Growth trend: UK Jewish success story goes on

But history always teaches us to be cautious about predicting the future so watch this space


For every Jew living in the United Kingdom in November 1841 when the JC was first published, there are about ten today. Yet despite the overwhelming story of growth, recent talk has mostly been about decline.

Demographic science was still in its infancy in 1841. But coincidentally enough, the first modern census in the United Kingdom took place just before the JC was established, in June of the same year, and found a total population of 26.7 million.

Jews were not enumerated separately — that would not happen for another 160 years — but contemporaneous estimates suggest a Jewish population of about 30,000.

That number represented a significant increase compared to previous years. The Jewish population had grown three or fourfold over the 18th century, mainly due to the arrival of significant numbers of impoverished Ashkenazi Jews from Holland, Germany and, to a lesser extent, Poland.

Yet the 1830s saw wealthier Jews start to arrive from Germany as well. They had benefited economically from the emancipatory tide there, but their lives remained unstable because of the reaction against it, and they were attracted to Britain by new opportunities in industry.

Members of some of the major Jewish banking families also started to arrive, particularly from Frankfurt, bringing newfound wealth and philanthropic support to the community.
For the following few decades, the Jewish population grew at a more modest pace. Immigration continued, notably from Russia and Poland, but slowed, and emigration increased, particularly to the United States.

Yet Jews became more anglicised and prosperous in Victorian Britain, and prosperity brought greater longevity, helping to bolster population counts. By the early 1880s, there were an estimated 60,000 Jews in the country, among a general population of about 38 million – still a tiny minority, but a growing one nonetheless.

The year 1881 was a turning point in modern Jewish history in many ways. Economic stresses combined with a series of pogroms in the Russian Pale of Settlement, prompted initially by the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, led to a vast wave of Jewish migration from Russia, mainly to the US, whilst also giving impetus to the causes of Zionism, Bundism and Communism.

Amidst this tremendous upheaval, between 120,000 and 150,000 Eastern European Jewish migrants settled permanently in the UK in the four decades before the outbreak of the First World War, with many more settling temporarily or merely passing through.

The new arrivals were overwhelmingly poor, and their foreign, underprivileged ways often felt threatening to the integrated British Jewish establishment whose social position remained unstable, particularly at a time when racial antisemitism was becoming acceptable.

But they integrated quickly and brought new momentum to Jewish life via their strong sense of Jewishness and their fertility – Jewish population increases at that time were due to the combined forces of immigration and natural growth.

By 1914, an extraordinary transformation had taken place: there were nearly 300,000 Jews living in the UK, about 0.7 per cent of the population of the country as a whole.

Despite suffering losses during the First World War, the Jewish population of the UK was bolstered again in the 1930s. Britain gave refuge to some 90,000 Jews fleeing Nazism before the outbreak of the war, mainly from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939, although with the turmoil caused by the war, only about 50,000 of them remained in Britain by 1950.
European Jewish population data for the war period make agonising reading. Almost every country shows Jewish population decline, often on a devastating scale.

Only a few places saw growth between 1939 and the 1945: Switzerland, Scandinavia, the Iberian peninsula, Albania and, remarkably, the UK, where the number of Jews climbed from 345,000 to 350,000. The exception of the British case demonstrates just how fortunate the community was to escape a horrifying fate.

UK Jewish population figures were further bolstered again straight after the war, partly by the arrival of a small number of Holocaust survivors, but mainly as the wider post-war baby boom played itself out in the Jewish community.

And in the 1950s, a few thousand Jews arrived from former British colonies – India, Iraq and Egypt – followed in 1967 by a small number of Adeni Jews after Yemen’s declaration of independence.

But a reversal of a three-century-long growth trend was already in place by then. The UK Jewish population peaked in the 1950s at about 420,000, some 0.8 per cent of the whole. The second half of the 20th century was marked by decline, driven by three main factors: assimilation, ageing and low fertility.

A good proportion of the German Jewish immigrants who arrived in the 1930s were already very assimilated, and the less than warm welcome offered by the extant Jewish community did little to integrate the next generation.

At the same time, as increasing numbers of Jews moved out to more suburban parts of Britain’s major urban centres, some of the community cohesion that had existed began to dissipate.

The new state of Israel also started to attract Jewish immigrants from the UK, many of whom were young and engaged in Jewish life, and they took their Jewish commitments, as well as their fertility, with them. To date, about 37,000 British-born Jews have made aliyah since 1948.

That said, it has not all been one-way traffic, particularly in more recent times: in the first decade of the 21st century, three Israelis were emigrating to Britain for every two British Jews going in the opposite direction.

But perhaps most significantly, fertility rates dropped generally in British society, falling below replacement level from the mid-1970s, and if anything, Jews were somewhat ahead of this curve.

By the 1990s, Britain’s Jewish population had fallen back to around 300,000. Soon after Jonathan Sacks became chief rabbi in 1991, he drew on the decline to inspire his call for Jewish “continuity”. He argued that “we have lost more than ten Jews a day, every day, for the last 40 years” because young Jews were “disengaging, disaffiliating and drifting away from Judaism.”

That was part of the reason, without question. But remarkably, the Jewish population has remained largely stable since — as demonstrated by recent UK censuses which, from 2001, started to collect data on Jews among other religious groups.

Yet that stability is only partly due to the educational and cultural innovations he helped to inspire.

The main reason is fertility — critically in the Charedi community. Jewish fertility rates outside the Charedi community remain below replacement level to this day, but Charedi women have six to seven children on average. Without being too graphical about it, the population stability we see today can be accounted for more by what is happening in our bedrooms than our classrooms.

What of the future? As the Charedi population becomes an increasingly large part of the whole, we can expect its fertility to drive growth, even as the non-Charedi population continues to age and decline.

How sustainable Charedi growth will be over time is unclear — there are significant economic pressures in that community due to a combination of low secular educational achievements and large household sizes, and those and other factors may serve to dampen fertility rates over time.

And whilst there is no evidence whatsoever of an increase in Jewish migration from the UK, we cannot rule out that possibility with anxieties about antisemitism on the increase.

A small, but distinct spike in migration rates among French Jews occurred in direct response to recent terrorist attacks against Jewish targets there; similar attacks in Britain would engender much the same response from British Jews.

And judging by falling mainstream synagogue membership rates, assimilation remains a challenge.

But our story is far from over – many chapters remain still to be written. And whilst existing demographic trends clearly point towards Jewish population growth driven by the most Orthodox parts of the community, Jewish history always teaches us to be cautious about predicting the future. Watch this space.

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