Why Ashkenazi Jews Are Not Descended From Khazars — and What It Means

Mass Conversion Claim Cast Doubt on Mideast Origins

Not Our People: Khazar warriors depicted in Itil, a Silk Road city that served as the Khazar capital.
wikimapia
Not Our People: Khazar warriors depicted in Itil, a Silk Road city that served as the Khazar capital.

By Ofer Aderet

Published June 25, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

(Haaretz) — The claim that today’s Ashkenazi Jews are descended from Khazars who converted in the Middle Ages is a myth, according to new research by a Hebrew University historian.

The Khazar thesis gained global prominence when Prof. Shlomo Sand of Tel Aviv University published “The Invention of the Jewish People” in 2008. In that book, which became a best seller and was translated into several languages, Sand argued that the “Jewish people” is an invention, forged out of myths and fictitious “history” to justify Jewish ownership of the Land of Israel.

Now, another Israeli historian has challenged one of the foundations of Sand’s argument: his claim that Ashkenazi Jews are descended from the people of the Khazar kingdom, who in the eighth century converted en masse on the instruction of their king. In an article published this month in the journal “Jewish Social Studies,” Prof. Shaul Stampfer concluded that there is no evidence to support this assertion.

“Such a conversion, even though it’s a wonderful story, never happened,” Stampfer said.

Stampfer, an expert in Jewish history, analyzed material from various fields, but found no reliable source for the claim that the Khazars – a multiethnic kingdom that included Iranians, Turks, Slavs and Circassians – converted to Judaism. “There never was a conversion by the Khazar king or the Khazar elite,” he said. “The conversion of the Khazars is a myth with no factual basis.”

As a historian, he said he was surprised to discover how hard it is “to prove that something didn’t happen. Until now, most of my research has been aimed at discovering or clarifying what did happen in the past … It’s a much more difficult challenge to prove that something didn’t happen than to prove it did.”

That’s because the proof is based primarily on the absence of evidence rather than its presence – like the fact that an event as unprecedented as an entire kingdom’s conversion to Judaism merited no mention in contemporaneous sources.

“The silence of so many sources about the Khazars’ Judaism is very suspicious,” Stampfer said. “The Byzantines, the geonim [Jewish religious leaders of the sixth to eleventh centuries], the sages of Egypt – none of them have a word about the Jewish Khazars.”

The research ended up taking him four years. “I thought I’d finish in two months, but I discovered that there was a huge amount of work. I had to check sources that aren’t in my field, and I consulted and got help from many people.”

Stampfer said his research had no political motives, though he recognizes that the topic is politically fraught.

“It’s a really interesting historical question, but it has political implications,” he said. “As a historian, I’m naturally worried by the misuse of history. I think history should be removed from political discussions, but anyone who nevertheless wants to use history must at least present the correct facts. In this case, the facts are that the Khazars didn’t convert, the Jews aren’t descendants of the Khazars and the contemporary political problems between Israelis and Palestinians must be dealt with on the basis of current reality, not on the basis of a fictitious past.”

Sand had tied the Khazar issue directly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, telling Haaretz in 2008 that many Jews fear that wide acceptance of his thesis would undermine their “historic right to the land. The revelation that the Jews are not from Judea [ancient Israel] would ostensibly knock the legitimacy for our being here out from under us … There is a very deep fear that doubt will be cast on our right to exist.”

Stampfer believes the persistence of the Khazar conversion myth attests to researchers’ reluctance to abandon familiar paradigms.

“Those who believed this story – and they are many – usually didn’t do so for malicious reasons,” he says. “I tell my students that the only thing I want them to remember from my classes is the need to investigate and ask – to investigate whether the arguments they hear are credible, reasonable and well-founded.”

For more stories, go to Haaretz.com or to subscribe to Haaretz, click here and use the following promotional code for Forward readers: FWD13.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.