[Believe it or not, Wall St. Journal Dares to ask the question. If they are Russian, then they can’t be Semitic.]
This much is known: In the mid-eighth century, the ruling elite of the Khazars, a Turkic tribe in Eurasia, converted to Judaism. Their impetus was political, not spiritual. By embracing Judaism, the Khazars were able to maintain their independence from rival monotheistic states, the Muslim caliphate and the Christian Byzantine empire. Governed by a version of rabbinical law, the Khazar Jewish kingdom flourished along the Volga basin until the beginning of the second millennium, at which point it dissolved, leaving behind a mystery: Did the Khazar converts to Judaism remain Jews, and, if so, what became of them?
Enter Shlomo Sand. In a new book, “The Invention of the Jewish People,” the Tel Aviv University professor of history argues that large numbers of Khazar Jews migrated westward into Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania, where they played a decisive role in the establishment of Eastern European Jewry. The implications are far-reaching: If the bulk of Eastern European Jews are the descendents of Khazars—not the ancient Israelites—then most Jews have no ancestral links to Palestine. Put differently: If most Jews are not Semites, then what justification is there for a Jewish state in the Middle East? By attempting to demonstrate the Khazar origins of Eastern European Jewry, Mr. Sand—a self-described post-Zionist who believes that Israel needs to shed its Jewish identity to become a democracy—aims to undermine the idea of a Jewish state.
Published in Hebrew last year, “The Invention of the Jewish People” was a best seller in Israel. In March, the French translation, also a best seller, received the prestigious Aujourd’hui Award, which honors the year’s best nonfiction book. Past winners include such intellectual titans as Raymond Aron, Milan Kundera and George Steiner. “The Invention of the Jewish People” is being translated into a dozen languages. Mr. Sand is delivering lectures this month in Los Angeles, Berkeley, New York and elsewhere.
What should we make of Mr. Sand’s radical revisionist history? There is reason to be very skeptical. After all, we have been here before. In 1976, Arthur Koestler published “The Thirteenth Tribe,” which argued that Diaspora Jews were a “pseudo-nation” bound by “a system of traditional beliefs based on racial and historical premises which turn out to be illusory.” The genetic influence of the Khazars on modern Jews is, he wrote, “substantial, and in all likelihood dominant.” Koestler’s speculations were not novel. The connection between the Khazars and the Jews of Eastern Europe had been debated by both scholars and conspiracists (the two are not mutually exclusive) for centuries.
“The Thirteenth Tribe” was savaged by critics, and Mr. Sand’s repackaging of its central argument has not fared much better. “A few Jews in Eastern Europe presumably came from the Khazar kingdom, but nobody can responsibly claim that most of them are the descendents of Khazars,” says Israel Bartal, a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. We simply don’t know enough about the demographics of Eastern European Jews before the 13th century to make such an assertion, Mr. Bartal says, adding, “Sand has not proven anything.” According to Peter B. Golden, a professor of history at Rutgers University, the Khazars are likely one of a number of strains that shaped the Jewish population in Eastern Europe. But, he stresses, DNA studies have confirmed that the Middle Eastern strain is predominant.
In “The Invention of the Jewish People,” Mr. Sand suggests that those who attacked Koestler’s book did so not because it lacked merit, but because the critics were cowards and ideologues. “No one wants to go looking under stones when venomous scorpions might be lurking beneath them, waiting to attack the self-image of the existing ethnos and its territorial ambitions.” But Koestler was himself uneasy about scorpions. The Khazar theory, he knew, was an article of faith among anti-Semites and anti-Israel Arab politicians. Just a few months before “The Thirteenth Tribe” was published, the Saudi Arabian delegation to the United Nations declared Zionism illegitimate because it was conceived by “non-Semitic Jews” rather than “our own Arab Jews who are the real Semites.” (An Israeli ambassador, wrongly, countered that Koestler’s book had been secretly subsidized by the Palestinians.) Perhaps more disconcerting, the neo-Nazi National States Rights Party in the U.S. declared “The Thirteenth Tribe” to be “the political bombshell of the century” because “it destroys all claims of the present-day Jew-Khazars to any historic right to occupy Palestine.” Members of Stormfront, a self-described “white nationalist” Internet community, have predictably reacted to Mr. Sand’s book with glee.
I recently called Mr. Sand in Paris, where he is on sabbatical, to ask if he is concerned that “The Invention of the Jewish People” will be exploited for pernicious ends. “I don’t care if crazy anti-Semites in the United States use my book,” he said in Israeli-accented English. “Anti-Semitism in the West, for the moment, is not a problem.” Still, he is worried about how the forthcoming Arabic translation might be received in the Muslim world, where, he says, anti-Semitism is growing. I ask if the confident tenor of his book might exacerbate the problem. He falls quiet for a moment. “Maybe my tone was too affirmative on the question of the Khazars,” he reluctantly concedes. “If I were to write it today I would be much more careful.” Such an admission, however, is unlikely to sway the sinister conspiracists who find the Khazar theory a useful invention.
—Mr. Goldstein is a staff editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education.