Why Has The Jewish Population In Europe Declined Over The Years?

At the start of the 20th century, Jews accounted for 57% of Europe’s total population, but in 1991 Jews made up only 16% of Europe’s total population.
At the start of the 20th century, Jews accounted for 57% of Europe’s total population, but in 1991 Jews made up only 16% of Europe’s total population.

In recent years, cases of violence targeted towards Jews have increased in Europe. There is also a growing underground anti-Semitism movement in the continent that has become a point of concern to Jews in Europe. Records from the Pew Research Institute have shown that the Jewish population in Europe has experienced a sharp decline since the turn of the 20th century. According to the data, in 1939 the total population of Jews in Europe was estimated to be 9.5 million, but in 2010, this figure had fallen to only 1.4 million Jews. The decline has been attributed to a wide array of factors. The most obvious factor in the decline was the Holocaust which led to the death of 6 million Jews and millions more emigrating from Europe and settling either in the United States, Palestine, or the United Kingdom.

History of Jew Settlement in Europe

The earliest Jewish settlement in Europe is traced back to the 3rd century BCE. These Jews, who practiced Hellenistic Judaism, existed in large numbers in Greece after moving from the Middle East, particularly from Alexandria. Famed historians and writers of this era such as Josephus, Strabo, Seneca, Cicero, and Philo all mentioned the presence of Jews all over the Mediterranean. The Jewish population had spread all over the Roman Empire by the 2nd century BCE, and during the reign of Caesar Augustus, the number of Jews residing in Rome was estimated to be about 7,000 people. In the Middle Ages Jews were found all over Europe and had reached England by the 12th century.

By 1100, the total population of Jews in Christian Europe was estimated to be about 1.5 million people. The Jews were exempted from the then feudal system of government and hence were not required to participate in warfare or the oppressive practices, something that allowed the Jews to prosper and flourish. This prosperity made Jews become easy targets and were blamed for any tragic incident that would arise. A good example was during the Black Death of the 14th century caused by the bubonic plague which decimated Europe’s population. Jews were blamed for the plague, and entire communities were destroyed in an indiscriminate wave of violence targeting Jews. A notable incident happened in February 1349 in Strasbourg where 2,000 Jews were burnt to death as a directive from the city council despite the fact that Strasbourg had not had a single death from the plague. This slaughter, compounded by the millions of deaths from the plague, led to the Jewish population in Europe to experience a drastic decline in the 14th century.

Anti-Semitism in Medieval Europe

The Jewish population in Europe has experienced discrimination in various forms since the Christianization of the Roman Empire in the 8th century AD. Jews and Christians had been engaged in hostility, with Christians blaming Jews for the death of Jesus Christ, the figure on which the entire Christian religion is founded. However, anti-Semitism in Europe reached its peak in the High Middle Age between the 11th century and the 14th century during the crusades. During the First and Second Crusades, entire Jewish communities were destroyed all over Europe with Jews being expelled from France, Poland, and Austria. In the Late Middle Ages, Jewish people who resided in cities in Europe were confined to restricted areas known as ghettos. Spain and Portugal issued directives calling for the expulsion of Jews from the kingdoms in 1492 and 1496 respectively leading to the one of the greatest exodus of Jews from Europe.

The Holocaust

In the turn of the 20th century, the European Jewish population had blossomed and was estimated to have reached about 9 million people. However, anti-Semitism remained an underlying issue, particularly in Germany where these sentiments were propagated by the Volkisch movement. The world was soon embroiled in the First World War which was also known as the Great War. In the aftermath, Germany faced a humiliating defeat and had part of its territory annexed. Germany’s deplorable financial situation was compounded by the Great Depression of the 1930s. German people were desperate for a savior. The anti-Semitic Nazi party gained widespread popularity during this period, and soon Adolf Hitler rose to become Fuhrer of the Third Reich. Anti-Semitism in Germany was not only allowed by the Nazi government but encouraging, with Jews being required to wear armbands for identification.

In the 1940s, the world was plunged into a bloodier war, the Second World War. Using the war as a smoke-screen, Nazi Germany began the large-scale confinement of Jews in concentration camps. In 1942, Nazi leaders began implementing “the final solution” which was intended to annihilate the entire Jewish population of 11 million in Europe. About 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust accounting for two-thirds of the entire Jewish population of Europe. Other Jews were able to immigrate to other countries, such as the United States, in the hundreds of thousands. These incidents led to the greatest decline of the Jewish population in Europe since the Black Death.

Jews in Post World War Europe

Soon after the Second World War ended in 1945, the Jewish population in Europe began a mass exodus from Europe to settle in the United States and Palestine, and thereby leading to a further decrease in the Jewish population in Europe. The settlement of Jews in Palestine created friction with neighboring Islamic countries which led to the Six Day War. This armed conflict led to a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. The Palestine-Israel conflict in the late 20th century also led to the growth of anti-Semitism in Europe. 

The 21st Century Scenario

The number of Jews in Europe has declined further in the 21st century. This decline is most dramatic in countries of the former Soviet Union. Records from the Pew Research Institute showed that in 1945, the total Jewish population in Eastern European countries was about 859,000 people. In 2010, the number of Jews in these countries had fallen to 70,000 people. In Eastern European countries, a new wave of anti-Semitism has been growing particularly among the younger generation.

The Decline of the Jewish Population In Europe

RankYearJewish Population in Europe (in millions)

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