How Many Jews Are in the World Today?
Who is a Jew?
Counting Jews requires decisions about who is being counted, a direct function of whom we define as a Jew: biology, self-identity, or behavior. Biological Jews are individuals with a Jewish parent versus those Jews who practice Judaism, with or without having a Jewish mother or father. According to Reform Judaism and the patrilineal descent of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a Jewish father can define a Jew. According to Orthodox and Conservative Judaism and the tradition of hundreds of years, only a Jewish mother defines a Jew. Demographic surveys usually do not ask about grandparents, although Israel‘s law of return includes grandparent lineage.
Self-identity is how individuals think of who they are. Some people think of themselves as Jews regardless of their parents‘ religion. They may have Jewish heritage or Jewish peer groups.
Behavior is what people do. Behavioral Jews practice Judaism and live as Jews, with or without biological origins. This includes people who go to synagogue weekly, observe kashrut, and otherwise meet tests of behavioral Judaism.
If their parents were not Jewish or they did not formally convert to Judaism, we usually exclude them in our counts.
How Many Jews Are in the World Today?
Scholars have only a rough idea about how many Jews there are in the world today. Current sources report between 13,500,000 and 15,500,000, a variance of about 15%, as defined within very limited boundaries. The real number is probably much higher. Both locating Jews and convincing them to reveal their religious identity complicates and compromises our ability to estimate the number of Jews. These factors result in undercounting Jews around the world. If we consider all the issues that plague counting the Jewish populations around the world, we are probably missing millions of Jews in our official counts.
The snapshot of the worldwide geographic distribution of Jews today is dramatically different from what it was prior to World War II. Before the Holocaust, Europe was the center of the world‘s Jewish population, with relatively large populations also spread throughout North America, North Africa, and the Middle East. In spite of discrimination and harassment in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the world Jewish population showed a steady growth from 2.5 million in 1800 to 11 million in 1900. This growth continued from 1900 to 1938. Prior to the Holocaust that 11 million grew to 16.6 million. The majority of Jews continued to live in Europe with 9.5 million in 1938. North and South America had 5.5 million Jews. The number of Jews in Asia grew from 500,000 to one million between 1900 and 1938.
After much of European Jewry was murdered, almost one million Jews living in Muslim countries were forcibly expelled. They migrated to Israel, France and North America, resulting in two major population centers in the United States and Israel. Today, the United States and Israel together comprise about 75% of the total world‘s Jewish population.
Relatively low birth rates and some Jews leaving Judaism have resulted in a stagnant population today. Population loss and decline in most individual Jewish communities around the world is largely the result of migrations from one place to another overall stasis has developed. The Jewish population of the United States, for example, would be considerably smaller if not for the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union, Iran, and elsewhere over the last 30 years. Similarly, much of the population growth in Germany has resulted from migration from the former Soviet Union, France from migrations from Northern Africa, and Israel from Jews all over the world.
At this point, there is a zero sum game of Jewish populations around the world exchanging populations. Destinations include a few select countries, primarily, the United States, Germany, France, Canada, and Australia. Aliyah to Israel continues, with growing numbers from North America, France, and from the former Soviet Union.
The Table of World Jewish Populations compiles data from three different sources: The World Jewish Congress, The American Jewish Yearbook, and Wikipedia. It provides an overview of the major Jewish communities around the world, but also exposes the limitations of collecting population data about Jews. For example, some countries are listed with “0” population, either because the source has no information or the researchers believe there are no Jews living there.
The World Jewish Congress reports that there are 25,000 Jews in Austria and The American Jewish Yearbook published by The American Jewish Committee estimates that there are 103,000, and Wikipedia 8,184, a variance of 1200%. Wikipedia claims there are 717,101 Jews in Russia, American Jewish Congress reports 450,000 and The American Jewish Yearbook lists 228,000, a variance more than 300%. The high and low estimates are all almost random.
These widely used sources that show the Jewish population estimates, country-by-country, do not agree on the size of some of the world‘s largest Jewish populations. None of these compilations is particularly more reliable than the other, and often draw their information from the same unscientific local sources. The data on Israel are the most accurate. Others, including the United States, France and the former Soviet Union are more problematic.
The largest Jewish population lives in the United States—somewhere between 6 and 7 million as estimated by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in 2002. Over 5 million Jews live in Israel. France has somewhere between 600,000 and 750,000. Large Jewish populations can also be found in Russia, Great Britain, and Argentina.
As they have for thousands of years, Jews keep moving from place-to-place, country-to-country. A map of the geographic distribution of world Jewry is a snapshot in time, and twenty years later may look different again. What will the Jewish map look like in 2025? Will Jews be on the move again, and where?