The Jewish people


jewish people

A group of young Israeli Jews

Before undertaking study of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, it is important to learn about the Jewish people. Jews are an ethno-religious group, which they share an ethnic and racial heritage as well as similar religious beliefs. The Jews have been a small but notable minority group for thousands of years. Today they constitute a very low percentage of the world’s population; most studies put this at around 0.2 per cent. In 2007 the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute reported the world population of Jews to be approximately 13.2 million people, or less than three quarters of the population of Australia. North America (6.8 million) and Israel (6 million) have by far the largest Jewish populations. Approximately 9.5 million Jews lived in before World War II and the Holocaust; today there are only around 1.6 million Jews living there. Around 125,000 Jews live in Australia, many of them direct descendants of wartime refugees and Holocaust survivors.


The religion practised by Jewish people is called Judaism. Along with Christianity and Islam, Judaism is one of the three main Abrahamic religions (named because the Biblical figure Abraham is an important patriarch in all three religions). Like Christianity and Islam, Judaism is a monotheistic religion because its followers believe in and worship only one God. Religious Jews hold different beliefs about God and divinity than the other Abrahamic religions. For example, Jews do not share the Christian view that Jesus Christ was the Son of God; instead, they believe that Christ falsely claimed to be the Messiah. The most significant Jewish holy book is called the Torah, a Hebrew word that variably translates as “teaching”, “theory” or “guidance”. Religious teachers in Judaism are called rabbis, while Jewish places of worship are called synagogues. The Jewish holy day, or Sabbath, begins at sundown on Friday and continues until the first stars are seen on Saturday evening. Jews are not permitted to work or play sport on the Sabbath. Instead, they are encouraged to relax, give thanks and spend time with their family.

As in other religions, Judaism contains a considerable diversity of religious belief and worship. Not all Jews are religious or religiously active: many are atheist, agnostic or non-practising. Regardless of this, their ethnic heritage means they are still considered to be Jewish. Judaism also has different branches, based on differences of doctrine and interpretation. Orthodox Jews, for instance, embrace a much stricter interpretation of the Torah and the Talmud (Jewish oral traditions). They adhere to Jewish laws and customs more rigidly than more liberal branches of Judaism. Some of the religious customs and ceremonies observed by most Jews include:

Brit Milah. The circumcision of the penis on the eighth day of a young male’s life.

Bat Mitzvah. A graduation ceremony marking a young girl’s ascension into adulthood, generally celebrated on her twelfth birthday.

Bar Mitzvah. A graduation ceremony marking a young boy’s ascension into adulthood, generally celebrated on his thirteenth birthday.

Marriage. The happy couple are married beneath a chupah (canopy) which symbolises a happy home. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the groom breaks a glass with his foot, symbolising an act of mourning for the Great Temple and the continued struggle of the Jewish people.

Significant events in the Jewish religious calendar include:

Passover or Pesach. A week long holiday commemorating the exodus of Jewish people from Egypt.

Shavuot. A celebration of the revelation of the Torah to the Israelites on Mount Sinai, a mountain in modern day Egypt.

Sukkot. An event where Jews celebrate the resilience of their ancestors, the Israelites, who wandered the desert in search of the Holy Land promised to them by God. Jews traditionally celebrate in makeshift shelters, mimicking the shelter their ancestors would have used during their 40 years wandering the deserts.

Rosh Hashanah. The Jewish New Year, a ten day period where Jews pray for forgiveness and absolution of their sins during the previous year.

Yom Kippur. The most important of Jewish holy days, celebrated at the end of the ten days of Rosh Hashanah. Many Jews spend Yom Kippur entirely inside the synagogue, praying for their sins to be absolved. They also fast (eat no food) as a sign of their commitment to a more pious life in the following year. Jews traditionally wear white on Yom Kippur.

Perhaps the best known Jewish religious custom is adhering to kashrut, the dietary laws governing what Jews may and may not eat. Food permitted to be eaten under kashrut is described as kosher. Some of the foods Jews may not consume include meat made from the flesh of pigs (such as pork, ham or bacon), rabbit and kangaroo, food containing blood or any shellfish (including prawns, lobsters, oysters and mussels). For meat to be considered kosher, animals must be killed by religious slaughter (shechita). This involves the cutting of the throat with a very sharp blade, so that the windpipe, oesophagus and major veins are all severed and the animal bleeds to death quickly.

Contrary to myth, Jewish people have no physical stereotypes and most look no different to other members of society. Jews can occasionally be identified by their traditional items of clothing, some of which are worn on holy days or at times of worship. The best-known of these is probably the kippah or yarmulke, a small skullcap worn by males on the crown of their head. The tzitzit, or prayer shawl, has knotted fringes on its four corners; it can be worn by both males and females. Followers of Orthodox Judaism tend to dress conservatively: the men often grow a beard and wear black suits and hats, while the women dress modestly.


1. Jews are a minority group sharing both racial and religious heritage, and comprise 0.2% of the world’s population.
2. Like Christianity and Islam, Judaism emanated from Abraham and is monotheistic (belief in one god).
3. There is diversity of religious beliefs in Judaism, with mainstream and Orthodox branches and non-practising Jews.
4. Most Jews follow social and religious customs, such as circumcision, adulthood ceremonies and various holy days.
5. Jews also follow dietary restrictions, eating only kosher food and avoiding products such as pork and shellfish.