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question everything Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Oct-30-09 01:13 PM
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Where Do Jews Come From?
OCTOBER 30, 2009

Where Do Jews Come From?

By EVAN R. GOLDSTEIN
WSJ

This much is known: In the mid-eighth century, the ruling elite of the Khazars, a Turkic tribe in Eurasia, converted to Judaism. Their impetus was political, not spiritual. By embracing Judaism, the Khazars were able to maintain their independence from rival monotheistic states, the Muslim caliphate and the Christian Byzantine empire. Governed by a version of rabbinical law, the Khazar Jewish kingdom flourished along the Volga basin until the beginning of the second millennium, at which point it dissolved, leaving behind a mystery: Did the Khazar converts to Judaism remain Jews, and, if so, what became of them?

Enter Shlomo Sand. In a new book, "The Invention of the Jewish People," the Tel Aviv University professor of history argues that large numbers of Khazar Jews migrated westward into Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania, where they played a decisive role in the establishment of Eastern European Jewry. The implications are far-reaching: If the bulk of Eastern European Jews are the descendents of Khazarsnot the ancient Israelitesthen most Jews have no ancestral links to Palestine. Put differently: If most Jews are not Semites, then what justification is there for a Jewish state in the Middle East? By attempting to demonstrate the Khazar origins of Eastern European Jewry, Mr. Sanda self-described post-Zionist who believes that Israel needs to shed its Jewish identity to become a democracyaims to undermine the idea of a Jewish state.

(snip)

What should we make of Mr. Sand's radical revisionist history? There is reason to be very skeptical. After all, we have been here before. In 1976, Arthur Koestler published "The Thirteenth Tribe," which argued that Diaspora Jews were a "pseudo-nation" bound by "a system of traditional beliefs based on racial and historical premises which turn out to be illusory." The genetic influence of the Khazars on modern Jews is, he wrote, "substantial, and in all likelihood dominant." Koestler's speculations were not novel. The connection between the Khazars and the Jews of Eastern Europe had been debated by both scholars and conspiracists (the two are not mutually exclusive) for centuries.

"The Thirteenth Tribe" was savaged by critics, and Mr. Sand's repackaging of its central argument has not fared much better. "A few Jews in Eastern Europe presumably came from the Khazar kingdom, but nobody can responsibly claim that most of them are the descendents of Khazars," says Israel Bartal, a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. We simply don't know enough about the demographics of Eastern European Jews before the 13th century to make such an assertion, Mr. Bartal says, adding, "Sand has not proven anything." According to Peter B. Golden, a professor of history at Rutgers University, the Khazars are likely one of a number of strains that shaped the Jewish population in Eastern Europe. But, he stresses, DNA studies have confirmed that the Middle Eastern strain is predominant.

(snip)

I recently called Mr. Sand in Paris, where he is on sabbatical, to ask if he is concerned that "The Invention of the Jewish People" will be exploited for pernicious ends. "I don't care if crazy anti-Semites in the United States use my book," he said in Israeli-accented English. "Anti-Semitism in the West, for the moment, is not a problem." Still, he is worried about how the forthcoming Arabic translation might be received in the Muslim world, where, he says, anti-Semitism is growing. I ask if the confident tenor of his book might exacerbate the problem. He falls quiet for a moment. "Maybe my tone was too affirmative on the question of the Khazars," he reluctantly concedes. "If I were to write it today I would be much more careful." Such an admission, however, is unlikely to sway the sinister conspiracists who find the Khazar theory a useful invention.

Mr. Goldstein is a staff editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703746604... (subscription, I think)


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