Jews, followers of Judaism, a group held together by a shared religion and a common history and culture more than 3,000 years old.
Jewish history begins with the patriarchs: Abraham, his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob (also named Israel). Abraham led his family from Mesopotamia to Canaan (Palestine). The children of Israel (Joseph and his brothers, the sons of Jacob) migrated to Egypt, where a pharaoh enslaved the Israelites until Moses led them out in the Exodus.
After 40 years of wandering, the Israelites reentered Canaan (c.1200 B.C.). They united in a monarchy under King Saul. His successor, David, brought prosperity and peace, and conquered Jerusalem. David's son, Solomon, built the Temple at Jerusalem. Under Solomon's son Rehoboam, the kingdom split into Judah and Israel. The monarchies ended with the defeat of Israel by the Assyrians (721 B.C.) and the defeat of Judah and destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians (587 B.C.). Many of the inhabitants of both kingdoms were deported; those from Israel lost their identity, becoming the “Ten Lost Tribes.” The term Diaspora is used to refer to the settling of scattered colonies of Jews outside Israel.
During the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C., the Maccabees briefly restored Jewish independence before the Romans established domination over the Jews. They rose against the Romans in A.D. 66; when the revolt was put down 4 years later, Jerusalem was destroyed.
The rise of Christianity brought increasing harassment of the Jews. During the Middle Ages in many countries they were confined to ghettos and excluded from trades, professions, and ownership of land. At the time of the Crusades, a new wave of persecution began; one by one Western European nations expelled the Jews, until they were allowed to live only in parts of Germany and Italy. The Jews found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, in the New World, and in Eastern Europe, where they became increasingly trapped in a life of poverty and persecution in lands under Russian rule.
The Enlightenment and the advent of capitalism for a time benefitted the Jews economically and socially. Prejudice against them (anti-Semitism) continued, however, and gave rise in the late 19th century to renewed Zionism, the movement for reestablishing a Jewish state in Palestine that dated from the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Meanwhile (1881–1914), one-third of Eastern European Jews (1 million people) emigrated; 90% settled in the United States. In 1917 the Balfour Declaration guaranteed “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, but Jewish settlement there aroused the hostility of the Arab inhabitants.
In the 1930s, all other Jewish problems were overshadowed by the rise of Nazism. With the outbreak of World War II, the Nazis began murdering the Jews of Europe, eventually killing 6 million. Reaction to this catastrophe led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
Today there are 13 million Jews worldwide. The Jews of Israel number more than 4 million, and some 6 million Jews live in the United States.