What is the Percentage of Jews?

    February 2011            
Search the Jewish Magazine Site: Google


Search our Archives:

» Home
» History
» Holidays
» Humor
» Places
» Thought
» Opinion & Society
» Writings
» Customs
» Misc.


How Many Jews?

By Rob Norman

I did an informal survey recently asking 20 people, “What percentage of the population in the United States is Jewish?” To my great surprise, the average response was 42%, and this included Jewish and non-Jewish respondents. One of the Jewish respondents said “60%” and another said “50%” and only two of the 20 people provided even close to the right answer.

At first, I questioned my questioning but realized after I repeated the question in various ways that I had asked the question correctly. What does this tell us about Judaism and the Jews of America and the world? Certainly it supports the perception that our population is larger than we might assume. But does this also support the idea that our influence is greater than our numbers would indicate?

“Who is a Jew?" is of importance, and is based on ideas about Jewish personhood and has religious, cultural, genealogical, and personal dimensions. A Jew may be considered a person who is obsessed with God, and might be someone who is moved to repair or improve the world whenever the opportunity arises. Other Jews focus on the binding laws, the traditions, the humanistic values of Judaism, and our relationship with Israel.

I strongly believe that our influence is far greater than our numbers, and we have a persistent sense of achievements and goals in this life. As a Jew, not only does this give us a clue as to our high expectations of ourselves here in the USA, but our demands for Israel.

Think about Israel for a moment. Are we too tough on Israel or should we demand more? It is only 62 years old. Now think about the USA when it was 62 years old--660,000 were killed in the Civil War, 30% of the people were slaves, and the country was 95% agrarian. Of course Israel has room to improve, but in 62 years the country has shown an amazing courage and productivity. If you have read Startup Nation, you get a sense of the magnitude of the young nation’s achievements.

According to recent estimates, the world population of Jewry is 13.2 million, but figures range from 12 to 18 million Jews, including both practicing Jews affiliated with synagogues and the Jewish community, and approximately 4.5 million unaffiliated and secular Jews. In 2007, 41% of the world's Jews were living in Israel. The United States had 6,489,000 Jews, only 2.2% of the USA population, and 45% of the Jews in the world. Israel’s 5,569,200 Jews represented 75.5% of the country’s population and 42% of the world Jewish population. Next was France at 490,561 Jews, 0.8% of the country’s people, and 4.2% of the world Jewish population, followed by Canada at 393,660 Jews, 1.2% of its population and 3.0% of the world Jewish population. The United Kingdom stats were 350,000, 0.57%, 2.3% and Argentina 280,000, 0.8%, and 2.3%.

What do these statistics mean? Why the gap between perception and reality when it comes to the number of Jews?

I have asked this question of many others, and the response is often about how the prominence and accomplishments of Jews seems to inflate the perception of the number of Jews. Albert Einstein, Time Magazine’s Person of the 20th Century, is an example of a Jew that has raised the level of Jewish visibility. While on the subject of statistics, at least 181 Jews and people of half- or three-quarters-Jewish ancestry have been awarded the Nobel Prize, and 22% of all individual recipients worldwide between 1901 and 2010 and constituting 36% of all US recipients during the same period were Jewish. Of all organizations awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, 25% were founded principally by Jews or by people of half-Jewish descent. Not bad, considering Jews currently make up approximately 0.2% of the world's population and 2% of the US population. Of course, many Jews in national and local environments have also done their share.

What percentage of Jews are doctors or other professionals as compared to the general population and what percentage of doctors and other professionals are Jews? Jews choose to carry a heavy burden of repairing the world—tikkun olam-on their shoulders as reflected in the numbers in medicine and the helping professions.

Anti-Semitism in the United States a century ago was a major force for Jews to start up small businesses, banks, newspapers and to get into the helping professions that were historically barred for Jews—to prove that it could be done despite the enormous barriers. Many of us have heard the warped comments by some—“Jews control the stock market, the movie business, the publishing industry, the field of psychiatry”-all dangerous comments that can be used against us by those paranoid enough to believe that because of our perceived large numbers and “money-oriented culture” we have some ultimate control over all these businesses.

We should be proud of our successes but also must be careful in our path as Jews. We all know how hubris can backfire in the delicate balance of the modern world, and how our Torah has taught us how we are always at risk when we live with arrogance. But to think we as Jews have such positive influence in spite of the centuries of anti-semitism and our small population is something that makes me kvell, because it shows us how we can meet God halfway in improving the world. As many of our great leaders have said, the proof that we should be here—not only be here but thrive and prosper, is at least partially based on the fact that we are still here at all, and not a historic relic in the desert. So many have predicted our downfall for centuries that every new generation is a step closer to the realization of the important role of the Jew in the future of the world.

The percentage of Jews in the U.S. is projected to be slowly shrinking. The count for Jews is based on the core Jewish population relating to Judaism, excluding Jewish persons professing a different religion but including immigrants from the former U.S.S.R., Eastern Europe, Israel, and other areas. Jews make up approximately 2% of the population of the United States, about the same percentage as in 1900, but is lower than the percentage in 1970 (3.2%).

When we look at Judaism and the Jews of America, we need to realize the burden of our influence—the perception of our numbers is far higher than the actual numbers, and I believe that carries a certain moral weight. Each one of our actions takes on a high profile in the eyes of our fellow travelers on this wonderful planet. It is not only how many Jews we are, but what each of us as Jews is doing to increase our positive influence in the world. With elevated perception of our numbers comes great responsibility, and each of us as Jews needs to choose to do the next right thing, over and over, as we live and work and pray.


from the February 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

Please let us know if you see something unsavory on the Google Ads and we will have them removed. Email us with the offensive URL (www.something.com)