Any attempt to understand and analyze the state of world Jewry faces several challenges from the start.
First, outside the Jewish-majority State of Israel, which has all the attributes of a nation—census data, economic reports, global rankings, security assessments, and political barometers—Jews live in scores of other countries around the world where such attributes are usually lacking, making it difficult to collect information and reach conclusions about their Jewish communities.
Second, in the country with the largest concentration of Jews outside Israel, the United States, census guidelines prohibit questions about religion, which means that data collection and assessment are pursued by private – scholarly or communal – sources, if at all.
Third, there is no universally accepted definition of who is a Jew. Depending on the community, criteria can range from a very open understanding of Jewish identity – e.g., anyone who considers herself or himself a Jew, or anyone who has any Jewish ancestry – to much more restrictive definitions – e.g., only those who have a Jewish mother or those who have been converted to Judaism by certain rabbis and not others.
And fourth, since Jews are a famously argumentative and, at times, fractious people, they cannot easily be categorized or pigeonholed. It has often been said that when two Jews get together, they voice at least three different opinions.
With these constraints in mind, here are some generalizations that can be made about Jews.
The Jews are an ancient people who tend to be very conscious of their history – a “people of memory.” Whether it is the exodus from Egypt over 3,000 years ago, the Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal just over 500 years ago, the pogroms in Eastern Europe that led to large-scale emigration, the Holocaust, or the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands, the links between past and present are enduring and shape the outlooks of contemporary Jews.
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David Harris is the Chief Executive Officer of the American Jewish Committee (www.AJC.org), which is home to the Jewish world’s only Asia Pacific Institute. Nobel Laureate and former Israeli President Shimon Peres has referred to him as the “foreign minister of the Jewish people.” He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Johns Hopkins University, and has been honored a total of 14 times by ten governments.