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Tel Aviv University
An extraordinary polemic has led a controversial TAU historian to encourage some virulent anti-Semitism

Published by ISN Insights, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich (19 April 2012)

Are the Jews really Khazars? The Effects of a Book

Dr. Shalva Weil*

An extraordinary polemic has led a controversial Tel Aviv University historian to encourage some virulent anti-Semitism.

In 2008 Prof. Shlomo Sand published a book in Hebrew entitled “The Invention of the Jewish People”. The following year, it was translated into English by Yael Lotan and became an international bestseller. In the book, Sand argues that the Jews are not a “pure” race. The Ashkenazi (Western) Jews, according to Sand, are in fact descendants of the Khazars, a semi-nomadic Turkic people who ruled in the north Caucuses and who were forcibly converted en masse to Judaism in the eighth and ninth centuries. He thus portrays Judaism as a militant religion, which expanded through proselytisation and conquest, although traditionally Judaism is opposed to missionizing. By this account, North African and other Sefardic Jewish communities (originating in Spain) were also conquered and converted to Judaism as the religion spread along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa. Of course, some of the converts to Judaism later converted forcibly to Christianity or even Islam. By debunking the “myth of the exile” Sand claims that today’s Jews were not in fact expelled from ancient Palestine and therefore they have no historical claim over Palestine. Those who do possess historical rights are the Palestinians, who, according to Sand, lived in Palestine continuously. The implication of Sand’s propositions is that today the Jews have no claim to live in the Jewish state of Israel.

The theory that Ashkenazi Jews were intermingled or are derived from Khazars is well-known to scholars throughout history and is not original to Sand. Tombstones on the Crimean peninsula are replete with Jewish symbolism, such as the shofar (the Jewish horn blown on the High Holydays), the Menorah (Candelabra), and staff of the High Priest Aron, as well as Turkic tribal symbols. One of the best-known Jewish texts studied by every Israeli schoolchild is the philosophical treatise “The Kuzari", originally written in Arabic by the medieval Spanish philosopher Rabbi Yehuda Haleviin 1140, and later translated into Hebrew and other languages. The five chapters of the book culminate in a dialogue between the pagan king of the Khazars and a Jew who was invited to teach him about Judaism. The book is not considered a historical account of the Khazar conversion to Judaism, but many believe it is based on fact.

 A well-known proponent of the Jewish-Khazar theory was Arthur Koestler, who wrote in “The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and Its Heritage” (1976): “"It would of course be foolish to deny that Jews of different origin also contributed to the existing Jewish world-community. The numerical ratio of the Khazar to the Semitic and other contributions is impossible to establish. But the cumulative evidence makes one inclined to agree with the consensus of Polish historians that 'in earlier times the main bulk originated from the Khazar country'; and that, accordingly, the Khazar contribution to the genetic make-up of the Jews must be substantial, and in all likelihood dominant." In fact, most Jewish historians have endorsed this view. In one of the most famous books The Myth of the Jewish Race(1989), the authors Raphael Patai and Jennifer Patai wrote:  "...one should remember that the Khazars were described by several contemporary authors as having a pale complexion, blue eyes, and reddish hair. Red, as distinguished from blond, hair is found in a certain percentage of East European Jews, and this, as well as the more generalized light coloring, could be a heritage of the medieval Khazar infusion."

Despite the common knowledge of the possible Khazar extraction of the Jewish people, Sand’s book has resurfaced as something new.  Opposition to the theory is furious. It is said that genetic tests have not proved the Khazar origins of the Jews, that there are no Khazar words in Yiddish, and that, according to Jewish law,  a convert to Judaism is a Jew in every respect. Critics of Sand point to King David himself, whose grandmother was a convert to Judaism.


However, supporters are more numerous. In some circles, Sand has been hailed as a “guru” who espouses the deligitimacy of the state of Israel. He has become a sought-after lecturer, particularly in Europe, but also in the United States, where he repeats his claims of the impurity of the Jewish people. .In an internet site PalestineRembered.com, which gives details of Palestine refugee camps all over Israel, the major item is that the Jews are in fact Khazars and therefore implicitly are not entitled to reside in the state of Israel. 

In 2009, Sand gave an interview to George Galloway, the British ex-Labour Party official who was suspended by Parliament for attacks on Prime Minister Tony Blair and openly befriended Sadam Hussein. Today, Galloway cooperates with Iran and is a virulent anti-Zionist. Sand dwelled upon the “Zionist myths” and in particular, the fabrication of the state of Israel by Zionist historians.

Not only has Sand become a popular figure in anti-Zionist circles, but he has also fanned a fair amount of blatant anti-Semitism.The Daily Bell, published by The Foundation for the Advancement of Free-Market Thinking (FAFMT), is a free internet-based publication for committed free-market thinkers (sic) promoting laissez-faire economics. In a review of Sand’s book in October 2011, the author wrote: “There is evidently and obviously a group of powerful central banking families that, along with religious, military and political enablers, want to create world government. The seat of this world government may even be Jerusalem. Certain aspects of Jewish theology are surely utilized to provide a degree of cohesion for this secretive effort.” The conclusion of the review was as follows: “Is the new world order a "Jewish" movement, or even a Zionist one? To ask that question and answer in the affirmative is to play right into the trap that has been set by those who hide behind a Jewish identity and use charges of anti-Semitism to distract critics from the real issues and problems of the continuing globalist conspiracy.”

It is amazing to ponder how some books, based on shaky historical facts and unoriginal scholarship, become popular and generate extreme reactions, while others are doomed to oblivion.

*Dr. Shalva Weil is Senior Researcher at the Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

Additional Information

Shlomo Sand's interview with George Galloway took place on Press TV, an English language Iranian television with a bureau in London where Galloway served as a reporter. Recently, the British authorities closed down the London bureau citing propaganda and incitement as reasons.  

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