An Excerpt from Engaging with Jewish People: Understanding Their World, Sharing Good News
here are approximately 14 million Jewish people in our world of over 7 billion. That means my people make up less than one percent of the world’s population. Actually it’s a lot less than one percent. It’s two tenths of one percent. And yet, in ways that could fill entire books, Jewish people have had a disproportionate amount of influence in the worlds of politics, education, business, science, entertainment, literature, and numerous other fields. When you consider how so very few (none?) of the world’s other ancient peoples still exist (seen any Hittites or Jebusites lately?), you can see why some people see the hand of almighty God behind the people He calls “chosen.”
A little less than half of those 14 million live in Israel. Almost that same number live in the United States with almost half of those living in or near New York City. Most Jewish people live in or near cities such as Los Angeles, Paris, London, Toronto, Buenos Aries, and Moscow. Of course, by the time you read this, those locations may have shifted a bit. As I write this in early 2016, I hear about significant migrations of Jewish people from France to Israel because of rising anti-Semitism.
My people have always had to move because of hatred and persecution. Some of the numbers of change in population can stagger the imagination. Poland’s demographics disturb the most. In 1930, 3 million Jewish people lived in Poland. Today there are barely 3,000. Most were killed by the Nazis. The rest escaped to America, Israel and elsewhere. The combined populations of Jewish people in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania had grown to over 2.5 million by 1930. Today, those locations account for less than 200,000.
Of course, these numbers all presume it’s easy to identify who is Jewish and who is not. They’re the biological descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, right? But such simplicity rarely occurs in the Jewish world. In fact, you could read lengthy discussions about “Who is a Jew?” that would make you wonder if you’ve stumbled into a law-school classroom or a Shakespearean tragedy.
Part of the problem developed when the newly established nation of Israel passed “the law of return.” This allowed Jewish people from all over the world to settle in Israel and claim automatic citizenship “if they identify themselves as Jewish.” You see the potential problems, don’t you? The Israeli government had to qualify that a bit. Eventually they landed on the view that you were Jewish if your mother was Jewish. Why your mother and not your father, since so many places in the Scriptures trace people’s ancestries through the line of the father? Because the centuries of persecution often included the raping of Jewish women by non-Jewish oppressors. This led to births of children who knew who their mother was but for whom identifying their father wasn’t so easy. So the rabbis decided that the way to keep our people intact and distinguish who “we” are from who “they” are was to keep track of the mothers and their children. God did raise up fathers to lead the families and communities from the survivors of such cruelty, but it all made for a rather messy situation. Perhaps this is why Jewish people now place such a high priority on the family. Then again, the Bible values the family rather highly as well.
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