To Khazaria & Back OR Who is Afraid of Khazars?
For some reason, the Khazar theory has gained a reputation as implying that Ashkenazi Jews are not indigenous to Israel. Anyone who does not come out strongly against the Khazar theory is scorned. In fact, there is nothing in the theory that denies a connection between the Jews of eastern Europe and the Levant. This is one of a series of articles that discuss population genetics of the Jewish people. In the current article, I consider the Khazar theory with the intention of putting a pin in the balloon because the dispute really has been blown out of proportion.
Here are the main points of this article:
- Most people who either support or reject the Khazar theory, referring to 2013 scientific papers to back up their views, have not actually read either paper.
- The two opposing views are referred to as “the Khazar theory” and “the Rhineland theory”. Neither theory questions that the origin of the Ashkenazi Jews is in the Levant.
- The two theories are actually talking about the genetic make-up of contemporary Ashkenazi Jews. One could say that the genetics is being used to support two opposing beliefs regarding where Jews picked up the large bulk of their pre-war population, i.e., the 6.5 million Jews in eastern Europe by 1933.
- The Khazar theory and the Rhineland theory are not opposing or conflicting hypotheses, but complementary theories that do not cancel each other out. The authors of both articles would probably disagree with me in my interpretation of their work.
Promoting Political Agendas Using Scientific Theories
It is okay to use scientific papers in professional journals to back up your political ideas and beliefs. However, it would really be best if you actually read the article itself before assuming that someone writing about it is not twisting the results and conclusions to fit his or her own preconceived notions (including me). So when the whole Jews = Khazars issue raised its head once more on Facebook as “proof” that we Jews have no legitimate connection to the Land of Israel, I just couldn’t let it go. After all, now they were using a more recent scientific study than the DNA study I examined earlier on this website.
Someone anonymous, calling himself/herself Darkmoon (21 Nov 2021 — link no longer available) wrote a blog post about Elhaik’s 2013 paper exploring the Khazar connection and Behar, who, according to Darkmoon, contradict’s Elhaik’s findings. I find it interesting that anyone would use this research to promote their own political agenda regarding whether or not contemporary Ashkenazi Jews are true Jews and, therefore, indigenous to Israel or false Jews and, therefore, should go back to where they come from. Since pre-Holocaust Europe implored its Jews to “Go Back to Palestine”, I wonder just where “going back” is supposed to be going back to now. Perhaps the extinct Khazarian Empire.
The Genetic Debate and Israel
This whole genetic debate is in some ways irrelevant to the issue of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state since that was determined before anyone even knew about DNA. At the same time, the debate has taken off in directions many of the geneticists had no intention of it going and I think we need to understand the research in order to be able to deal with the arguments the antisemites — so sorry, meant to write anti-Zionists — spew forth in their propaganda.
You might want to scroll down to the conclusion of this post where the main point is put forth in graphic form and then return to read all the details.
The Missing Link – Contrasting the Rhineland and Khazarian Hypotheses
In 2013, Eran Elhaik published an article in an open access publication, meaning you can read the entire article without needing a subscription to the journal. Click here to read it. In order for my extracts from the professional papers cited below easier to read, I removed references and shortened sentences; you can find the references by referring back to the original papers.
The introduction to his study clearly presents the issues he is exploring. He writes:
The “Rhineland hypothesis” envisions modern European Jews to be the descendents of the Judeans—an assortment of Israelite–Canaanite tribes of Semitic origin. . . . It proposes two mass migratory waves: the first occurred over the 200 years following the Muslim conquest of Palestine (638 CE) and consisted of devoted Judeans who left Muslim Palestine for Europe. . . . The second wave occurred at the beginning of the 15th century by a group of 50,000 German Jews who migrated eastward and ushered an apparent hyper-baby-boom era for half a millennium. The Rhineland hypothesis predicts a Middle Eastern ancestry to European Jews and high genetic similarity among European Jews.
The competing “Khazarian hypothesis” considers Eastern European Jews to be the descendants of Khazars . . . a confederation of Slavic, Scythian, Hunnic–Bulgar, Iranian, Alans, and Turkish tribes who formed in the central–northern Caucasus one of most powerful empires during the late Iron Age and converted to Judaism in the 8th century CE. The Khazarian, Armenian, and Georgian populations forged from this amalgamation of tribes were followed by relative isolation, differentiation, and genetic drift in situ. Biblical and archeological records allude to active trade relationships between Proto-Judeans and Armenians in the late centuries BCE, that likely resulted in a small scale admixture between these populations and a Judean presence in the Caucasus. After their conversion to Judaism, the population structure of the Judeo–Khazars was further reshaped by multiple migrations of Jews from the Byzantine Empire and Caliphate to the Khazarian Empire. Following the collapse of their empire and the Black Death (1347–1348) the Judeo–Khazars fled westward, settling in the rising Polish Kingdom and Hungary and eventually spreading to Central and Western Europe. The Khazarian hypothesis posits that European Jews are comprised of Caucasus, European, and Middle Eastern ancestries. Moreover, European Jewish communities are expected to be different from one another both in ancestry and genetic heterogeneity. The Khazarian hypothesis also offers two explanations for the genetic diversity in Caucasus groups first by the multiple migration waves to Khazaria during the 6th–10th centuries and second by the Judeo–Khazars who remained in the Caucasus. [emphasis added]
Therefore, while Elhaik states that the Khazarian hypothesis declares unrelated tribes converting to Judaism, he also clearly states that Middle Eastern ancestry is part of their genetic make-up – he just doesn’t give proportions as such data was not available. What he is essentially saying is that the Khazarian-Jews did not just spontaneously generate out of thin air, but that their own predecessors came from the Middle East. That makes sense because obviously the Khazars did not convert themselves; they had to be instructed in Jewish tradition and sacred writings. After all, nobody is claiming that the Khazars had an Abraham-type epiphany that turned them into instant Jews.
