Haaretz Resurrects the Khazar Jews Theory

December 28, 2012 4:20 pm 19 comments

The Israeli Haaretz newspaper.

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.


  • Rachel Shabi’s book We Look Like the Enemy (2008) thoroughly documents the racial discrimination among the Ashkenazi (Caucasian), Mizrahi (Middle Eastern), and Ethiopian (black African) Jews of Israel. The perception, distinction, and discrimination among Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and Ethiopian Jews within Israel shows us that the Israeli Jews do not percieve of themselves as a single Jewish race. So why should anyone percieve the Jews as a single race? The distinction of Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and Ethiopian Jews by the Israeli Jews proves that the Jews are not a single race. Judaism is a religion — not a race.

    • No, Jews are a tribe, and like all tribes had their own primary deity which was called YHWH. Now Israel has been a “mixed multitude” since Biblical times. Under Jewish Law, a Jew is defined as someone born to a Jewish mother, regardless of the ethnicity, race or religion of the father. Hence, Jews are as ethnically diverse as most other nations. Hence the diversity of Jewish faces particularly in Israel. Jews are not a religion. Jews are not a “race” or ethnicity. Jews are a tribe! And have been for over 2,500 years since 10 of the 12 tribes disappeared as a result of the Assyrian conquest, which also swept away the Philistines from the pages of history. What remained was the Kingdom of Judah, later the Roman province of Judea, and all who came from Judah became “Jews.” Now there were a fair number of “converts” or those who were allowed to join the tribe as well. But Jews but must be understood as being a tribal identity rather than simply a religious identity.

  • The theory of the origin of Askenazi jews in the Khazar empire certainly has not been disproven. In fact, it is likely that in this century it will be conclusively demonstrated by various scientific disciplines. Yiddish itself displays the signatures of this origin. 10% Slavic base, 10% medieval Hebrew Aramaic, 80% Germanic, and a small percentage of Romance loanwords. Based upon this we could advance the hypothesis that Yiddish arose from native Slavic speakers who used a Germanic language as a lingua franca, adopted Judaism during the middle ages, and had some contact with a form of Romance language. Starting from last Romania borders the former Khazar empire. Judaism was adopted by the Khazar kings during the early middle ages. Gothic was the lingua franca of the people of south Russia during the early middle ages and remnants were found up to the 15th century in the Crimea. The Slavic words in Yiddish appear to be eastern slavic not western. The Huns were the grandfather dynasty of the Khazars. The subjects of the Huns were called Scythians and Priscus writes that in addition to their native languages the Scythians speak Gothic. The Goths were the overlords of southern Russia before the turkic Huns and Khazars. The Khazar king Joseph in his letter to the Granadan vizier Hasdai Ibn Shaprut states that the Khazars believe themselves to be descended from the biblical figure Togarmah. Who is Togarmah? Togarmah is the brother of Askenaz. Who is Askenaz or what does Askenaz designate? The Rabbis of the middle ages gave a folk etymology and said it meant German. Askenaz does not mean German. Ashkenaz means Scythian in the Bible. The Khazars were not Ashkenazi Jews. They would be Togarmahi Jews. Their subjects, the Scythians, a mixture of Goths, Caucasians, and Slavs were the Askenazi jews. This is consistent with Elhaik’s findings and the plain evidence of the appearance of Askenazi Jews ranging from Kirk Douglas to Jerry Seinfeld. All that remains is for the archeological expeditions now underway at Itil, the Khazar capital, to uncover manuscripts or inscriptions written in proto Yiddish likely a Gothic dialect which through centuries of contact with High German was linguistically altered to conform to German vocabulary.

    • Jerry Seinfelds mother is a Syrian Sepahrdic Jew…

    • Regardless, over 40% of today’s Israeli Jews are not of European descent, and in all probability, no more than a million or two million Jews from the US and Europe or Russia will yet come to Israel in the future at most. The vast majority will either assimilate out, or remain within the ghetto style of Judaism becoming an anomaly. I expect the Jewish population of Israel will stabilize at 7 to 8 million Jews at most.

  • First read Dr. Eran Elhaik’s article. It’s at his Johns Hopkins blog: http://eelhaik.aravindachakravartilab.org/

    The icon is large and colorful at the top left. Then read Danielle Venton’s summary of it with an icon not far from the bottom left.

  • Elhaik quote:
    a caution is warranted in interpreting some of our results due to small sample sizes and availability of surrogate populations. To test the Khazarian hypothesis, we used a crude model for the Khazars’ population structure http://gbe.oxfordjournals.org/content/5/1/61.full

    Obviously no Khazar data but sample for Y- Haplogroup:

    European Jews Total = 856
    Armenians total = 57
    Samaritans = 0
    Khazars = 0

    3 major Haplogroups from European Jews = J1, J2, E-M35
    3 major Haplogroups from Armenians = J2, G, R1A

  • Terra Incognita: The return of the Khazar myth

    Due to an obsessive interest in the “true” origins of the Jewish people, all sorts of scientific norms are discarded in favor of embracing any wild theory.


  • The proof of the matter, for me, lies in the fact that antisemitic and anti-Zionist web sites are massive believers in the Khazar theory… All genetic evidence to the contrary is deemed to be of no consequence as some of the scientists are Jewish…

    It’s ridiculous but many modern antisemites deny the Jewishness of their object of hatred… They even claim that this proves they aren’t antisemites…

  • Dian Kjaergaard

    All very fascinating. Yet regardless of genetics or modern history (the past 1000 years or so), the Jewish faith is – as far as I know – very much rooted in the Middle East – and not least Jerusalem – and shouldn’t that be enough to give Israel its basic legitimacy?

