The largest continent, and the most ancient seat of civilization, constituting the greater part of the Eastern hemisphere.

The Jews in Palestine.

The earliest record that makes mention of the Hebrew people—the triumphal stele of Pharaoh Meneptah, of about the middle of the thirteenth century B.C.—shows Israel installed in some district of southern Syria, which can not now be precisely located, among peoples and cities of varying importance—Hittites, Canaan, Gezer, Askelon, Yenu'amu. Three centuries later, in the list of cities of Judea taken by Shishak, Israel reappears among the conquered. Momentous events had occurred in the meantime, of which only the Biblical books give an account. Palestine had been conquered by the various tribes; a relatively powerful kingdom having Jerusalem for its capital had been established; and, during the very lifetime of Shishak, the rupture of the union that had existed but a short time under David and Solomon, and the separation of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, had occurred. Menaced in turn by the Canaanites and the Arameans of Syria, by Egypt, and, above all, by the powerful Semites of the valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates, the two states successively disappeared—the northern one in 722 B.C., under the attacks of the Assyrians; the southern, 135 years later, under those of the Babylonians.

Cities of Asia Showing Distribution of the Jews.(Drawn especially for "The Jewish Encyclopedia.")Exile and Restoration.

Sargon transported 27,000 inhabitants of Samaria to the Balikh and the Khabur, and to the frontiers of Media. Nebuchadnezzar carried off from Jerusalem some 20,000 Jews who in the land of exile awaited the fall of the second Chaldean empire. During the reign of the first king of the dynasty ofthe Achæmenidæ, a small select number of poor, fervent Jews were allowed to reenter Palestine, where they organized a community with the restored Temple as a center. Under the guidance of a hierarchy of high priests the people enjoyed wide internal liberty; but, disturbed at the outset by religious reform, they did not always bear Persian domination with patience, and, about 350, Artaxerxes Ochus deported a group of Jews that had revolted to Hyrcania.

Greek and Roman Domination.

The Macedonian conquest (332 B.C.) put an end to the empire founded by Cyrus. In the partition that followed the death of Alexander, Palestine fell to the share of the Ptolemies, who retained it during the third century. Clever politicians, they knew how to deal with national sentiment and to render Greek civilization accessible to a sensitive people. The Seleucidæ, succeeding the Ptolemies in 198 B.C., desired to hasten the work of Hellenization. Antiochus Epiphanes, by his fanaticism, provoked the revolt of the Maccabees, whose success was the triumph of the cause of independence after more than four centuries of subjection.

This independence, however, lasted but a short while. From 63 B.C. the intestine quarrels of the Hasmoneans, who had become kings, placed the little state at the mercy of the Romans. Pompey entered Jerusalem, and Gabinius placed Judea under tribute. However, a century had to pass before definite annexation could take place. Rather than administer the ungovernable and stricken country directly, the Romans handed it over to the Idumean Herod and his descendants.

Western Asia.

In the course of this last period Judaism had overstepped the limits of its ancient centers and had spread over the whole of western Asia. During the first century of the common era it not only kept the positions in the region of the Euphrates, which, apparently, it had not ceased to possess since the exile, but also scattered thence in all directions. To the south it reached Mesene; and around Nehardea, during the reign of Tiberius or thereabouts, Jewish influence had been strong enough to permit the maintenance for some thirty years of the open revolt of Anilai and Asinai against the Parthian king. To the north, with Nisibis as its capital, Judaism conquered Adiabene through the conversion of the royal house. In the extreme north it penetrated Armenia; to the east, Media. It is singular that from Mesopotamia, under Antiochus the Great (200 B.C.), went forth the first Jewish colony having Asia Minor as its destination. The colony must have been followed by a number of emigrants, who formed flourishing communities in nearly every important city of the country.

Northern Syria, too, was invaded by numerous Jewish colonies, especially at Damascus and Antioch; and the petty dynasties of Emesa and Cilicia were influenced by Judaism. In the epoch of the Mishnah, Jews existed among the nomad Arabs; a little later, through immigration and especially through conversion, the Jewish religion penetrated into the center and to the south of the Arabian peninsula. When in the course of the early centuries of the common era these movements were completed, Asiatic Judaism embraced a domain that has not since been exceeded to any extent.

In contrast with this expansion was the simultaneous disappearance of the centers of Jewish national and religious life—Jerusalem and the Temple. When the Romans decided to place Judea under the direct jurisdiction of the empire, incompatibility between suzerain and subject induced the formidable revolt (67-70) that was terminated by the systematic destruction of the capital, followed by the edict forbidding Jews to return thither, and by the establishment in the country of Greek and Roman colonies, which were destined to destroy all possibility of reconstruction. Despite these precautions, there occurred under Hadrian (131-135) the sanguinary revolt of Bar Kokba. Depopulated and politically enslaved, Judea played a smaller and smaller rôle in the destiny of Judaism.

Epoch of the Talmud.

