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Definition: Jew from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Follower of Judaism, the Jewish religion. The term is also used to refer to those who claim descent from the ancient Hebrews, a Semitic people of the Middle East. Today, some may recognize their ethnic heritage but not practise the religious or cultural traditions. The term came into use in medieval Europe, based on the Latin name for Judeans, the people of Judah. Prejudice against Jews is termed anti-Semitism.


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Summary Article: Jews
From The Columbia Encyclopedia

[from Judah], traditionally, descendants of Judah, the fourth son of Jacob, whose tribe, with that of his half-brother Benjamin, made up the kingdom of Judah; historically, members of the worldwide community of adherents to Judaism. The degree to which national and religious elements of Jewish culture interact has varied throughout history and has been a matter of considerable debate. There were approximately 17.8 million Jews in the world in 1990, with 8 million in the Americas (of which about 5.7 million were in the United States), 3.5 million in Israel, and 3.5 million in Europe.

Biblical Period

According to the biblical account, much of which is impossible to verify in the archaeological record until late in the monarchial period, Jewish history begins with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who considered Canaan (an area comprising present-day Israel and the West Bank) their home. Their history continues in Goshen, NE Egypt, where they settled as agriculturists many centuries before the Christian era. Under Ramses II the Jews were severely persecuted and, finally, Moses led them out of Egypt; at Mt. Sinai he delivered to them the Ten Commandments.

Many years of wandering in desert wildernesses followed before the Israelites conquered Canaan. Saul became the first king. Initially successful against the Philistines, he was finally defeated at Gilboa. David, of the tribe of Judah, ruled, conquered the enemies of the Jews, expanded his territory across the Jordan River, and brought prosperity and peace to his people. The reign of his son Solomon, who built the first Temple, was the last before a period of disruption. The tribes of the north formed the kingdom of Israel; those of the south formed the smaller but more strongly united kingdom of Judah.

In 722 B.C., Sargon II captured Samaria, capital of Israel, and most of the Israelites (the lost tribes) were exiled. Judah passed under Assyrian domination, then under Egyptian, and in 586 B.C., under Babylonian, when the Temple was destroyed and the people were exiled until their return was permitted by Cyrus the Great (538 B.C.). The rebuilding of the Temple was completed in 516 B.C. The Jews remained a strong religious group during the period of Hellenism, but regained political independence only under the Maccabees. A rebellion, led by Bar Kokba against the Romans in the 2d cent. A.D., ended in defeat. In 63 B.C. Rome conquered Palestine, and the second Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70.


As political aspirations subsided, the Jewish community was increasingly led by scholars and rabbis. Even during the period of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine, large Jewish communities developed in Egypt and Babylonia. After the fall of the Temple, Babylon's Jewish community became the most important in world Jewry and its academies the most influential centers of Jewish learning. In 8th-century Iberia, a large Jewish community played an important part in intellectual and economic life. From the 9th to the 12th cent., Spanish Jewry enjoyed a golden age of literary efflorescence marked by a highly creative interaction between Jewish and Islamic culture.

From the Crusades to the Enlightenment

From the time of the Crusades date the persecutions that persisted until the 18th cent. During this period the ownership of land and most occupations other than petty trading and moneylending were forbidden to European Jews; the ghetto came into existence. The Jews, who had earlier been an agricultural people, became an urban population. The Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and from France in 1306. In 1391, forced conversions began in Spain; in 1492 all remaining Jews were expelled. Many of the exiles perished; others found asylum in the Netherlands and in the Turkish possessions. The German Jews, who experienced periodic explusions throughout the 15th cent., fled to Poland, where, although subject to persecution, they build a thriving culture.

After 1492, Spanish Jews (see Sephardim) spread throughout the Mediterranean world, often absorbing smaller Jewish communities they encountered. In some places a few continued to speak a Judeo-Spanish language known as Judezmo or Ladino into the 21st cent. Some Sephardim also migrated to Western Europe. The other large branch of the Jewish people, known as Ashkenazim, formed in the 9th cent. with the settlement of Jews in the Rhine valley. Marked by their use of Yiddish, a German-Jewish language, the Ashkenazim also migrated east into Poland. The Polish-Lithuanian community became a major center of world Jewry in the 16th cent., distinguished by its high level of Talmudic scholarship. The political vulnerability and religious faith of the Jews led to the rise of several messianic movements; one of the most important was led by Sabbatai Zevi. In the 18th cent. Hasidism arose among the Jews of Eastern Europe.

Emancipation and Secularization

Modern political emancipation of the Jews began with the American and French revolutions. In Germany and Austria emancipation of the Jews was proclaimed after the Revolution of 1848. Simultaneously, the Haskalah encouraged the secularization of Jewish life, and the integration of the Jews into the societies in which they lived. Especially in Western Europe, this led to considerable acculturation, and even assimilation, of Jewish communities. The religious Reform movement advocated a form of Judaism shorn of its national elements and emphasizing ethical content rather than adherence to traditional Jewish law.

Zionism and Mass Migration

In Eastern Europe in the late 1800s, new secular movements arose, particularly after a wave of pogroms in 1881. These movements sought to ameliorate the Jewish condition and establish Jewish life on a new national basis. Zionism advocated the return of the Jews to Palestine. The Zionist movement was formally established in Basel in 1897. During the 19th and early 20th cent., there was a mass migration of Jews westward from Eastern and Central Europe and the Ottoman Empire. During the period 1880 to 1924 some 2.5 million Jews emigrated to the United States, which after 1939 was home to the largest Jewish community in the world. Smaller numbers, under the influence of Zionism, settled in Palestine.

Between 1933, when the Nazis rose to power in Germany, and 1945, when Germany was defeated in World War II, the Jews faced persecution of unprecedented scope and violence; thousands were driven into exile and close to 6 million were systematically slaughtered (see anti-Semitism; Holocaust). After the war, great numbers of Jews sought refuge in Palestine. The Jewish state of Israel was established in 1948 from portions of Palestine, and in succeeding years absorbed many Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. Arab-Jewish relations have been complicated by the hostilities that have resulted in and from the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982.

  • See Graetz, H. , History of the Jews (6 vol., tr. 1926; repr. 1956);.
  • Sachar, A. L. , A History of the Jews (5th ed. 1965);.
  • Roth, C. , The Jewish Contribution to Civilization (3d ed. 1956) and.
  • A Short History of the Jewish People (rev. ed. 1969);.
  • Feingold, H. , Zion in America (1974);.
  • Seltzer, R. , Jewish People, Jewish Thought (1981);.
  • Baron, S. W. , A Social and Religious History of the Jews (27 vol., 1952-83);.
  • de Lange, N. , ed., The Illustrated History of the Jewish People (1997);.
  • Friedländer, S. , Nazi Germany and the Jews (2 vol., 1997-2007);.
  • A. Hertzberg; A. Hirt-Manheimer, Jews (1998);.
  • Vital, D. , A People Apart (1999);.
  • Konner, M. , Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews (2003);.
  • J. R. Baskin; K. Seeskin, The Cambridge Guide to Jewish History, Religion, and Culture (2010);.
  • Schama, S. , The Story of the Jews (2 vol., 2014-17).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

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