The Khazars: Fact and Legend
It is one of the great ironies of the 21st century that anti-Zionists and anti-Semites on both the Left and the Right, have returned to racialist arguments against Jews that most of us thought had died out after World War II.
One of the most bizarre aspects of this "re-racializing" of anti-Semitism is the role played by the Khazar myth.
The newly fashionable Khazar mythology holds that modern day Ashkenazim, and especially the European leadership of the Zionist movement, are not Jews at all in the racial sense, but rather descendents from non-Jewish Khazars; therefore, the Khazar "theorists" claim, Zionists and Israelis have no legitimate claims to the Land of Israel.
It would be hard to exaggerate how widespread the misuse of the Khazar myth is among those seeking to delegitimize Israel and Jews today. A recent investigation showed nearly 30,000 websites using the Khazar "theory" as a bludgeon against Israel and Zionism.
Some two hundred websites claim to describe a cabal known as the Khazarian Zionist Bolsheviks (KZV). Neo-Nazi and Holocaust denial organizations and websites are particularly fond of the Khazar myth. It is also growing in popularity among left-wing anti-Zionists.
Arab and Islamofascist propagandists have long bandied about the Ashkenazim as Khazars theory and Iran's genocidal leaders adore it. Al-Jazeera has been using the Khazar story to urge a worldwide Christian religious war against the Khazar pseudo-Jewish imperialists.
Groups promoting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion often cite the nefarious role of Khazars as "proof" of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy (I counted 700 such websites). And even Jewish anti-Zionist cranks like Alfred M. Lilienthal and the Swedish "Israel Shamir" have used the Khazar myth to attack Zionism.
Why are these various groups suddenly interested in a rather esoteric and archaic group of people in Central Asia that disappeared nearly a millennium ago?
The answer is very simple.
According to the Khazar theory of the new anti-Semites, most Jews today, particularly Ashkenazi Jews, are not racially Jews at all but descendents from the Turkic tribe of Khazars, whose ruling class and parts of its rank and file population converted to Judaism in the 8th or early 9th century CE. Hence, argue the racialists, Ashkenazi Jews have no rights to live in the racially Semitic Middle East and especially not in the Land of Israel.
Fact and Legend
For Jews, the history of the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism is best known from essays in The Kuzari: In Defense of the Despised Faith, a medieval book composed by the great Spanish poet and philosopher Judah Ha-Levi.
Only part of the book actually deals with the Khazar kingdom, about which little was known, and the historic claims about them in the book are not considered fully reliable.
In any case, The Kuzari purports to report the debates at the Khazar royal court that supposedly led to the Khazar elite's conversion to Judaism. Other senior Jewish officials in the Spanish Muslim regimes actually corresponded with the Khazar kingdom - most notably Cordova Rabbi Hasdai ibn Shaprut (whose letters have survived). And the great Iraqi sage Saadia Gaon is believed to have maintained correspondence with Jews in the Khazar kingdom.
It is commonly thought that part of the motivation for the Khazars' conversion was to establish political neutrality for the Khazar kingdom, which faced potential threats from the powers of both Christendom and Islam.
The Khazars themselves left no documentary records. The Arab historian ibn Fadlan wrote about them, but he did so two centuries after the conversions to Judaism had occurred. Some Jews, having sought refuge from Byzantine persecutions, probably lived in the Khazar kingdom long before the conversion of the royalty there.
One ironic historical twist is that the Khazars contributed to the Cyrillic alphabet, in which Russian and some other Slovak languages are written. Saint Cyril came to Khazaria in 860 in an attempt to convert the Khazars to Christianity. Since the Hebrew of the Khazars and Greek were the main alphabets known to St. Cyril and the early Slavs, they borrowed from both.
Western interest in the Khazars was stimulated largely by the 1976 book The Thirteenth Tribe by Arthur Koestler, a writer better known for his lifelong battles against totalitarianism in all its forms. Koestler's book was largely based on the earlier book The History of the Jewish Khazars, by the historianD.M. Dunlop.
Dunlop rejected the idea that large numbers of Ashkenazi Jews could trace their origins to the Khazars, but not so Koestler. By grossly and sensationally exaggerating the role and numbers of Khazar descendents among European Jewry, Koestler - who was a strong Zionist - inadvertently provided today's racialist anti-Semites with all the ammunition they could want, and many of them frequently cite his book as the basis for their racialist denunciations of Israel.
A number of more serious books about Khazars are now on the market, including The Jews of Khazaria by Kevin Alan Brook. Rabbi Bernard Rosensweig was one of the leading figures in debunking the Khazar theory of Ashkenazi Jewish origins. Writing in Tradition (16:5, Fall 1977, pages 139-162), he dismissed it as "wobbly scholarly foundations without historical support."
Likewise, the Swedish archaeologist Bozena Werbart, an expert on the Khazars, wrote: "In the Khazar kingdom, Koestler wanted to see the origin of the eastern European Jewry. Nevertheless, all the historical and linguistic facts contradicted his theories."
As The Encyclopedia of Judaism (1989) emphatically states, "The notion that Ashkenazi Jewry is descended from the Khazars has absolutely no basis in fact."
What Became of the Khazars
The actual Khazar kingdom was partly subjugated by the early Russians in the 10th century, and whatever was left was annihilated as a result of the Mongol invasions of Central Asia.
