply a population of over 5,000,000. The number of exiles who returned from Babylon is given at 42,360. Tacitus declares that Jerusalem at its fall contained 600,000 persons; Josephus, that there were as many as 1,100,000 slain in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, along with 97,000 who were sold as slaves. However, Josephus also qualifies this count, noting that Jerusalem was besieged during the Passover. The majority of the 1,197,000 would not have been residents of the city, but rather were visiting for the festival. These appear (writes Jacobs) to be all the figures accessible for ancient times, and their trustworthiness is a matter of dispute. 1,100,000 is comparable to the population of the largest cities that existed anywhere in the world before the 19th century, but geographically the Old City of Jerusalem is just a few per cent of the size of such cities as ancient Rome, Constantinople, Edo period Tokyo and Han Dynasty Xi'an. The difficulties of commissariat in the Sinai desert for such a number as 3,000,000 have been pointed out by John William Colenso.
In the Hadrianic war of 132-135 AD 580,000 Jews were slain, according to Cassius Dio (lxix. 14). According to Theodor Mommsen, in the first century C.E. there were no fewer than 1,000,000 Jews in Egypt, in a total of 8,000,000 inhabitants; of these 200,000 lived in Alexandria, whose total population was 500,000. Adolf Harnack (Ausbreitung des Christentums, Leipzig, 1902) reckons that there were 1,000,000 Jews in Syria at the time of Nero in 60's AD, and 700,000 in Judea, and he allows for an additional 1,500,000 in other places, thus estimating that there were in the first century 4,200,000 Jews in the world. Jacobs remarks that this estimate is probably excessive.
As regards the number of Jews in the Middle Ages, Benjamin of Tudela, about 1170, enumerates altogether 1,049,565; but of these 100,000 are attributed to Persia and India, 100,000 to Arabia, and 300,000 to an undecipherable "Thanaim", obviously mere guesses with regard to the Eastern Jews, with whom he did not come in contact. There were at that time probably not many more than 500,000 in the countries he visited, and probably not more than 750,000 altogether. The only real data for the Middle Ages are with regard to special Jewish communities.
The Middle Ages were mainly a period of expulsions. In 1290, 16,000 Jews were expelled from England; in 1306, 100,000 from France; and in 1492, about 200,000 from Spain. Smaller but more frequent expulsions occurred in Germany, so that at the commencement of the 16th century only four great Jewish communities remained: Frankfurt, 2,000; Worms, 1,400; Prague, 10,000; and Vienna, 3,000 (Heinrich Grätz, Geschichte der Juden x. 29). It has been estimated that during the five centuries from 1000 to 1500, 380,000 Jews were killed during the persecutions, reducing the total number in the world to about 1,000,000. In the 16th and 17th centuries the main centers of Jewish population were in Poland and the Mediterranean countries, Spain excepted.
By the early 13th century, the world Jewish population had fallen to 2 million from a peak at 8 million during the 1st century, with only 250,000 living in Christian lands. Many factors had devastated the Jewish population, including the Bar Kokhba Revolt and the First Crusade.
Further information: Jewish population by country
Again following Jacobs, Jacques Basnage at the beginning of the 18th century estimated the total number of European Jews at 1,360,000, but according to a census at the First Partition of Poland in 1772, the Jews of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth numbered 308,500. As these formed the larger part of the European Jews, it is doubtful whether the total number was more than 400,000 at the middle of the 18th century; and, counting those in the lands of Islam, the entire number in the world at that time could not have been much more than 1,000,000.
Assuming that those numbers are reasonable, the increase in the next few centuries was remarkably rapid. It was checked in Germany by the laws limiting the number of Jews in special towns, and perhaps still more by overcrowding; Jacobs gives citations for there being 7,951 Jews at Prague in 1786 and 5,646 in 1843, and 2,214 at Frankfurt in 1811.
Chubinsky reports that in 1840 the Jews of southern Russia were accustomed to dwell thirteen in a house, whereas among the general population the average was only four to five (Globus, 1880, p. 340). The rapid increase was undoubtedly due to the early age of marriage and the small number of deaths of infants in the stable communities. The chief details known for any length of time are for the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, and Württemberg; see chart at right.
Jacobs in the Jewish Encyclopedia presents some evidence that Jewish increase in this period may have exceeded that of the general population, but remarks also that such figures of increase are often very deceptive, as they may indicate not the natural increase by surplus of births over deaths, but accession by immigration. This applies especially to Germany during the early part of the 19th century, when Jews from Galicia and Poland seized every opportunity of moving westward. Arthur Ruppin, writing in the late 19th century, when forcible measures were taken to prevent Russian Jews from settling in Germany, showed that the growth of the Jewish population in Germany had almost entirely ceased, owing to a falling birth rate and, possibly, to emigration. Similarly, during this period, England and the United States showed notable Jewish immigration.
This growth in actual numbers was somewhat offset by conversion away from Judaism. While Halakha (Jewish law) says that a Jew who converts is still a Jew, in the climate of persecution that prevailed in much of Europe in this period, conversion tended to be accompanied by a repudiation of Jewish identity, and converts to Christianity generally ceased to be considered part of the Jewish community. The Jewish Encyclopedia gives some statistics on conversion of Jews to Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Greek Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity. The upshot is that some 2,000 European Jews converted to Christianity every year during the 19th century, but that in the 1890s the number was running closer to 3,000 per year, — 1,000 in Austria-Hungary, 1,000 in Russia, 500 in Germany, and the remainder in the Anglo-Saxon world. Partly balancing this were about 500 converts to Judaism each year, mainly formerly Christian women who married Jewish men. For Russia, Galicia, and Romania, conversions were dwarfed by emigration: in the last quarter of the 19th century, probably 1,000,000 Jews from this area of Europe emigrated, primarily to the United States, but many also to the United Kingdom.
Toward the end of the 19th century, estimates of the number of Jews in the world ranged from about 6,200,000 (Encyclopædia Britannica, 1881) to 10,932,777 (American Jewish Year Book, 1904–1905). This can be compared with estimates of about half that number a mere 60 years earlier, though for comparison estimates of the total population of Europe show it also to have doubled between 1800 and 1900.
The Jewish Encyclopedia article on which this discussion is largely based estimates only 314,000 Sephardic Jews at the end of the 19th century. More recent scholarship tends to suggest that this estimate is low. The same source gives two wildly different estimate for the Falasha, the Ethiopian Jews, variously estimating them at 50,000 and 200,000; the former would be comparable to their present-day population. In the 20th century during the period of The Holocaust was the mass murder or genocide of approximately 6,000,000 Jews during World War II.
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