In short, anyone using the Jews=Khazars as justification for saying that Ashkenazi Jews are colonialists in Israel having no ties to the original indigenous population of Jews in the Levant are just spinning their wheels in the dirt.
Elhaik concludes his paper thus:
Our findings support the Khazarian hypothesis depicting a large Near Eastern–Caucasus ancestry along with Southern European, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European ancestries, in agreement with recent studies and oral and written traditions. We conclude that the genome of European Jews is a tapestry of ancient populations including Judaized Khazars, Greco–Roman Jews, Mesopotamian Jews, and Judeans and that their population structure was formed in the Caucasus and the banks of the Volga with roots stretching to Canaan and the banks of the Jordan.
Given this conclusion, I wonder about how the Khazar theory came to be regarded as a weapon used to accuse Ashkenazi Jews as not having Middle Eastern roots, unless you want to claim 100% racial purity, something nobody with any degree of common sense would argue.
I then turned to a study done by opponents of the Khazar theory, specifically a study also published in 2013 by a team led by Doron Behar. If you want to read this paper in its entirety, you can download it after clicking on this link.
Fighting the Khazars
Behar and colleagues criticize the population Elhaik used as a control for the Khazars in the absence of contemporary descendants of the ancient Khazars of which the Khazar theory speaks. In their discussion, they relate to this challenge:
The collection of samples from contemporary European, Middle Eastern, and Jewish populations is straightforward, as multiple forms of documentation, including the cultural identities of the populations themselves, link the modern populations to ancestral groups living at the time of the early history of the Ashkenazi Jews. By contrast, obtaining samples representing Khazars, for whom no direct link to extant populations has been established, mandates careful consideration. Recognizing this problem, we proceeded by including as many samples as possible from a region encompassing the geographic range believed to correspond to the Khazar Khaganate.
Our sample set representing the geographic region of the Khazar Khaganate can be split into three subsets: populations from the South Caucasus region, populations from the North Caucasus region, and populations from the Volga region in the most northerly reaches of the Khazar expanse. Under the hypothesis of a strong Khazar contribution to the Ashkenazi Jewish population, we might have expected . . . to see the Ashkenazi Jews placed in tight overlap with populations representing the Khazar region. [emphasis added]
Using this refined sample, Behar’s team claim to have found “no indication of a detectable Khazar contribution” to the genetic composition of the Ashkenazi Jews. In fact, in science, not finding something does not mean it is not there.
Our results contrast sharply with the work of Elhaik, which claimed strong support for a Khazar origin of Ashkenazi Jews. This disagreement merits close examination. Elhaik based his claim for Khazar ancestry of the Ashkenazi Jewish population on an assumption that two South Caucasus populations, Georgians and Armenians, are suitable proxies for Khazar descendants, and on observations of similarity of these populations with Ashkenazi Jews. By assembling a larger data set containing populations that span the full range of the Khazar Khaganate, we find no evidence that a particular similarity exists between Ashkenazi Jews and any of the populations of the Khazar region; further, within the region, the newly incorporated northern populations that best overlap with the presumed center of the Khazar Khaganate are the most genetically distant from Ashkenazi Jews. [emphasis added]
Behar introduces the word, origin to the discussion. Elhaik did not talk about a Khazar origin but, rather, a Khazar contribution to the genetic make-up of the Ashkenazi Jew. This is an important distinction. The use of the word, origin, is perhaps what provided the ammunition to the antisemites who will grasp at straws to delegitimize Israel.
If I understand this correctly, Behar et al are saying that Elhaik extrapolated findings from a southern Caucasus sample to northern regions that were not sampled. Yet, because there is no evidence that any extant population anywhere can truly represent the ancient Khazars, we cannot say that Behar’s conclusions can rightly be extrapolated backward to ancient times. The issues challenging these researchers are methodological. And, of course, methodology affects results and conclusions as much as the research questions asked in the first place. I anticipate that we will see continuing new developments in our understanding of Jewish population genetics in the future.
What Do I Think of the Khazars=Jews Connection?
Not being a geneticist, I cannot comment on the statistical or scientific aspects of these studies and I leave the ironing out of their methodological disputes to them. I can read English, however, and how I read it is that the migratory path into eastern Europe, whether via southern Europe or via eastern Turkey and Iran, began in the Levant. Given that, there is nothing in the Khazar theory that refutes the claim that Ashkenazi Jews are indigenous to the Land of Israel. Both migratory paths are likely complementary and not competitive.
In a paper published in February this year, Elhaik provided a flow-chart showing the migratory paths of the Jews according to the two theories.We have, in blue, migration from Judea to Rome and then up into the rest of Europe. In yellow, we see the eastward migration of the Judeans to what is now Iran and from there, northward into the area of the Khazarian Empire, from which they fled into Europe when the Empire was vanquished.
Now what do you think? Does the Khazar theory have anything to do with cutting off Ashkenazi Jews from their origin in the Levant? Apparently, the main problem with the Khazar theory is that it assumes that a large proportion of us are descendants of converted Jews. Given that Judaism embraces its converts, this should not, in fact, be a problem.