    • younis fakhfakh

      Biblical scripture is not objective or even conscensus reality and therefore should not have been enshrined in international law. Whether the modern European Jews have Semitic origins and how much is up for debate. But it is ludicrous to suggest that where people s ancestors lived 2000 years ago gives them legitimate claim to a piece of land. The Irish have a root population from Northern Spain, and legends speak of the Gaels coming from Spain. Yet it would be ludicrous for Ireland to now claim Spain.
      I ve seen genetic research showing Jews do have semitic ancestry. They know this because they find genetic markers identical to those found amongst Palestinians. What does that tell you about modern Palestinians?

      If I have to spell it out, they are the Arabised and Islamised descendants of Hebraic and Canaanite people.

      • Well, the Council of the League of Nations after WWII did recognize Jewish rights to their homeland, and restored the “Jewish National Home” in Palestine. Whether that was right or wrong is individual opinion. But it became international law when the League ruled on it. Just as international law today are made by international treaties that nations sign onto. I might add, there were no independent states before WWI, and that most of these states are the product of League of Nations decisions as well.

  • The fact that the Khazar hoax, which is utterly disproven by every shred of modern genetic, linguistic, and historical evidence, is nonetheless trotted out ad nauseam by anti-Israel people is the reason I can never take any anti-Israel viewpoints seriously. If they had something legitimate to say then they wouldn’t be grasping at this ludicrous, banal, and irrelevant straw.

  • Mr. Gold is not mentioning the time when Professor Dunlop of Columbia published his research on the Khazars: it was 1967. Since then we have no authoritative insight on this issue because of the necessity of having a good command of the Arabic, Hebrew, Byzantine and Chinese languages to scour the literature.

  • “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.”
    And the following is Gold’s irrefutable substantiating evidence supporting the validity of Dunlop’s argument?
    “Most Jewish historians argued for centuries that after the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kokhba Revolt, (“many Jews who had been exiled”. According to this reasoning alone, sufficient to become the basis for the masses of European Jewry? Where are the numerical facts? Nevertheless, Gold is adamant that, “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?”) many Jews (how many?) moved up the Italian peninsula north of the Alps into the trading cities along the Rhine River in Germany.” From there, (Magic) European Jewry began to populate the countries of Eastern Europe in the centuries that followed.
    Curious dilemma of a layman: Destruction of the first Temple 586 BCE. Bar Kokhba revolt 132-136 AD. Second Temple 516BCE-70CE. Defeat of Khazars 965 AD.
    So, according to the above dates, the claim is that ‘biblical’ Jews populated Eastern Europe for at least as long as, approximately 830 years, but perhaps as long as 1550 years, before the Khazars first sought refuge there?
    According to Gold the singular and only historical discrepancy: The Khazars sought refuge in Eastern Europe, both after their defeat in 965 and after their collapse in the 13th century.
    “Despite all evidence to the contrary…” what factual evidence is he referring to?

    • First of all, regardless of the origins of European Jewry, 60% of them were murdered during the Holocaust. 55% of Jewry today still lives outside of the Land of Israel. And inside Israel itself, greater than 40% of the Jewish population are refugees from the Arab and Muslim countries, as well as from Africa and Asia. But the Arabs claim that the Jews of Israel are all imposters. But who are they to define “who is a Jew?” That’s up to the Rabbinate to determine, not up to the Imams.

  • I have heard a couple of theories about the origins of the Khazars. One says they are the last of the Neanderthals, hidden away deep in the Causcuses. Their DNA though has spread far beyond central Europe- as far as Scotland. The red hair gene is said to be a Khazar remnant. Could this be why the Scots are notorious for being frugal?
    The other theory I have heard is that they were an intellectually inclined tribe who called themselves Jewish to give a neutrality with neighbours at some time.
    Irrespective of the origin of the Khazars, they did interact with the oriental Jews. The famous Rabbi Loeb of Prague(legend of the Golem) was said to be a direct descendent of King David. As a descendent of Rabbi Loeb myself, I can assure you, I have Khazar features(which is how my father and grandfather survived the war in Europe.)During the war, those Jews with more of the oriental features were murdered in the name of National SOCIALISM, which is why we see few of the European Jews with the Middle Eastern features.

  • The history of the Khazar-Jews doesn’t reach longer than to the up-dated version of the great genome project. Studies by Priya Moorjani and professor Alkes Price from Harvard School of Public Health show, that a mixture of genome between sub-Saharan Africans and Jews took place for around 72 generations. Notably, it was valid for Jews of Ashkenazi as well of Sephardi origin. In other words, the mixture of African and Jewish genes occurred for around 2.500 years ago. It was around the time of the great Jewish exile eastward, to Babylonia. So, that’s quite another story than that of the Khazar Kingdom.
    Since human kind to day measures its humane origin to a common infant cradle in Africa, the whole exercise for scientists is to document how short-ranged the mixture of genomes with humans from Africa is. To days South-Europeans, for instance, has a genetic signature in common with a sub-Saharan genome which lay 55 generations back; it dates 1.600 year back. It’ll match a historic period around the Roman Empire’s decline and the Islamic expansion in North Africa and Europe.

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