Europe has lost almost 60% of its Jewish population over the past 50 years, mainly as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union which saw many Jews leave eastern Europe as borders opened, according to a new study.
Only about 9% of the global Jewish population now lives in Europe, down from a peak of nearly 90% in the late 19th century – but similar to the proportion 1,000 years ago.
In total, an estimated 1.3 million Jews live in Europe in 2020, about 0.1% of the continent’s population. Two-thirds of them live in France, the UK and Germany.
The figures are in a report produced by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research, which attempts to give a comprehensive picture of Jewish populations in European countries.
“Jews have not only been an integral part of European history and culture but are actually one of its oldest and original component groups,” says the report titled Jews in Europe at the Turn of the Millennium.
“However, throughout history, the inherent weakness of a landless and powerless minority vis-a-vis territorially based societies and their constituted powers often put Jewish people in a condition of dependency and instability, and translated into powerful ups and downs in the Jewish presence.”
Between the end of the 18th and 19th centuries, the number of Jews in the world rose dramatically to over 10 million, and climbed further to 16.5 million on the eve of the second world war. Most of the growth was in eastern Europe, then America and then Palestine and Israel.
The murder of 6 million Jewish people in the Holocaust reduced the global population to around 11 million, “radically disrupt[ing] what had been up to that moment the continuous build-up and transformation of European Jewry”.
In 1880, 88% of the world’s Jews lived in Europe. By 1945 this share had fallen to 35%, then to 26% in 1970 and to 9% in 2020. Most of this decline happened in eastern Europe, where the share of the global total fell from 26% in 1945 to 2% in 2020.
In the latter decades of the 20th century, the “opening of the doors of the Soviet Union” meant that over 1.8 million Jews left eastern Europe between 1969 and 2020, resulting in “a drastic shift in the Jewish population’s centre of gravity from the east to the west of the continent”.
The study also reports that almost 70,000 Israeli-born Jews now live permanently in Europe, around 25% of them in the UK. The vast majority of European Jews – including 90% of British Jews – are not actively making plans to emigrate to Israel or elsewhere.
A minority of European Jewish families have more than five children, with the highest proportion (24%) in Belgium which has a large ultra-Orthodox population. The lowest proportion (5%) is in Poland.
More than three-quarters of Polish Jews are married to non-Jews, but only 14% of Belgian Jews. Intermarriage has been a “significant factor in the erosion of the Jewish population size” as children in such families are often not brought up as Jewish.
The UK Jewish population had the smallest proportion (4%) of converts to Judaism, and Spain the largest (25%).
In every one of 12 EU countries , Jews were more pro-EU than the non-Jewish population. In Hungary there was the biggest gap, with 51% of Jews saying they had a strong attachment to the EU, compared to 19% of the total population. There were also big gaps in Poland, Austria and Hungary.