Identification. The name "Karaite" is derived from the Hebrew word, kara, "to read," emphasizing the adherence of the group to the Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings to the exclusion of the Talmud, or postbiblical rabbinic commentary, which the Karaites reject as a source of divine law. An alternative meaning of "kara" is "to call, to invite," which signifies the missionary efforts in which Karaites once engaged to draw people to their faith. The origins of Karaism are disputed. Some trace the roots of Karaism to one of the non-Pharisaic groups in the Second Temple period such as the Sadduccees, Essenes, or Dead Sea Scroll Covenanters. Others attribute the "founding" of Karaism to Anan ben David, a candidate for the exilarchate, the position of chief representative of Jewry, in Baghdad during the eighth century. In any case, questions of sources, authority, and interpretation of the Law are one of the few issues that have given rise to separate movements within Judaism, and such is the basis of the dispute between Karaites and Rabbinites, or Talmudic Jews. The Karaites are the oldest surviving Jewish group that opposes rabbinic Judaism.
Location. The majority of Karaites are found in Israel. Israeli Karaites are mostly of Egyptian origin, although a very small group of them immigrated from Hitt, Iraq.
Demography. It is difficult to ascertain the numbers of Karaites who resided in Egypt in the twentieth century because population statistics vary. The Egyptian census recorded 4,507 Karaites in 1927; 3,260 in 1937; and 3,486 in 1947. A Karaite source estimates that there were 4,000 to 5,000 Karaites living in Cairo in 1952. The same source indicates that between 1948 and 1956 fewer than 100 Karaites left Egypt, despite a bomb that exploded in the Karaite quarter of Cairo in 1948, killing 17 Karaites. In 1956, however, after Abdul Nasser expelled foreign nationals from Egypt in retaliation for the invasion of his country by France, Britain, and Israel during the Sinai Campaign, many Karaites who were not forcibly deported nevertheless chose to leave. By 1959, less than 2,000 Karaites remained. The second major exodus of Karaites followed the Six Day War (5-10 June 1967). As a result of that conflict, young Karaites and Rabbinites were imprisoned in Egypt for two years. By 1970, no more than 300 Karaites remained. In the late twentieth century only a handful of Karaites, all elderly, are to be found in Cairo.
The population figures on Karaites in Israel are not exact because, for both political and religious reasons, the Karaites do not allow themselves to be counted. Population estimates range from 8,000 to 25,000. Approximately 1,000 Karaites of Egyptian origin live in the United States. Significantly smaller numbers are scattered in other countries, including Canada, France, Switzerland, England, Brazil, and Australia. Karaite communities once established in Eastern Europe have largely disappeared, although 100 families still remain in Istanbul. Linguistic Affiliation. Karaites in Israel speak Hebrew and Arabic. Karaites who came from Poland, Lithuania, and the Crimea spoke their own Turkic language, Karaimic or Karay, which contained some Hebrew words and was written in Hebrew script.