A recent tweet (1) by one of Al-Jazeera’s leading anchors (her name is Ghada Oueiss) has reignited discussion of the Khazar theory and its supposed implications for the claims of the inhabitants of the modern state of Israel to the land of Israel. What’s the Khazar theory, you might ask?
Well, the theory rests entirely on the alleged conversion of an ethnic Turkic race called the Khazars to Judaism towards the end of the first millenium CE – reportedly in the ninth century. These are supposedly the ancestors of many of the ancestors of modern day Israel and – since they’re Turkic – they can’t be “real Jews” who can trace their origins back to the biblical Land of Israel.
This theory is regularly used online by those who oppose the existence of the modern state of Israel. If many or most modern day Jews aren’t descended from the Jews who inhabited that country two thousand or so years ago, then they have no right to live in Israel today.
The Khazar Kingdom was in the general region of modern day southern Russia and the Ukraine – between and north of the land between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. The idea is that these Khazars are the ancestors of the Ashkenazim – the Jews of Eastern and Central Europe, as opposed to, for example, the Sephardim who are descended from Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century or the Mizrachim whose historic links are to Babylon and the wider Middle East.
For starters, if a nation needs to prove its historical connection to a piece of land in order to inhabit it, then the citizens of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States of America, Mexico – indeed all the countries in North and South America are in difficulty. Also, the Ashkenazim are a minority amongst Israeli Jews with Mizrachim and their descendants comprising a majority of that population. Leaving these issues aside, from a purely factual point of view, the “Khazar” theory is problematic for a few extremely basic reasons.
In 922 CE, the Arabic writer Ahmed ibn-Fadlan was travelling in the Khazarian kingdom and writes of his impressions and experiences (2). He does indeed confirm that the king is Jewish but Jews represent a minority in the kingdom. Most Khazarians are Muslims or Christians. There is also evidence of very un-Jewish practices such as the ritual murder of the king if he is deemed to have “decayed” mental powers and impaired wisdom. This is backed up by other Arabic writers and travellers such as Al-Masudi and Istakhri (ibid).
Some evidence from burial customs has been put forward by one archaeologist in favour of widespread conversion to Judaism. There was a noted switch from pagan-style burials with the grave packed with the goods and effects of the deceased to the far simpler shrouding of the body (3). But this reveals precisely nothing other than a switch from pagan burial customs. It is widely known that the Islamic community also covers its deceased in shrouds (4). Given the reports mentioned above, surely it’s a sign of a conversion to Islam.
Some readers here might be familiar with the writings of the Israeli academic, Shlomo Sand, writer of the book “The Invention of the Jewish People”. The Khazar thesis is crucial to his view that modern day Jews are not descended from ancient Israelites and the presence of many blonde, blue-eyed people amongst the Ashkenazim is frequently referred to in the discussions of his theories (16).
On the far-right, Professor Shlomo Sand is definitely the favouritest Jew ever (Source: Times of Israel).
2. Eric Maroney, The Other Zions: The Lost Histories of Jewish Nations, Rowman and Littlefield, Publishers Inc, Maryland (2009) page 72
3. Kevin A. Brook, The Jews of Khazaria, Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc (1999) Chapter 4.
5. Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People, Verso Books (2008) page 225
6. Janet L. B. Martin, Medieval Russia, 980-1584, Cambridge University Press (1995), page 16
12. Maurice Fishberg and William B. Helmreich, Jews, Race, and Environment, Transaction Books (2006), page 68
13. Maurice Fishberg and William B. Helmreich, Jews, Race, and Environment, Transaction Books (2006), page 66
14. Peter B. Golden et al, The World of the Khazars: New Perspectives, Part 8, Volume 17, Koninklijke Brill Academic Publishers, Leiden (2007) pages 75-84,
15. Andre Vauchez, Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, Volume 1, Routledge Limited, United Kingdom (2001), page 1565
by Ciarán Ó Raghallaigh