The religious center—rather than the national—gradually shifted its location. The schools first placed at Jabneh (Jamnia), south of Joppa (Jaffa), were afterward removed to Galilee; that is, to Usha, Seppharis, Shefar'am, and especially to Tiberias; and in these schools the Talmud known as the Jerusalem Talmud was elaborated during the third and fourth centuries. The triumph of Christianity must have been fatal to Galilean Judaism, that, with the suppression of the patriarchate (about 425), lost the autonomy which it had preserved till then.

The communities beyond the Euphrates gained in importance what Palestine lost. The foundation of the Academy of Sura (219) nearly coincides with the advent in Mesopotamia and Iran of a new dynasty, that of the Sassanids. At first hostile, this dynasty became quite tolerant toward Judaism, which gained adherents even in the royal house. Then rivals of the Academy of Sura sprang up and flourished—the schools of Nehardea, Pumbedita, and MaḦuza; and from them proceeded the Babylonian Talmud. In the sixth century the Jews on both sides of the Euphrates were persecuted; but a new religion, arising in central Arabia, was destined to deprive Byzantines and Sassanids of domination in western Asia (see Academies in Babylonia, Academies in Palestine).


A Jewish population of real importance had been established in the Arabian peninsula. Proselytism, rather than immigration, had introduced Judaism into the tribes of northern Hijaz, about Taima, Khaibar, Fadak, and Yathrib (now Medina), and those speaking the Sabean language and inhabiting the present Yemen. Among the last-mentioned, according to a somewhat doubtful tradition, Judaism, under the Himyaritic king Dhu Nuwas, obtained political supremacy.

Under Mohammedan Rule.

In his early discourses Mohammed made advances to the Jews of Hijaz, whose religion had furnished him with the essential elements of the one he himself founded. But he experienced a repulse, which explains the hostility displayed by him toward the Jews after the battle of Badr, and which wasdestined to have far-reaching consequences. As soon as he became victor, Mohammed expelled from Hijaz the greater number of his adversaries (who went to Syria); issued severe decrees against Jews and Christians; declared war without quarter upon those refusing to submit to Islam; and ordered a special tax, the "jizyaḦ," to be imposed on the vanquished. The inferior position of the Jews resulting from these acts was not regulated till later. To one of the immediate successors of Mohammed, the calif Omar, is generally ascribed the decree ("ḳanun")—unfavorable to the Jews—that precisely defined their status (see Mohammed Omar, Rescript of). The decree is probably of later date. It must be remembered that Islam assured the Jews a "guarantee" ("dhimma"), conferring the right of free worship.

In general, the Moslem conquest of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Iran was at first advantageous to Judaism. The prohibition against residence in Jerusalem was maintained but a short time. At Bagdad, under the Abbassid califs, who, with rare exception, were not fanatical, the Jewish communities, full of vitality, enjoyed real prosperity. Though troubled by internal religious dissensions that originated and developed out of Karaism in the seventh and eighth centuries; by personal and local dissensions, such as those which in 940 led to the suppression of the exilarchate; by Messianic preachings in Syria in 727, and, four centuries later, by David Alroy in northern Persia: yet Asiatic Judaism threw out one last gleam in the epoch of the final efflorescence of the schools at Sura and Pumbedita under the geonim Saadia, Sherira, and Hai. Unlike Islam, the Christianity of this period instigated violent persecutions. In the eighth and ninth centuries the Byzantine emperors forced conversion upon the Jews of Asia Minor; and in 1099 the Crusaders, on entering Jerusalem, massacred the Jewish population.


From the domains under Abbassid rule various migrations carried Judaism to the confines of Asia. A community in India, the Beni-Israel at Bombay, was founded by David Rabban, who left Bagdad in 900. Another group, distinct from this one, exists at Bombay and at Cochin. It is divided into blacks and whites, the blacks being the offspring of intermarriage. Despite their assertions to the contrary, these communities do not seem to have been of much earlier date than the Beni-Israel.


According to a tradition, the Jews in China emigrated from Palestine, after the fall of the Temple, during the reign of Ming-tse (70-75); but this is highly improbable. Other sources of information more reliable but not altogether trustworthy state that in 879 there were Jews at Hankow, a village no longer to be located with certainty, but probably on the Yang-tse-Kiang. But it is only in the time of the Song dynasty (960-1126) that Jews, coming from India, brought to the Chinese court as a tribute tissues from the western seas. It is to be noted that the Jews (the first whose arrival in China is historically established) came by sea and not by land.

The Caucasus.

From Benjamin of Tudela and Pethahiah of Regensburg it is evident that a part of the Caucasus had been conquered by Judaism toward the end of the twelfth century. The Persian origin of the colonies is attested not only by local tradition, but by the Persian dialect preserved to the present day among Jewish mountaineers in the Caucasus.

End of the Middle Ages.

The closing of the academies at Sura and Pumbedita (1040), nearly coincident with the end of the temporal power of the Abbassids, marks the point at which Asia ceased to be an intellectual and national center of Judaism. Among the Arabs began oppressive and restrictive legislation, summed up in the so-called "ḳanun" of Omar. In all countries in which Arabic or Persian was spoken, Jews led an obscure, dependent, and humiliating existence. It is of little significance that, at the end of the thirteenth century, a Jewish physician became prime minister to the khan Argun, sovereign of Persia and Irak, inasmuch as the khan was a Mongol, a stranger to the ideas controlling Islam. The establishment of Ottoman supremacy, however, in regions where the central authority was effective, induced notable improvement in the situation of the Jews: its first result, after the conquest of Asia Minor by the Byzantines, was the permission of the free reconstitution of the ancient communities.

