The Khazar Hypothesis

I wanted to talk about a subject that has come up again and again, lately.  It has come up among friends in friendly discussions, among "foes" of sorts in internet debates, but in both cases, it is a recent nuisance that needs to be addressed in forthright language.  That subject is the Khazar hypothesis.

Before we begin, I guess I need to explain in very short detail what the Khazar hypothesis is.  First, we need to ask who were the Khazars?

The Khazars were a people who were related linguistically, culturally, and perhaps also genetically to the larger group of Turkic peoples of Asia.  This larger group spoke Turkic languages, practiced a religion which today we call Tengrism (an animistic faith centering on a supreme sky god), and seem to have had a semi-nomadic lifestyle.  The Khazars are presumed to have carried that same basic legacy, and there is some scant evidence of this.  Other groups today that perhaps descended from Turkic peoples are, as you probably guessed, the peoples of modern Turkey, but perhaps also Bulgarians, the Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Uyghurs, etc., and are spread today among many countries in Asia and Eastern Europe.  There have been past claims that the Finish, Estonians, and Hungarians descend from Turkic peoples, but these claims are largely discarded given that the languages and culture are categorized as from the Uralic family.  Still, there is a remnant of a historical relationship which has bled over culturally between Turkic and Uralic peoples, particularly among the Hungarians.

During a crucial point in history, when the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantium Empire, was locked in a power play with the two dominant Islamic Caliphates of the day, the Khazars operated a considerable trading empire that benefited from both of these groups.  That empire lasted from about 650 AD to 950 AD and covered a large area of land in what we know today as the Ukraine, Georgia, and parts of Russia.  Their presence in this precise spot made them something of a political buffer between the aggression of Byzantium and the Islamic Caliphates.  At first this was accepted by both parties, but eventually, the appreciation of their role soured on both sides of this medieval cold war, and the Islamic powers began to aggressively challenge the Khazars, followed by Byzantium.  At some point, the highest cast of leaders of the Khazars converted to Judaism, perhaps as something of a compromise between the Christian aggression from Byzantium and the Islamic aggression from the Caliphate.  In any case, we don't know the full reasons for the conversion of their leaders, nor do we know with any certainty the extent of that conversion within the leadership as a whole or within the larger population.  Given that the larger common populations are reported to have been very anti-Semitic, the likelihood of a mass conversion of the population seems less likely than a limited conversion among the upper leadership.

What should be clear is that the Khazars are not mythological.  What I've stated here are things that are more or less known.  The Khazars are a real historical ethnicity with real historical borders and a real historical culture.  Their history is relatively well understood and well mapped out, at least for a group that didn't seem to leave behind much in the way of any documentation.  What isn't really known is what happened to them after they became the target of aggression on both sides of their borders, and so that leaves them open as a solution to various population growth problems, either real ones that are documented for the time period, or those which are presumed for other reasons. In the late 1800s, the Khazar hypothesis was proposed, making the claim that upon the scattering of the Khazars through the Russian and European territories after they were driven beyond their own borders, they became the "Jews of Europe", at least to a large extent, basically constituting what we know today as the population of Ashkenazi Jews.

I know that many people who bring up the Khazar hypothesis to me do so innocently.  They hear this hypothesis and it seems to explain a lot to them.  It confirms for them suspicions they may have already had.  Not all of these suspicions are nefarious, sometimes it's just nagging thoughts they may have had.  Some Youtuber mentions it and explains it as if it were a proven fact of history, and the door is opened for their listeners to walk through.  Or someone looking for answers discovers one of the older books on the subject, such as the infamous book The Thirteenth Tribe by Arthur Koestler, which effectively made the first proposal of the hypothesis that resonated with pop culture in the 1970s.  They read it and don’t recognize the clever ways that it information bombs to a conclusion without actually providing solid evidence to that conclusion.  That book was a lot of fun to read, but its limitations were rather obvious.  It employs a method is much akin to that of tomes like “Chariot of the Gods”.  The reader is bombed with information that is revealed to lead them to a conclusion, and this information bombing distracts that reader from the lack of evidence simply due to the sheer amount of leading information it drops.

The point I am making is that those who have recent accepted this hypothesis don't always do so with bad intentions.  In any case, regardless of their intentions, they usually don’t realize until much later, if at all, that this Khazar hypothesis has been greatly discredited and is now largely abandoned.  And again, the reason they don’t realize this is because so many armchair historians talk about it as if it were a current and accepted theory, especially lately.  Simply put, it isn't.

