The Khazars

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen


Before I get to my weekly blog, I owe the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom an apology on two counts. First of all because after my stinging blog last week about refusing to allow Dr. Taylor Guthartz to teach at the London School of Jewish studies, he reversed his decision. That takes guts, strength, and humility. But much more significantly, he has, for the first time in living memory, stood up to the religious extremists over the issue of Jewish Divorce. The male chauvinists on the right have for years refused to accept that the current situation in Judaism is remarkably unfair to too many women. This is a serious subject that I will write about in the coming week. But in the meantime, I want to apologize to him and admit that I underestimated him and wish him well in his fight for an enlightened orthodoxy. And now back to business.


Are we Khazars?


Arthur Koestler was another brilliant, but deeply disturbed Jewish intellectual to emerge from twentieth-century Hungary (no need to mention all the others). In 1945 he officially renounced his Jewish identity. Being born Jewish does not prevent you from being anti-Jewish.


He was born in Budapest in 1905. In 1922 he joined the revisionist Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky. In 1926 he went to Palestine where he worked as a farm laborer and then as a correspondent for German newspapers. In 1929 he was transferred to Paris, a year later to Berlin.


From 1932 to 1938 Koestler was a communist. But unlike Sartre, he left the party during the Moscow trials. During the Spanish Civil War, he was captured by the Franco forces and was sentenced to death. Rescued by the British Foreign Office, he moved to England. His novel Darkness at Noon in 1940, reflected his break with the Communist Party and it was followed by his best-selling critiques of Marxism, The Yogi and the Commissarin 1945, and The God That Failedin 1949. The Left today ought to read both of these.


In 1958 and 1959 he traveled East to see if they could offer spiritual aid to the West. He did not find what he was looking for and reported on his failure in The Lotus and the Robot in 1960. The Ghost in the Machine covered wide spans of European intellectual thought and presented them simply and accurately to the lay reader. He was a lifelong advocate of euthanasia. In 1983, terminally ill, Koestler, together with his healthy wife, committed suicide.


Amongst his ephemeral writings was a soon-forgotten book called The Thirteenth Tribe. In it, he argued that modern Jews were descended not from the Twelve Tribes, sons of Jacob, bearers of the biblical and Talmudic culture that centered around Judea and Jerusalem, but from what he called a thirteenth tribe, the Khazars, composed of Caucasians who converted to Judaism in the eighth century. After being defeated by the Kyiv Slavs they migrated northward into Russia and Poland. This was where the Jews came from and therefore had no right to say they were returning home to Israel.


From the seventh century unto the eleventh, the Khazar Empire dominated the vast area extending from the Volga-Don steppes to the eastern Crimea and the Caucasus. In the eighth century, King Bulan and his circle converted to Judaism. Later King Obadia declared Khazria a Jewish State. It was a buffer between Islam and the Byzantian Christians. In the 960s King Joseph corresponded with Ibn Shaprut (also known as Abu Yussuf ibn Shaprut), the tenth-century Jewish Vizier of Caliph Abd-al-Rahman III of Spain (912-961) who lived in Cordoba, seeking an alliance against the Russians of Kyiv.


The Spanish traveler Benjamin of Tudela (1130-1173) visited them. The great medieval Jewish poet, philosopher, and scholar, Yehuda Halevy wrote his popular philosophical work The Kuzaribased on the process by which the King of the Khazars chose Judaism over Islam and Christianity. Slowly, after a few centuries, a combination of Slavs and Turks destroyed the Khazar empire and absorbed its remnants. One might argue that the Georgians or the South Ossetians may have Khazar blood in their veins. But to suggest that the Jews of Russia came from the Khazars is laughable rubbish and genetic testing has also disproved the claim.


In 2009 a secular Israeli Shlomo Sand took up this laughable theory in his book The Invention of the Jewish People. In it, he described the history of the Khazars in detail and quoted Muslim and Christian travelers who encountered them. His main argument was that there were too many Jews living in the Roman empire to have come just from those who were exiled by the Romans. Most of the Diaspora Jews must have been converts like the Khazars, and therefore never had roots in the Land of Israel. He gives examples of other convert communities to Judaism such as the Himyarites of Arabia and the Berbers of North Africa.


This has been seized upon by anti-Zionists to argue that the Jews of today are a European alien imposition on the Middle East. No doubt French Muslims will one day argue that the Gauls never existed either and were a figment of the Roman imagination just as the New York Times believes that the USA began with its first imported slaves.


Sand ignored the fact that most Israelis now come from the Sephardi world and many of them are descended from Babylonian and Yemenite Jewry which predate the Khazars by many centuries, as do the Jews of Bokhara, Afghanistan, and India. Not to mention Italian Jewry that was neither Ashkenazy nor Sephardi.


The Jews of Western Europe were driven eastwards at the start of the second millennium during the Crusades by repeated expulsion and oppression. They were initially welcomed into Poland by Boleslav the Pious in the thirteenth century and even more so by his successor Casimir the Great. They spread north to Lithuania and south to Ukraine. This does not mean that there were not Jews of different origins who moved up into Russia from the Ottoman Empire and around the Black Sea. Some Khazars might have migrated north, as did Sephardi and even Karaite communities. But just consider the dominant Jewish language of Eastern Europe, Yiddish. Its Germanic linguistic base proves the dominant cultural migration came originally from Western Europe eastwards. Similarly, the Spanish base of Ladino proves that Jews lived in Spain.


Sand in trying to undermine Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state raised the issue of what is meant by a nation, a people, and a culture and where Jews and Judaism fall within the broad and controversial definitions of identity. Certainly, neither religion, nation nor culture alone can define Jews. These issues are still debated and unresolved in civil courts. It is one of the things that most non-Jews just do not get about us, as they try their best to confine us into categories that suit their prejudices.


This all goes to prove that even the greatest of minds can have blackouts, and just because a best-selling writer says something this doesn’t make it true. Everyone has an agenda. There are so many lies circulating and accepted all over the world now, whether they come from the Right or the Left, claiming that the Jews have no right to the Land of Israel, and we are Colonialists and Imperialists invading alien territory. This rubbish joins the rest in the thousand-year history of Blood Libels against the Jews.


And by the way, if you are wondering why I am writing about the Khazars this week before the Ninth of Ave, it is because, according to Benjamin of Tudela, they too mourned the loss of the Temples!


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Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.