Modern Times.

This humane and tolerant policy displayed itself most brightly at the time when the expulsion of the Jews from Spain brought to the Orient large numbers of refugees, of whom Asiatic Turkey received her share. In the course of the sixteenth century many communities, with the help of this fresh element, regained some of their old importance, as at Smyrna, Manissa, and other cities in Asia Minor; at Damascus, Safed, Tiberias, and Jerusalem, in Syria and in Palestine.

Later arrivals from Europe modified further the physiognomy of Judaism in some of these cities. In the eighteenth century began a constant immigration of Jews—especially from Poland—speaking Judæo-German, who superimposed Ashkenazic on Sephardic communities, and in time became numerically preponderant in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Safed. A last wave from the same source, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, brought to the coast plains of Palestine and to parts of Galilee, Russian, Rumanian, Galician, even Bulgarian, immigrants, who created the villages of Rishon le-Zion, Zikron Ya'akob, and Rosh Pinah.

Formed of diverse elements—some native; others, the minority, of European origin, and subject to the historic influences of their respective countries—Asiatic Judaism presents a wide variety of aspects.


The communities of Yemen, of northern Syria, and of the valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates employ Arabic as the vulgar tongue. In Kurdistan and around the lakes of Van and Urmiah a Neo-Aramaic dialect is preserved, spoken especially at Zakho, Urmiah, Salamas, and Bash-Kala. It is a valuable relic of the dialects peculiar to the populations prior to the Arabian conquest. In Asia Minor the chief language is Ladino, or Judæo-Spanish, which in Palestine is employed along with JudæoGerman and Arabic. Persian is the language of the Jews not only in Persia proper, but in a part of Turkestan and in the Caucasus, with the exception of a small Georgian group which uses Kartvelian. In these countries the knowledge of Hebrew has persisted up to the present time—chiefly in Yemen and Palestine, where in certain places it bids fair to become a living language. The case is quite different in farther Asia. In India, Mahratti is the language of the ritual; in China, about the middle of the century, no one knew how to read the Bible, and the name "Israel" was corrupted to "Yeseloni."

Distribution of Jews in Asia.

Owing to the absence or the scarcity of precise statistics on the subject, it is impossible to give definite information concerning the different groups of Jews in Asia. The figures in the following table are approximately correct:

Jews in Asia.
Asia Minor65,000
Syria and Palestine90,000
Mesopotamia, Irak70,000
Total in Asiatic Turkey285,000
Caucasus (1897)58,471
Siberia (1897)34,477
Total in Asiatic Russia112,248
British India14,400
Total in British possessions in Asia17,200
Other countries500
Total Jewish population in Asia442,948

The descendants of European immigrants are divided into Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Alongside of these in Palestine are the remnants of the sect of the Samaritans (in Nablus), and some Karaites (in Jerusalem). In eastern Asia the form of worship and the beliefs have been influenced by neighboring religions. In India this influence is notable among black Jews; and among the Jews of China religious sentiment has become obliterated to the extent that a member of the Jewish community has been known to exercise the functions of a Buddhist priest.

Political Status.

As the greater part of Asia is under the rule of European powers, the political status of the majority of Jews is regulated by the general laws of Russia, Turkey, and Great Britain. In Siberia, Transcaucasia, and Turkestan the government of Jews of European origin must be distinguished from that of native Jews. The former are controlled by the restrictive measures in force in the country of their origin; the latter, under Russian rule, have obtained the benefits of a regular government and of protection from Mussulman fanaticism, and have even, to a large extent—especially in the Caucasus—been associated with the local administration. Since 1892, however, their situation has trended toward that of their European coreligionists. In Asiatic Turkey the reforms called "tanzimat" have gradually effaced the differences that law and ancient usage had established between Jew and Mussulman; and the constitution of 1876, by proclaiming that all subjects of the empire are without distinction called Osmanlis, abrogated the stipulations of the decree of Omar. Moreover, in the course of recent centuries, the Porte has frequently taken Jews into its service; and some of them had attained to high offices. It should be added that in regions where the sultan's authority has not been uncontested, as, for example, Yemen and Kurdistan, the condition of the Jews has remained precarious and wretched. In Persia till within the last few years, Jews were subject to many disqualifications, and were compelled to follow sordid, disreputable trades: a series of edicts of the present shah, Muzaffar-ed-Din, granted them civil rights (see Afghanistan, Arabia, China, etc.).

  • Fürst, Kultur- und Literatur-Gesch. der Juden in Asien, 1849, passim;
  • J. J. Benjamin, Acht Jahre in Asien und Afrika, ii., Hanover, 1859;
  • Isidore Loeb, La Situation des Israélites en Turquie, etc., Paris, 1877.
G. I. Ly.