So the Number of Jews Is Small? We'll Survive: Size Isn't All

Roundup: Historians' Take

Historian Berel Wein, writing in the Jerusalem Post Jan. 23, 2004):

The current discussion on Jewish demographics, which has become so heated, is being conducted as though the issue has no historical context. It is obvious that Judaism and the State of Israel cannot exist without a critical mass, yet it's unclear just how many people constitute a critical mass.

The Bible records that there were 600,000 Jewish males between the ages of 20 and 60 who left Egypt. Accounting for women, children, and the aged, it is estimated that three million Jewish souls left Egypt. According to the Bible, there was no material increase in the numbers of Jews during their 40-year sojourn in the desert. From the time of their entry into the Land of Israel until the Babylonian exile, no exact population figures are given. In fact, it has always been Jewish practice not to count Jews directly. The census in the Sinai desert at the time of Moses was taken by counting the half-shekel donations to the Tabernacle, and later, in the time of Saul, by counting sheep brought to the counting stations. David was punished for conducting a direct census of the Jewish population of his time. Thus, the number of Jews in First Temple times is uncertain. What is certain is that the complete demise of the Northern Kingdom of Israel lowered the world's Jewish population substantially.

Ezra rebuilt the Temple and launched the Second Commonwealth with only 42,000 Jews. By the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Jewish population was in the millions. Again, there are no exact figures, but the Talmud speaks of great numbers of Jews in both Israel and Babylonia in the second century. However, the ravages of Roman persecution and the rise of early Christianity with its rabid anti-Semitism appears to have again dramatically reduced the Jewish population.

It is estimated that at the time of the great biblical commentator Rashi (11th-century France), there were probably no more than a million Jews in the world. Even by the time of the 17th-century Chmielnicki pogroms in Eastern Europe, there were hardly two million. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Romanov czars of Russia thought they could solve their "Jewish population problem" through conversion to Christianity, pogroms, and forced emigration. This was based on their opinion that the Jewish population was small enough for such solutions. Yet by 1939, the Jewish population in Europe approached 11 million, and in North and South America there were an additional five million, while the Land of Israel hosted almost half a million Jews. Jewish population in the world in 1939 was estimated at 19 million - probably the high-water mark of Jewish demography.

The Holocaust, assimilation and intermarriage, and communism all conspired to bring down the world Jewish population to about 14 million. Even this figure is probably inflated, since the population surveys of Jewish America indicate that there are only about three million "core Jews" living there. A "core Jew" is a Jew who was born of two Jewish parents, or converted to Judaism religiously (though not necessarily halachicly), and identifies him- or herself as Jewish. Thus, in reality, Israel already contains the majority of the world's "core Jews." Today, there are no longer any vast untapped reservoirs of Jewish populations.

Yet we should not despair, for we have never been a numerous people. The Bible tells us: "I have not chosen you because of your great numbers, for you are the smallest in numbers of all nations."

Fifty years ago, David Ben-Gurion said that when the State of Israel was home to five million Jews it would be secure. Well, we have passed Ben-Gurion's benchmark, but security still eludes us. Nevertheless, our history tells us that security and accomplishment bear little connection to Jewish numbers. As such, we should concentrate on not only making ourselves more numerous, but more Jewish.

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