These days, genetic research has shown that the Khazar hypothesis is, to be generous, unlikely.  DNA studies have shown that while a small percentage of European gene flow is present in Ashkenazi DNA, Modern Ashkenazi Jews have more genetically in common with other Middle Eastern and Jewish groups than they do with modern Europeans.  Besides this, the cultural and linguistic ties that Koestler claimed have also been largely discredited by scientists in those fields and they are no longer considered credible claims.  Besides the genetic and linguistic evidence, there is also the following to consider:

  • There is no historical evidence that the conversion of the supreme leaders of the Khazars to Judaism resulted in a mass conversion of Judaism among the greater group of Khazars (or even among lesser rulers).
  • There is a lack of evidence of a dispersion of the Khazars into territories that increased Jewish populations.
  • There is a lack of significant cultural connections between the Khazars and Askenazi Jews, at the time and down to the modern era,
  • There is no evidence of a sudden increase in the long existing Jewish populations in Europe at the time of the dispersion of the Khazars.  These populations seem to have always been there, and did not experience an explosion of growth.

Basically, most of what the Khazar hypothesis has going for it isn't evidentiary, but convenience -- it constitutes a convenient explanation of the origin of lighter/whiter skin tones among Jews in Europe, one that serves those who might seriously wonder how this happened, but which is even more suited for anti-Semitic or political considerations.  The problem is that it's a complicated explanation of such a phenomenon, one that is looking for a non-existent problem when you consider that the more likely explanation for this clearly has as Occam's Razor's edge.  The skin tone is much easier explained to be related to gene flow from infrequent intermarriage through the long periods of Jewish dispersion among white Europeans.   There is no need to explain this skin tone by a sudden injection of Jewish convert populations from a prominently white group of people.  Even the general skin tone of the Khazars is not fully known, which makes it even more of an iffy affair.  Additionally, it cannot be ignored that modern genetics has shown similar genetic ties between very dark African Jewish populations and lighter skinned modern Jews, showing that gene flow can indeed be a more than sufficient explanation for this kind of change in skin tone among dispersed Jewish populations.

These days, most of those who still present the Khazar hypothesis as something other than a discredited theory do so for what is undeniably anti-Semitic or other political reasons.  Granted, not all proponents do this, but a not insignificant number do, a number that I believe approaches a majority.  The Khazar hypothesis fits their already accepted conclusions, their agendas, and so they promote it openly.

And that’s partly why I wrote this today.  I’ve run into the Khazar hypothesis a lot lately.   Fact is, until the past few years, I had forgotten it even existed because it had long ago become very discredited.  A few friends brought it up to me recently and it was clear that they had no idea that this hypothesis was not at all well accepted.  I was going to seek out the book I mentioned before to refresh my memory on the argument, until I realized I always had a copy I bought in my early 20s.  The book interested me at the time, until I read it and flatly rejected it, but my rejection at the time wasn’t for the right reasons — I was steeped in my own false narrative of Israel’s history, and the book didn’t serve that narrative.  So it was forgettable for me in most ways until lately, but its recent resurgence definitely brought it to mind.  That resurgence seems to have a lot to do with modern politics around two mostly unrelated motivating factors: the rejection of Zionism, and the spread of anti-Semitism.  As a result, we’re all hearing about it a lot more than we had since before the internet age.  That gives it something in common with a lot of other modern conspiracy theories.  Flat Earth, for instance, has always been around, but its latest growth of large numbers of proponents, a number that hasn't been seen since the dark ages, has been mainly due to the ability to spread disinformation in the information age.

Frankly, there are even vocal Jews and Moslems who treat the Khazar hypothesis as if it were current and credible.  One of the YouTube links sent to me by an online agitator presented a Jewish conspiracy theorist who pushed the Khazar hypothesis rather strongly as a means of promoting his anti-Zionist views.  Now, he wasn't an anti-Semite obviously, though he was anti-Zionist.  This helped me to realize that many of those who take up this flag are not seeking to promote anti-Semitism but rather do so as means of supporting Palestinian causes.  My purpose here isn’t to attack those motives, but it is definitely not constructive to those causes to accept a discredited theory, especially one that is so well accepted among anti-Semitic groups.  It especially distresses me when I see Messianics and Christians promoting this theory.  Shaul (Paul) said:

“Prove all things.  Hold fast to that which is true. Reject every kind of evil.” (I Thessalonians 5:21-22).

I think most of those who give so much credence to Shaul (Paul) just conveniently pay little attention to him in these cases.  For those who are interested in the evience, I would recommend this excellent article on the work from Professor Shaul Stampfer of Hebrew University on the insufficient historical references on the hypothesis, titled Did the Khazars Convert to Judaism? New Research Says ‘No’.  And for more information on the genetic research, please take a look at the following:

Motivations are also important to examine.  If you hold to the Khazar hypothesis for what you strongly believe to be humanitarian reasons, then I think it's important to recognize that you can support and defend both Jewish and Palestinian causes, and your own political beliefs around what takes place in the Levant or elsewhere, without placing your faith in discredited historical postulates.  In fact, putting faith and vocal support behind such theories as a means of backing up your political positions will only serve to hurt your arguments in the long run, especially after they’ve become part of the functional lore of anti-Semitic groups and alt-right political movements, groups which have motivations that can only be described as racist and xenophobic.  When bringing guns to a battle of wits, you should choose your guns carefully.  Some of them are practically designed to backfire.