The dramatic decline of the Jewish population worldwide

Jews have long been an integral part of European history and culture.  Though calculations may differ because of alternative definitions of Jewishness, whether based on religion, ethnicity, parentage, or culture, the world's Jewish population living in Europe today is at its lowest level in a thousand years and has been declining.  The Jewish presence depends on various factors: the amount of tolerance for Jewish diversity in traditional culture; the manifestation of anti-Semitism, verbal and physical; the legal status of Jews; the availability of economic and educational facilities; the recognition of Jews as a distinct religious group; and the degree of intermarriage.

By the 19th century, world Jewry amounted to about 10 million; 88% lived in Europe.  By the start of World War II, world Jewry had increased to 16.6 million.  Jews at first, up to the 19th century, moved from Western to Eastern Europe, the reversed direction.  The Holocaust resulted in 6 million murdered, thus reducing the European Jewish population to 5.11 million, 35% of world Jewry.  The number fell to 26% in 1970 and 9% today, European Jewry now numbering 1.3 million out of a total 14.7 million.  Present figures are France, 449,000; U.K., 295,000; Russia, 155,000; and Germany, 118,000.  Since the end of the Soviet Union, the countries of the E.U. were the main place for Jewish residence.

Most of the decrease in the number of Jews took place in eastern Europe to 2% today.  Between 1948 and 1968, 620,000 Jews migrated from Eastern Europe, over half to Israel.  At the same time, 250,000 Jews from North Africa migrated to France and another 50,000 to the rest of Europe.  Between 1970 and 2020, Europe lost 59 % of its Jewish population, mostly from Eastern Europe.  After the Six-Day War and then the end of the Soviet Union, about 1.8 million left Eastern Europe — 1 million to Israel, but 120,000 to Germany.  The center of European Jewish gravity shifted from Eastern to Western Europe, with the main beneficiary being Germany.

Today, 1.3 million in Europe self-identify as Jews, though 2.8 million have at least one Jewish grandparent or are married to someone with at least one Jewish grandparent.  The world population is 6.2 billion; the main estimate is that there are 13–14 million Jews in the world, including 6.5 million in Israel and 5.7 million in the U.S.  Europe has lost 8.5% of its Jewish population since 1970.  France has 450,000 today, compared to 530,000 in 1970.  The U.K. has seen a decline of 25% since 1970, to the present 295,000.  Since 2000, more than 51,000 French Jews moved to Israel, partly for economic reasons, but mainly by fears of anti-Semitism.  In Germany, about 40% of the 118,000 Jews are over 65 while only 10% are under 15; logically, Germany's Jewish population will decline and possibly disappear.  Jews will also disappear because of intermarriage: in Poland, this accounts for 70% of Jews, in Hungary 50%, and 24% in the U.K.

In general, the Jewish communities can be characterized as an urban population, one with low fertility with a significant proportion of Jews of child bearing age not married, and over half of Jewish households having only one or two children.

In contrast, Israel, which at its creation in 1948 had 800,000 citizens, has a population of 9.2 million, 0.11% of world population, of whom 74% are Jewish and 1.8 million are Arabs.  It is a highly urban country.  Jerusalem has 936,000 inhabitants, Tel Aviv has 460,000, and Haifa 280,000.

A final word on the U.S.  In the late 1940s, Jews were about 4% of the U.S. population; now it is 2.2%, a community of zero population growth, one that is aging and shrinking.  Jews began arriving in the Americas with 23 Sephardim who came to New Amsterdam in 1654.  At first, more Sephardim arrived, then immigrants came from Germany, and then from east Europe, leading to 4.2 million in 1930.  Within the U.S., population changes have occurred — about 44% live in the Northeast, 17% of the U.S. population; 23% in the West, same as the general population; 22% in the South, 38% of the total population, and 11% in the Midwest, 21% of the U.S.  Numbers of Jews have been declining in big U.S. cities: New York, 1.5 million; Los Angeles, 519,000; San Francisco, 311,000; and Washington, D.C., 292,000.

In spite of problems in the world, most will agree that human progress has occurred, as the world is better fed, richer, safer, better educated.  However, the impact of the Holocaust has been dramatic on the Jewish population and demography in Europe.  It is saddening that in the last 50 years, Europe has lost 60% of its Jewish population.  How many who see a performance of Fiddler on the Roof will appreciate that sadness now that the proportion of Jews in Eastern Europe has declined to 2% of global Jewry?