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Who are the Jews?

Who are the Jews?
In this short period of time, we will not be able to describe the long history of the Jewish people, their identities, religion, culture, and so forth. However, let us attempt to gain a general introduction to the question of who are the Jews. Who are the Jews? That’s a very good question, because it is very complicated. But there is a long history, and it starts actually in antiquity with tribes - Israelites, as they are called in the Bible - twelve tribes, who formed a collective and settled in the area of what we now call Palestine or, in Hebrew, Eretz Yisrael - the Land of Israel. They lived there for centuries.
Then a group of ten tribes was exiled and two tribes remained. The dominant one, the most important one, was Judah. The State of Judah was conquered and most of the people were exiled in 586 before Christ. Now, that is the origin of the term Jews, because “Yehudim”, Jews, are the descendants of the tribe of Judah. The Jews had a monotheistic religion, which was quite unique, and it gave later birth to Christianity and Islam. But Jews were also a people. Although having a universal religion and believing that there is only one God, you can be a Jew only if you join the Jewish collective, and that is different than in Christianity and Islam.
Therefore Jews are, on the one hand, belonging to a religion, and, on the other hand, they are a nation, a collective, a very clear-cut collective, and you have a ticket of entrance; you have to go through a procedure. As Prof. Michman explained, the Kingdom of Judah existed until its destruction in 586 BCE. It was then that the Babylonians conquered the region, destroying the First Temple. The Judean population remained in exile for roughly fifty years, when it was permitted to return, though not all did. Throughout the following centuries leading up to the Common Era, Jews existed in various regions and countries; however their spiritual center remained in their ancestral Land of Israel, which in the Greco-Roman world became known as Palestine.
Under Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman dominion, this land was also a vibrant cultural, political and religious Jewish center. For a short period of time, the Jewish population was even able to establish an independent state. The main contours of Jewish faith, ritual, and scripture - what is collectively known as “rabbinical Judaism” - took shape in the so-called Mishnaic and Talmudic Period from the third century BCE through the fifth century CE. Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE by the Romans, the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-135 CE, and the economic waning of the Roman Province of Palestine in the first centuries of the Common Era – the historic locus of the Jewish people and Judaism declined.
Ever since, most Jews have lived outside this area, mainly settling in regions dominated by Christianity (Europe and, later, the United States) and Islam (the Middle East and North Africa). Jews living in the diaspora throughout the Middle Ages continued viewing themselves as distinct people, defined largely by religion. That is also the way they were seen by their surrounding populations. This definition would become more complex, however, in the Modern Era. In the Modern Era with secularization, it affected also Jewish life and many Jews secularized and tried to integrate, mostly in Europe, where most of the Jews lived until the end of the 19th century.
And that impacted on their political affiliations, social affiliations, and also to the fact if they belonged to a congregation or not. Today it may be that you will find people who do consider themselves as Jews nationally, but not by religion, and others who consider themselves Jews as a religion, but not nationally. This is really a product of modernization, and therefore today the identification of Jews is more complex. The Land of Israel eventually in the 20th century was the place where the State of Israel was founded. The State of Israel became gradually the principal center of life of the Jews. And today it is the largest concentration of Jews in the world.
More Jews live out of Israel than in Israel today, but Israel is, demographically, at least, the center of the Jewish people; and certainly spiritually because of the sanctity of many sites and many places of historical relevance, it is the center of the Jewish people.

Prof. Dan Michman, Prof. Sergio DellaPergola

Before we turn to explore the roots and expressions of antisemitism, let us take a moment to better acquaint ourselves with this hatred’s target – the Jews.

For additional visual materials please see “downloads” below.


  • Baron, Salo Wittmayer, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 18 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952 – 1983).

  • Dellapergola, Sergio, “Jewish Demography: Fundamentals of the Research Field,” in Uzi Rebhun, ed., The Social Scientific Study of Jewry: Sources, Approaches, Debates (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

  • Dellapergola, Sergio, “Jewish Peoplehood: Hard, Soft, and Interactive Markers,” in Eliezer Ben-Rafael, Judit Bokser Liwerant and Yosef Gorny, (eds.), Reconsidering Israel-Diaspora Relations (Leiden: Brill, 2014).

  • Goodman, Martin, A History of Judaism: From Its Origins to the Present (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).

  • Michman, Dan, “Jews,” in Peter Hayes and John K. Roth, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Holocaust Studies, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 185 – 202.

  • Schama, Simon, The Story of the Jews, 2 vols. (London: Bodley Head, 2013 & 2017)

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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