Jewish Population Census Dilemma Featured

By Professor: Abdel-Wahab El-Messiri November 16, 2023 5501

According to some estimations, the Hebrews population, in the year 1000 BC, was about 1.8 million people, with 450,000 in the southern kingdom and 1,350,000 in the northern kingdom. However, there is an opinion that this number is exaggerated, as the natural resources and economy of Palestine at that time, given the technological level of development, could not have sustained such a large population. Noting that Egypt’s population, with all its resources and growth rate, was around six million.

The increase in the number of Jews can be attributed to several factors. One of which was the Hasmonean state's efforts to Judaize some non-Jewish populations within its borders, such as the Itureans, and other neighboring nations like the Idumeans whom the Hasmonean ruled. Additionally, the Pharisees carried out a very successful massive missionary movement, because the Roman pagan religion was entering a crisis phase, ultimately leading to its downfall and the adoption of Christianity as the official Roman religion. Judaism spread among significant numbers of Romans, including some members of the ruling elite, during the time gap between the beginning of Roman pagan decline and its eventual fall. People embraced Christianity in terms of religion and belief, as it explains the universe to its followers and provides them with answers to the major cosmic questions they face.

The so-called "Pax Romana," which prevailed in regions where the Jewish community lived, offered security and tranquility, encouraging the Jews growth. The Jews involvement in commercial activities might have improved their living standards and led them away from combat duties, resulting in a decrease in mortality rates.

Finally, it’s said that after the fall of Carthage, the Phoenician and Carthaginian diaspora joined the members of the Jewish Hebrew communities, considering themselves all Semites belonging to the same cultural formation and performing the same function.

The picture began to change in the early Middle Ages in the West and the Islamic era in the East, with the disappearance of large numbers of Jews through processes of assimilation and integration. With the rise of Christianity, a significant number of Jews converted, as happened in Alexandria, for example. With the spread of Islam, many of them embraced the new religion, and Jewish communities turned into scattered small groups. It was difficult to estimate the number of Jews in the world at that time since the statistics were highly contradictory. In the Islamic world, statistics were unreliable, and in Europe, there were no statistical records.

Nevertheless, most references suggest that the Jews number in the world ranged from one to two million, with the majority (85-90%) concentrated in the Islamic world by the end of the twelfth century. However, we prefer to consider the figure of one million, especially when viewing later figures, as the number of Jews in Europe did not exceed 100,000-350,000 (out of a total European population of 53 million) while it reached 450,000 in the year 1300 (only 300,000 according to some accounts) from a total of 53 million, mostly concentrated in Spain. The estimated statistical number of Jews worldwide in the fifteenth century was around one and a half million.

Until that date, the majority of the world's Jews were of the Islamic world as well as the Sephardic Jews settled around the Mediterranean basin, in places such as Rome, Alexandria, Spain, Morocco (affiliated to the Ottoman Empire), Salonika, Italy, and France. Ashkenazi Jews in Europe were only a small minority. However, gradually over time, this distribution changed until the Ashkenazi Jews became the vast majority.

To explain this situation, it is essential to look at the phenomenon of the growing number of Jewish community members in Poland, turning it into the largest Jewish hub in the world. Statistics indicate that the Jewish population in Poland (in 1500) was about 10,000 to 15,000, but it suddenly increased to 150,000 between 1500 and 1648. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, they became the world's largest Jewish community, as Jews had been expelled from Spain.

However, a completely new phase began, after the Vienna Conference in 1815, resulting in a population explosion among the Jews. If the Jewish population in 1800 was 2.5 million, it increased to approximately 16,724,000 on the eve of World War II.

 This means that they had grown sixfold in less than 150 years. In the period from 1820 to 1825, the Jewish population was 3,280,000, and it grew to 10,602,500 by 1900.

This means they had tripled in 75 years, noting that the increase was only among Western Jews. The population of Eastern Jews had not increased; in fact, it shrank to 900,000 in 1840 and 800,000 in 1860. However, it grew to 950,000 due to the migration of some Yiddish Jews from the West in 1900. But this growth was not limited to Jewish communities. In approximately the same period (from 1815 to 1914), the population of Europe increased from 190 million to 400 million and the United States grew from 7,240,000 in 1810 to 91,972,000 in 1910. Although the increase in the United States can be explained by immigration, this was the era of massive European migration, whether Jews or not. The United States accommodated around 85% of the immigrants. However, the increase in Europe can only be explained by an increase in the birth rate and a decrease in the death rate. Nevertheless, it is observed that the rate of increase in Jewish communities was higher than the general rate in Europe, possibly because members of these communities lived under the same conditions that led to the population increase in Europe and under other conditions specific to them, resulting in this increase.

It is noted that improvements in health conditions, as a result of the industrial revolution in Europe, had a positive impact on members of Jewish communities. However, it seems that the health level within Jewish neighborhoods was higher than the general health level due to the meat and food control, thanks to implementing the dietary laws.

In Eastern Europe, where most Jews were concentrated, the income of Jewish community members was higher, and their lifestyle was more comfortable and prosperous than that of the majority of the rural population. Members of the Jewish community also enjoyed a higher level of cultural education. Naturally, this was reflected in the quality of the food they consumed, leading to the disappearance or reduction of diseases associated with poverty and malnutrition. Jewish families had a very high degree of cohesion, stemming from their adherence to religious and traditional values, far exceeding that of non-Jewish families. This is evident in the statistics of illegitimate children, where they were far less among Jews than among non-Jews. These two factors together contributed to the reduction of child mortality and encouraged higher birth rates.

Another significant factor was the early marriage among Jews. It was common for young men between the ages of 15 and 18 to marry girls from the ages of 14 to 16. In some cases, central national governments in Russia and Austria occasionally imposed regulations on the age of marriage and the number of allowed marriages (due to various reasons, including the prevalence of Malthus ideas). When rumors spread about impending laws and regulations, Jews hurried to marry off their underage children before the laws took effect. In one Polish census from the 18th century, there was mention of an eight-year-old wife. In 1712, authorities in Amsterdam prohibited the marriage of two Jewish children under the age of twelve.

An essential element contributing to the increase in the Jewish population during the period from 1800 to 1914 was the relative absence of wars in the areas with most of the world's Jews. The Napoleonic battles took place far from the Jewish population centers. Additionally, not many countries were recruiting Jews into the military during this time. In the Russian Empire, their conscription began in 1827, in Poland in 1845, and in the Ottoman Empire in 108. Regarding the massacres mentioned in some Zionist references, only a few hundred Jews fell victim to them during this period.


Read the article in Arabic