Jews and Khazars - Again, or Never

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The mass conversion to Judaism of the Khazars, a Turkic people from the North Caucaus, in the mid-8th century has fired imaginations for centuries.  Medieval travelers told tantalizing stories of the Jewish kingdom beyond the mountains. In the 12th century, the great Spanish-Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi framed his philosophical masterpiece, The Kuzari, around this story.

A very different use of the same story was made by racial theorists in the 19th century, by Arthur Koestler in the 20th century, and by the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand in the 21st. Asserting that Ashkenazi Jewry as a whole descended not from ancient Israel but from the converted Khazars, these and others have argued that any claimed connection between modern-day Jews and the Israelites of old, or the land of Israel, is a myth, a figment of modern Zionist propaganda.

Such arguments have been amply refuted on their own terms. But what if the Khazars were never Jews in the first place? What if the conversion story is itself a myth? This is the thesis of a powerful article just published in the Hebrew-language scholarly journal Tziyon by Moshe Gil, professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University and a leading historian of the early Islamic centuries.  

Since the Khazars left no records of their own, evidence of their existence must be sought in the work of more or less contemporaneous Arabic historians. It turns out that, of those who mention or discuss the Khazars, almost none says anything about them or their king having converted to Judaism. As for the few who do cite the Khazars' alleged Jewishness, all draw on a single late chronicler, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who was the Caliph's emissary to the region from 921 to 923. According to ibn Fadlan, the viceroy of the Bulgars, a vassal state to the Khazars, told him that "the Khazars and their king are Jews and the Sakaliba [i.e., Slavs] and all the others are subservient to him and he seeks to make them his slaves and they will have to submit to him."

But what does the term "Jew" mean in this context?  Clearly, Gil writes, it was intended as a slur—and one that would curry favor with the Caliph. (The Bulgars had recently been converted to Islam.) Indeed, the Khazar customs mentioned by ibn Fadlan, such as beheading corpses before burial, hardly sound Jewish at all. 

What about contemporaneous Jewish sources? From 750 to 950, Judaism's chief religious authorities were the sages (geonim) in what is present-day Iraq. They received and responded to queries on matters of religious law and textual interpretation from all over the Mediterranean, Europe, and Central Asia. Nowhere in this voluminous correspondence can we find mention of the Jewish kingdom of the Khazars.  It does appear, rather late, in other Jewish writings, like the epistle of the Spanish Jewish courtier Hasdai ibn Shaprut (ca. 915–970/990) to the Khazar king—but these writings themselves, according to Gil, were inspired by the decidedly sparse and equivocal Arabic sources.

Gil's exacting erudition, if sustained, may kick the legs out from under a raft of theories like Sand's. Still, one cannot but be saddened at the prospect of losing one of Jewish history's more delightful subplots.  The Khazar legend may tells us little in the end about Jewish life in the North Caucasus in the 8th-10th centuries, but the history of the legend and its uses tells us a great deal about how Jewish identity and continuity have been understood, celebrated, or delegitimized. Was it just a dream? A consoling enchantment for Jews mired in statelessness and exile? It certainly was a provocation—for Yehuda Halevi above all—stretching intellectual horizons toward a more powerfully universal vision of Judaism. 

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