In a piece I wrote a couple of months ago in the wake of the Parisian Charlie Hebdo attacks I mentioned that Jews were emigrating from France to Israel in greater numbers after increasing anti-Semitic attacks. What is interesting to see is the decline in Jewish numbers throughout Europe since the start of the Second World War and the Holocaust. I had never really thought how many Jews lived in Europe and also how many European Jews there used to be.
As Pew Research notes, it is hard to determine Jewish numbers in a given country accurately:
“Measuring Jewish populations, especially in places like Europe and the United States where Jews are a small minority, is fraught with difficulty. This is due to the complexity both of measuring small populations and of Jewish identity, which can be defined by ethnicity or religion. As a result, estimates vary, but Pew Research’s recent figures are similar to those reported by DellaPergola, one of the world’s leading experts on Jewish demography.”
And what are those numbers? Well, according to 2010 Pew Research Center, there are about 1.4 million Jews living in Europe. This is about 10% of the number of Jews worldwide and 0.2% of Europe’s total population. This is a very different picture from that of 1939 when the majority of Jews lived in Europe (9.5 million or 57%). Even after the War, the number of Jews in Europe was 3.8 million, over a third of all Jews worldwide. Thus, since the end of the Second World War, the number of Jews in Europe has declined by about two thirds. This drop has not been uniform across the continent:
“In Eastern Europe, a once large and vibrant Jewish population has nearly disappeared. DellaPergola estimates that there were 3.4 million Jews in the European portions of the Soviet Union as of 1939. Many were killed in the Holocaust, and others moved to Israel or elsewhere. Today, a tiny fraction of the former Soviet republics’ population – an estimated 310,000 people – are Jews.”
Similarly, there were 4.7 million Jews in Eastern European countries that were not part of the USSR in 1939. Nowadays, there are probably fewer than 100,000 Jews in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Albania, Bulgaria, former Czechoslovakia, European Turkey and former Yugoslavia combined.
However, in the major western European nations, the number of Jews has remained relatively stable. There are as many Jews today in France as there were in 1939 (about 300,000) although as we mentioned a couple of months ago, recent anti-Semitic attacks have precipitated an increased emigration from La Republic to Israel and there is no certainty that the number of Jews in France will continue to hover around the 300,000 mark for the next 70 years. There were 345,000 Jews in the UK in 1939 and this number is now 280,000, while the number of Jews in Germany has increased from 195,000 in 1939 to a quarter of a million today. However, there is no doubt that the continent as a whole has seen a marked decline in Jewish numbers since 1939.
There are obvious reasons for the fall in the European Jewish population between 1939 and 1945: mass murder, war, disease and famine during the War, but the post war decline in the Jewish population in Europe is not so easily accounted for. A large proportion of the decline can be attributed to emigration to Israel. Thus, the Jewish population of Israel has grown eleven fold from half a million in 1945 to 5 and a half million in 2010. Aside, from the lure of the Jewish homeland, Pew Research also noted other possible factors for the decline in European Jewish numbers including intermarriage and cultural assimilation.
Whether the number of Jews in Europe will continue to decline as the climate becomes more hostile for them in many countries remains to be seen. As we mentioned, French Jews seem to be leaving in larger numbers for Israel and they make up about one quarter of those left in Europe. So will the twenty first century see the disappearance of the Jewish population in Europe?