Ashkenazi Jews May Have Founded Israel,
But Hebrew-Speaking Khazars Created Ashkenaz
Yes, the Khazars spoke Hebrew. It was the official language of the medieval kingdom, just as it is today in Israel. That is one of the surprising revelations of a book titled The Invention of the Jewish People, by Tel Aviv history professor Shlomo Sand, who devotes half a chapter to the “strange empire in the East” (London: Verso, 2009).
Judaism has not always been a closed society. During all but the last four or five centuries of its existence, it has been a proselytizing (and stabilizing) force in world events. Great states like the now-forgotten Khazaria played a role in the balance of powers and destiny of world civilization. The policies of the Kagan and his viceroy the Bey were praised everywhere for creating a prosperous, multi-ethnic, multi-faith state that held sway over the lives of millions for five centuries (700-1200).
Out of the Mists of Time
In an older book, Catastrophe (New York: Ballatine), David Keys pursues a wider theme. He also has a chapter on Khazaria, “The Jewish Empire.” In it, after reviewing what we know about the medieval state, he concludes: “The Khazar empire prevented the westward spread of Islam. If it had not been for the military might of the empire, Islam would likely have rolled west into pagan eastern Europe and possibly even into pagan Scandinavia in the eight and ninth centuries A.D.” He postulates that the Vikings could well have become Muslim, as well as Poland, Hungary, Romania, eastern Austria, the Czech and Slovak lands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Danelaw, the Viking state that emerged in eastern England.
“If the Khazar empire had not prevented Islamic expansion, it is even possible that the Normans (originally Vikings from Denmark) might have already been Muslims for two hundred years by the time they conquered England in 1066. What’s more, if the Arabs had occupied what is now the Ukraine and Russia [rather than the Khazars, who founded Kiev, Russia’s first capital], a Viking people known as the Rus would never have been able to push south and east from the Baltic to establish Russia” (p. 98).
An “investigative archeologist,” Keys attributes the rise and spread of the Khazar state to a devastating volcanic explosion in Java in 535 that caused worldwide darkness, crop loss, famine, droughts, floods, migration of peoples and destabilization of regimes. Among the losers in what has passed into history as the Dark Ages were the Byzantines, Britons, French, Spanish, south Arabs, Tang Chinese, Teotihuacan and Peruvians. The winners were Avars, Huns, Koreans, Japanese, Toltecs, Incas, Mohammedans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings and Visigoths. The global disaster had far-reaching effects that formed the modern world.
Sand is a professor in the department of European history (separated, curiously, from “Jewish” history in his country, Israel) and is concerned, as all historians are, with books. On the basis of records and written accounts, he reveals Khazaria’s rise as no opportunistic accident to adorn a schoolboy’s tale but as a historical phenomenon central to the formation of world Jewry. What Sand and Keys have in common is their iconoclastic, multi-disciplinary approaches. Independently, they assign a prominent role to Khazaria in world history. Both attack taboo subjects with relish and finesse and are soundly ignored, no doubt, in the balkanized institutional world of learning.
Physical Evidence in Genes
Sand was apparently unaware of Keys or the global catastrophe of 525, but Keys has an excellent genetic summary of the heritage of the Khazars, one that is consistent with the latest research into the unity and diversity of the Jewish people(s).
“The Jewish empire’s other legacy was the creation of a large pool of Jews of ethnically non-Jewish origin who subsequently became a major part—perhaps even the numerically dominant part—of northeast European Jewry and subsequently of world Jewry,” Keys writes (p. 99). He goes further and substantiates and characterizes the convert origin of the Ashkenazi community in the ascendancy in modern Israel and the United States.
“This group, according to tradition, comprises the majority of the descendants of the ancient Israelite tribe of Levi—people who today still bear the name Levi or Levy. Significantly, it does not include a Levite subgroup—the Priests themselves—who often have the name Cohen. . . . This genetic marker does not even show up among the Cohens (descendants of the ancient Israelite Chief Priests)—but only among the descendants of Assistant Priests [Levites]. And then only within Ashkenazi (northern European) Jewry . . . . If some top Khazars were adopting Cohenic Levitical status (i.e., Chief Priest status), then it is more than likely that others—a larger number—were adopting ordinary Levitical status (i.e., Assistant Priest status). Adoption of Cohenic or ordinary Levitical status by converts was and is expressly forbidden by rabbinical law, so the Khazars had to develop a mythic national history that gave them the right to Levitical status” (p. 100).
Kaftans and Yarmulkes
Both Keys and Sand write of the revealing role of Yiddish, the lingua franca of medieval European Jewry and first language of 80% of the settlers in the modern-day Land of Israel. They agree that Yiddish, even though it has a medieval German base, has more elements that are Slavic, Romance, Hebrew, Aramaic and even Turkic and is more accurately to be regarded as the result of a relexification process by originally mixed Sorbs, Magyars, Khazars and others, not as the dialect of west German or Rhineland Jews. In conventional Jewish teaching, Yiddish is regarded as a prestigious import from the Rhadanite and other Romano-Frankic Jews (who were Judean merchants under the Romans, according to most, hence retaining the desired link to ethnic origins in the Middle East). In the new view, Yiddish loses a lot of its special historical claims and becomes simply a language of convenience in the polyglot Khazar domain of former times.
The two books attribute also a superabundance of anthropological characteristics of Ashkenazi Jews to Khazar predominance, including shtetls (townlets), silk kaftans, fur headdresses, naming individuals after Jewish holidays (we have an Aunt Hanukkah and Uncle Pesach in our family tree) and innumerable place-names in Eastern Europe. Finally, Sand notes that the word yarmulke is derived from a Turkic word (p. 247).
Although the “Khazar thesis” is largely ignored or silenced by Israeli leaders and Jewish scholars, it is unlikely that the rulers of the modern state of Israel will make any constructive impact on the course of world events on the scale of Khazaria. Jews should study Khazaria's intellectual and international model of statecraft instead of the tired and chauvinistic histories of nineteenth-century Zionists. As Sand says, “Why not begin to dream its future afresh, before it becomes a nightmare?”