How many European Jews are there? It depends on who you ask

Recently, the head of the European Jewish Congress said there are three million Jews in Europe; Demographers beg to differ.

April 7, 2015 04:16
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Members of the Board of Deputies of British Jews hold up signs reading "I am Charlie," "I am Jewish" and "I am Ahmed," during an event in London. (photo credit: REUTERS)

People are progressively growing more and more aware of the increasing level of anti-Semitism facing European Jewry and while the extent of the problem is a matter of debate it is generally agreed that a solution must be found. The number of people affected, however, remains a matter of dispute with wildly different population numbers being cited by various parties.

“I think out of three million Jews that are living in Europe at least one million, very active part or young part, self-sufficient part are going to leave and it will be a disaster,” European Jewish Congress President Dr. Moshe Kantor told Reuters last month, indicating the presence of a much larger Jewish population than believed to exist by demographers.

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Building on research by Hebrew University demographer Professor Sergio DellaPergola, the Pew Research Center recently asserted that while there are still over a million European Jews “that number has dropped significantly over the last several decades – most dramatically in Eastern Europe and the countries that make up the former Soviet Union.”

While there were 3.2 million Jews there in 1960 and 2 million in 1991, there are currently only 1.4 million Jews left, DellaPergola and Pew asserted. That’s 1,600,000 Jews less than the figures provided by Kantor, a significant discrepancy.

“I would be interested to know how the estimate of three million Jews in Europe was derived,” Conrad Hackett, the demographer at Pew’s Religion & Public Life Project who published the 1.4 million figure, told the Jerusalem Post.

“Due to the nature of Jewish identity, the count of people who identify as Jewish for any reason can be significantly larger than the count who identify as Jewish by religion. For example, in 2013, we estimated there were 4.2 million adult Jews by religion in the United States but by our broadest definition of Jewishness, there were about 9 million adults who could be classified as Jewish in some way. By extension, the count of Europeans who could be classified as Jewish in some way would be larger than the count who identify as Jewish by religion,” he explained.

There are certainly difficulties in measuring Jewish populations in the west and this difficulty increases significantly when dealing with regions of eastern and central Europe formerly under the control of the Soviet Union.

In a 2014 paper on Ukrainian Jewry written for London’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), Darina Privalko noted that “calculating the number of Jews in the Former Soviet Union and in the contemporary post-Soviet states is often a contentious exercise, with official state data frequently mistrusted and all research further complicated by differences over the definition of Jewish identity.”

In the FSU, high rates of intermarriage, reluctance to identify as Jewish or even ignorance of Jewish heritage and contending definitions of Jewishness such as the Israeli law of return and orthodox halacha combine to create a situation in which estimates of Jewish population size are sometimes no more than educated guesses.

According to JPR Development Director Judith Russell, DellaPergola’s figures the “most credible” and “any discrepancies there may be are down to the difficulties of working out how one defines who is a Jew, particularly in Eastern European countries where there are many people with Jewish ancestry who may not self-identify as Jews.”

There is also a certain amount of ignorance regarding what makes a Jew. In a visit to Kiev two years ago, this correspondent met a young Ukrainian man who said that he knew he was a gentile as only his mother was Jewish and he was uncircumcised. Informed that despite not having undergone brit milah, he was still Jewish according to both Israeli law and the halachic definitions of Jewishness of all major denominations, he was overjoyed.

While Judaism is largely viewed as a religion in the west, it is seen as an ethnic cum national group in the FSU and despite years of efforts to rebuild communities following the decades of communist suppression of Jewish education, many people are unaware that they may be considered Jews.

In countries such as Poland, where Jews may have posed as gentiles to avoid being rounded up and killed by the Nazis, their descendants may even be unaware that they have any Jewish connection at all.

Asked how Kantor accounts for the discrepancy, EJC spokeswoman Orly Joseph replied that he believes that there “are a very high number of completely unaffiliated Jews who do not appear in the statistics of any official Jewish institutions.”

It is indeed difficult to obtain a clear picture of the global Jewish population, agreed the World Jewish Congress’ European spokesman Michael Thaidigsmann who said that  while his organization generally works with DellaPergola’s figures, Joseph is right in that “there is a question who should be counted as a Jew, and on what basis.”

While DellaPergola generally “errs on the conservative side” he is “one of the few who do worldwide studies on Jewish populations, and he applies the same criteria everywhere,” he added.

According to Pew and DellaPergola, there were 3.4 million Jews in the Soviet Union in 1939, dropping to 2 million in 1945 and 310,000 in 2010 as “many were killed in the Holocaust, and others moved to Israel or elsewhere.”

Despite all of the research currently being conducted, Thaidigsmann cautioned, in some countries “ there are no clear figures,” especially in Russia and the former Soviet Republics where “you will get wildly differing figures, and it’s very hard to verify this.”

While the general consensus is that it is difficult to identify the precise number of Jews living in contemporary Europe with any degree of exactitude, the great discrepancy between Kantor’s numbers as that of Pew led Hackett to caution that he has also observed “that leaders from minority religious groups often claim their group is larger in size than estimates based on census and survey data.”

And while there is general agreement that it is possible that the figures for Jewish populations in eastern Europe may be higher than currently believed, Joseph did not explain the methodology by which Kantor arrived at the three million figure, which is so much higher than that cited by experts in the field.

“Kantor either refers to an enlarged Law of Return definition, or to his private opinion,” DellaPergola told the Post.

Asked if he thinks that there is a political element to the use of what he and Hackett seem to see as exaggerated population figures, he replied in the affirmative.

“Of course,” he said. “Numbers affect allocation of resources and the egos of leaders.”

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