What exactly became of the Khazar Jews is simply not known. Those who retained their Judaism probably integrated themselves into other Jewish communities around the world. Some groups of Khazars joined the Magyar invasion into what became Hungary and may have merged with local Jews already living in those lands; indeed, archeologists have found Jewish stars in the remains of Hungarian Khazar villages.
Small groups of Khazar mercenaries probably found refuge in other places. Most likely the largest integration of Khazar Jews among other Jews took place in Iran and Iraq, the large communities closest to the Khazar kingdom and with whom close ties had been maintained. (An urban legend holds that red-haired Jews are descended from Khazars, though that could hardly explain King David, not to mention Esau. Arthur Koestler claimed many were blond with blue eyes.)
In any case, Khazar political existence ended a thousand years ago.
So what are we to make of the Khazar myth concerning Ashkenazi Jews and their supposed lack of legitimate claims to Israel due to their Khazar origins? The greatest irony is that even if the entire Khazar theory of Ashkenazi Jews were correct - and virtually none of it is correct - it would be entirely irrelevant. Judaism has never defined Jews on racial grounds. Anyone from any race is welcome as a convert to Judaism as long as he or she is sincere.
The biblical Israelites themselves were already a racial hodgepodge. They absorbed the "mixed multitude" that left Egypt together with them at the time of the Exodus. There are biblical references to Jews of different racial features, including the black-skinned Shulamit mentioned in the Song of Songs.
Jews always defined themselves in religious, ethnic-national and at times linguistic terms, but never along racial lines. If all Ashkenazi Jews were indeed converted Khazars, as the racial anti-Zionists claim, they would be no less legitimately Jews - and, as such, would have the same legitimate claims to the Jewish homeland as any other group of Jews. (Given the traditional Jewish deference to righteous converts, maybe more so.)
Pseudo-History and Poppycock
The actual details of the Khazar theory concerning European Jewry are simply pseudo-history and crackpot poppycock.
Jews already lived in Europe a thousand years before the Khazar kingdom was formed. There are no genetic markers or indicators at all showing that Ashkenazi Jews are descended from Turkic tribes. In fact, there exists considerable genetic evidence showing that European Jews are closer to Levantine and Syrian Arabs than to Central Asians.
After the Mongol invasion most Khazars probably assimilated into the Jewish communities of Iran and Iraq, which of course eventually emerged as important Sephardic centers, formed mainly of Jews with Semitic racial characteristics, descended from migrants and exiled Jews from the Land of Israel. In any case, there are more "Semitic" Sephardic Jews in Israel today than there are European Ashkenazi Jews. And if the Khazars looked Turkic, how on earth could they give Ashkenazi Jews a European complexion?
There are other problems. If all Ashkenazi Jews are descended from converted Khazars, why are there Cohens and Levis among them? One inherits the status of a Cohen (priest) or Levite from one's father. Descendants of converts through the male line can never be a Cohen or a Levite.
And why are there no Khazar surnames among Ashkenazim, or Khazar names for towns in Europe where Jews lived? And why did most Ashkenazi communities speak variations of Yiddish rather than Turkic?
As mentioned, the popularity of the Khazar myth among anti-Semites represents a return of modern anti-Jewish bigotry to the racialism of the 1930's and earlier.
Nearly every anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi website denounces Zionists and Israelis as "Khazars." Web chat lists in which Jews defending Israel are dismissed as "Khazar usurpers" are too numerous to count.
The racialism once again in vogue holds that Jews would only have legitimate claims to the right of self-determination in their homeland if they were appropriately Semitic from a racial point of view. Palestine is part of the Semitic racial lebensraum and those who do not possess the correct pure racial markings have no business being there. Racial purity is suddenly the new basis for national rights.
I discovered scores of neo-Nazi websites claiming that "Khazar Zionists" were really behind the 9/11 attacks. I found thousands of websites claiming that "Khazar Jew-pretenders" are in a conspiratorial league with Freemasons, the Vatican, the Illuminati and others to control the world.
Khazar conspiracists get nuttier by the day; a widely cited Ku Klux Klan website claims that the pro-Israel evangelist Pat Robertson is really a Khazar Jew. The neo-Nazi American Patriots Friends Network claims Khazars are themselves descended from the Magog race and secretly control America.
If we take the racialist argument to its logical conclusion, Palestinian Arabs have the right to exercise all claims to sovereignty in Israel due to their being true racial Jews, while Zionists are non-Jewish Khazars - racial imposters and usurpers.
To make things even sillier, Arabs themselves are, of course, a mix of racial strains, with a particularly large Caucasian component thanks to Arab intermixing with Spanish and Italian Europeans, Caucasian Berbers, Vandals, Goths, and even some Vikings.
The racialist delegitimizing of Zionism as "Khazar imperialism" is smack inside the same insane asylum with the "Jesus was a Palestinian" theory and the claim that all real Jews (from a racial point of view) converted to Islam after the Arab conquest of Palestine in the 7th century and so became Palestinian Arabs.
One can also find countless websites claiming those things.
Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press and the new Jewish Press Blog (www.thejewishpress.blogspot.com), is a professor at the University of Haifa. His book "The Scout" is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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