Short read

Jews have been leaving Europe for a century and a half, and show no sign of stopping

90% of all Jews lived in Europe 150 years ago; today that proportion is less than 10%

Dr Jonathan Boyd

The story has been going on now for almost a century and a half. It began when Russian Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by far-left revolutionary terrorists in March 1881. The assassination was quickly blamed on ‘foreign agents,’ or, as some chose to interpret that term in time honoured tradition, Jews. The result was a wave of pogroms over the following three years in modern day Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Belarus and Lithuania. 

It was a turning point in Jewish history in several respects, not least in the development of Zionism and the subsequent establishment of the State of Israel. But the most significant response at the time was mass migration. Jews from across the region fled, driven both by the fear of antisemitism and the promise of a better life elsewhere, most notably the United States. Indeed, between 1881 and 1914, two million Jews left Europe for the USA. 

Remarkably, the demographic structure of the Jewish population of Europe was such that it actually absorbed these losses and continued to grow. But the Shoah put a devastating stop to that. Its toll can be seen clearly in the data: Europe’s Jewish population fell from 9.5 million in 1939 to 3.8 million in 1945. 

About two million among this surviving remnant lived in the Soviet Union, from where it was very difficult to emigrate. Instead, communist policies eroded religious and ethnic identities, leaving Jewish life a meagre shell of what it once was. However, particularly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the floodgates opened. The Jewish population of the FSU fell from about 1.8 million at the time to 210,000 today. 

Interestingly, the story in Western Europe was the opposite. The Jewish population there grew after 1945, climbing from about 800,000 to over a million by 2000. Democracy and economic opportunity not only attracted Jews from elsewhere, but kept many European Jews where they were. But recent Islamist terror attacks on Jewish targets in France has prompted many French Jews to leave the country – over 20,000 left for Israel between 2013 and 2016 – and that alone has changed everything. The Jewish population of Western Europe now shows decline for the first time since 1945. 

Synagogue in Oradea, Romania - now an art centre

Indeed, the attractiveness of Israel has played an important role in the demographic decline of European Jewry. Over a million Jews who left Eastern Europe between 1969 and 2020, particularly in the post-communist era, went there. Smaller waves of Western European Jews made aliyah after 1948, and again after 1967.  

Importantly, those choosing to migrate anywhere have commonly been more likely to be young than old. As a result, the Jewish populations left in Europe have typically had fairly elderly age compositions, not conducive to natural population growth. This fact has just helped to reinforce the numerical decline. Bottom line: there were 3.2 million Jews living in Europe fifty years ago. Today, there are just 1.3 million. 

Jewish community leaders sometimes inflate Jewish population numbers to exaggerate the size of their constituencies for reasons of political expediency. There are some empirical grounds for doing so – indeed, if one uses Israeli Law of Return criteria to determine who is a Jew, the current Jewish population of Europe is 2.8 million. The fact that many of these people are not themselves Jewish, but are rather descendants of Jews, married to Jews, or children or grandchildren of Jews, is given short shrift. 

But in inflating the figures, community leaders may be missing an opportunity. The demographic facts are clear. The Jewish population of Europe has fallen from 9.5 million in 1939 to 1.3 million today. Almost 90% of all Jews in the world lived in Europe when Alexander II was assassinated. Today that proportion is less than 10%. Jews have disappeared from Europe for two main reasons: either antisemitism, including genocide, or because they felt life would be better somewhere else. Neither story reflects well on the narrative of an open, liberal, democratic Europe. 

So when European governments or EU institutions pass legislation or issue judgements against Jewish community interests – such as the recent decision of the European Court of Justice to effectively ban the kosher, and halal, slaughter of animals – they really ought to be reminded of the story captured by these data. The vast majority of European Jews today want to remain here. If European leaders have any sense of history at all, or any genuine understanding of western democratic values, they ought to be bending over backwards to sustain and build the Jewish communities in their midst. 

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Dr Jonathan Boyd

Executive Director

Dr Jonathan Boyd

Executive Director

Jonathan has been Executive Director of JPR since 2010, having previously held research and policy positions at the JDC International Centre for Community Development in...

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