Every number of years the theory is advanced that the Jews of Europe are actually descendants of the Khazar kingdom, a mostly Turkic people whose king and nobility converted to Judaism in the early eighth century, allowing them to become a buffer state between Islam and Christendom.
When the Khazar kingdom collapsed in the 13th century, according to the believers in the Khazar theory, its population fled into Eastern Europe and served as the core of European Jewry. Most Jewish historians argued for centuries that after the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kokhba Revolt, many Jews who had been exiled moved up the Italian peninsula north of the Alps into the trading cities along the Rhine River in Germany. From there, European Jewry began to populate the countries of Eastern Europe in the centuries that followed.
In his monumental work, “Arab Attitudes to Israel,” written in the early 1970s, Professor Yehoshafat Harkabi described the Khazar theory as one of the arguments marshaled in the Arab world to assert that the Jews of the modern period were not the descendents of the biblical of children of Israel and hence had no historical right to recover their land. This position is also voiced in the Palestinian media today.
For example, Jarir al-Qidwa, who was an educational adviser to Yasser Arafat and later chairman of the Palestinian Authority Public Library, appeared on PA television on August 2, 2004 and explained that the original Jews of the biblical period were dispersed among the nations and that it was the “Khazar Jews who live in Palestine today.” Prominent voices within the Muslim Brotherhood have also advanced the idea that modern Jews are descendants of the Khazars, as well.
The Khazar theory was strange. If only a small number of Khazars in the court of their king converted to Judaism, then how could they become the basis for the masses of European Jewry? Arab historians in the 10th century reported that most of the Khazars were Muslims, in any case. Moreover, if the Khazars, whose language was close to Turkish, were the source for European Jews, then why did Yiddish evolve as a European Jewish language that was linguistically close to German and Hebrew, but not to Turkish or any other Central Asian language?
Nonetheless, the Khazar theory had its advocates. It was popularized in 1976 by Arthur Koestler in his book, “The Thirteenth Tribe.” It again was revived in 2008 with the publication of Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People,” which was broadly discredited by leading Israeli professors from Israel Bartal of the Hebrew University to Anita Shapira of Tel Aviv University. Nonetheless, even though it was trashed by many critics in Israel, it became an international best-seller.
Last Friday, Haaretz again revived the Khazar theory about the origins of European Jewry. In a huge article, illustrated with a map of Central Asia and a sketch of a Turkic horseman, which undoubtedly drew in readers, it showcased the work of Dr. Eran Elhaik, a young researcher from the Department of Mental Heath at Johns Hopkins University. His findings were published in an academic journal in December 2012, which presumably made them newsworthy. His principle argument was that based on genetic research, “the rise of European Jewry is therefore explained by the contribution of the Judeo-Khazars.”
Further down in the same article, Haaretz at least mentions that there is another side to what genetics tell us about the origins of European Jews. It refers to the work of Professor Harry Ostrer, who is the author of “The Genetic History of the Jews,” a new book also published this year by Oxford University Press. Looking at his credentials, his work should have been at the top of the story. Ostrer served as the director of the Human Genetics Program at New York University School of Medicine, where he worked for more than two decades. Today he is head of genetic testing at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Unlike Elhaik, he does not accept the argument that European Jewry comes from Central Asia but rather he says that Jews around the world can trace their genetic history to the Middle East 2,000 years ago.
Who is right? It is hard for the layman to get into a learned debate about genetics, so what do historians have to say about the Khazar theory of the origins of European Jewry? Many of the writers who have entered this debate, including Koestler and Sand, rely on the writings of Professor D. M. Dunlop of Columbia University, who was the most authoritative historian of the Khazar kingdom. He uses Arabic, Hebrew and Russian sources, as well as documents from the Cairo Geniza, to reconstruct the Khazars’ history.
In his book, “The History of the Jewish Khazars,” Dunlop considers the theory that after their defeat in 965, the Khazars sought refuge in Eastern Europe and became the basis of European Jewry. But he quickly dismisses the idea, stating “this can be dealt with very shortly” after which he explains that there is “little evidence” to substantiate the theory. In any case, the truth of Jewish peoplehood should not be tied to the latest academic article based on genetic research.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the advocates of the theory tying the origins of European Jewry to the Khazar kingdom have persisted. In many cases over the last few decades, it appears that they are motivated mainly by a hostile political agenda that aims to advance the delegitimization of the Jewish state, rather than by any hard, new evidence that they have been able to marshal to date.
This article originally appeared in Israel Hayom.