The True Origin of the Jews as Khazars, Israelites, or Canaanites

Prof. John Beaty on the Jews as Khazars

Over the last half-dozen years I’ve regularly cited the work of John Beaty, a respected academic who spent his entire teaching career at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

During World War II, Prof. Beaty served in Military Intelligence and his responsibilities included producing the daily intelligence briefing reports distributed to the White House and the rest of our top political and military leadership. That position provided him with a unique perspective on the entire course of the conflict.

After the end of the war, he resumed his academic career and in 1951 he published The Iron Curtain Over America, a book harshly critical of our government policies and the overwhelming Jewish influence that he had believed was responsible. He argued that Jewish domination over the publishing industry and the media had grown so powerful that most ordinary Americans never learned many important facts, with their dangerous ignorance maintained by the “Iron Curtain” of Jewish media control described in his title.

Since Beaty was a reputable scholar who possessed an insider’s crucial knowledge of our wartime activities, his many fierce critics both then and now have always chosen to attack his credibility on a minor side-issue. In his book, he had repeatedly claimed that instead of being the descendants of the ancient Israelites, most European Jews actually traced their ancestry to the Khazars, a fierce Turco-Mongolian warrior tribe that for several centuries controlled a substantial empire in portions of present-day southern Russia and Ukraine. Their rulers had converted to Judaism in the 8th century AD and according to Beaty, the Khazars eventually became the ancestors of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, who constituted the bulk of the global Jewish population, including an overwhelming majority of American Jews.

Beaty’s book became a huge conservative best-seller during the 1950s, and his claims about the Khazars were picked up by many other right-wingers hostile to Jewish influence. This was especially true of the leading antisemitic Christian preachers of that era such as Gerald L.K. Smith and Gerald Winrod, perhaps because they preferred believing that their Jewish adversaries were actually the descendants of Central Asian Turkic tribesmen rather than the holy prophets of the Old Testament; and since Beaty was himself a devout Christian, he may have been influenced by similar factors. In recent years, many anti-Zionists of all ideological stripes have also taken up that same theory, arguing that the European Jews who settled in Palestine were actually Khazars and therefore had no legitimate claim to that land. Indeed, among anti-Jewish or anti-Zionist activists on the Internet, “Khazar” has become quite common as a denigrating synonym for “Jew.”

Current efforts to promote this Khazar Hypothesis may have a practical political dimension. These days an important part of American support for Israel relies upon the large body of Christian Zionists, who identify today’s Jews with the Israelites of the Old Testament. Such Christians strongly supported the return of these exiled Jews to their ancient homeland and the restoration of a Jewish state in Palestine after two thousand years, regarding these events as the fulfillment of the biblical prophecies necessary for the return of Christ. So if they became convinced that Jews were instead Central Asian Khazars, their support might wane.

Since Beaty’s beliefs about the Khazars seemed irrelevant to the rest of his book, I’d mostly ignored them. But although such Khazar theories are rarely discussed in mainstream venues, they have become so widespread in fringe, conspiratorial circles that a few months ago I finally decided to review the evidence and publish my findings. However, my lengthy analysis of Jewish origins was buried in the middle of a very long article, bracketed on both sides by completely unrelated issues. Therefore, I’ve now decided to extract that material and expand it into a much more focused and comprehensive treatment of this important topic.

I had opened my analysis by mentioning Beaty’s claims and the attacks upon him:

Although I had been vaguely aware of the Khazar Hypothesis of Jewish origins, I regarded it as merely a rather marginal academic theory, finally laid to rest in the last couple of decades by modern DNA analysis. But Beaty had been writing more than seventy years ago, and he cited seemingly credible scholarly support for his claims, notably including the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia and the magisterial six volume History of the Jews, published in the nineteenth century by Heinrich Graetz. Beaty’s book had appeared several years before Watson and Crick had even discovered DNA, so his theory seemed a harmless eccentricity, hardly damaging his credibility on the major issues that fell within the purview of his personal expertise.

The overwhelming majority of Beaty’s material had seemed very solidly argued, so his eccentric Khazar claims were naturally seen as his greatest vulnerability, the issue that his bitter critics have focused upon for more than seventy years in order to discredit the rest of his analysis. Therefore, I decided to take some time to explore the Khazar Hypothesis and the broader question of Jewish origins, partly to evaluate Beaty’s credibility.

Arthur Koestler and The Thirteenth Tribe

When Beaty published his 1951 book, the story of the Khazars had probably been unknown to nearly all Americans, but a generation later another book by a very different writer suddenly brought it to widespread public attention, at least in intellectual circles.

Arthur Koestler was a Hungarian Jew, an early Zionist and former Communist who later turned strongly against Stalin and soon became a prominent Cold War writer. He was best known for Darkness at Noon, a loosely fictionalized account of the Stalinist purge trials of the 1930s that had deeply impressed me when I’d read the novel in high school. Then in 1976 he published The Thirteenth Tribe, a widely-discussed book promoting the Khazar Hypothesis for the origins of European Jewry, and I recently reread it for the first time since the 1990s.

I wasn’t terribly impressed. Aside from the story of the conversion of their rulers to Judaism, apparently very little solid evidence exists concerning the large Khazar Empire, merely scattered references in the histories and correspondence of their Byzantine, Russian, and Islamic neighbors and rivals, so although Koestler’s short book only ran a couple of hundred pages, it actually felt heavily padded, substantially summarizing the much better documented histories of the other regional powers in order to fill out its pages.

Koestler was a literary intellectual rather than a trained historian or anthropologist, and the efforts he made on behalf of his controversial theory sometimes seemed rather strained to me. All analysts agree that the Eastern European Jews are either the descendants of Jewish migrants from the Rhineland area of Germany or else Turkic Khazar converts. But these Jews call themselves “Askenazim”—meaning “German”—and they speak Yiddish, a German dialect, which contains almost no Turkic words. Although this evidence does not conclusively establish the Rhineland case, it obviously does tend to support it. Koestler rather weakly tries to explain away those simple facts by arguing that the Khazar Jews were so impressed by the high culture of the Gentile German settlers whom they encountered that they adopted the language of the latter, which is possible but not very plausible.

Furthermore, we only begin to encounter references to the substantial presence of Eastern European Jews hundreds of years after the collapse of the Khazar Empire, so any connection between the two populations seems rather tenuous.

I also wondered whether Koestler’s advocacy might have been partly based upon a personal motive. Prior to the conquest of their present-day lands, the Magyar tribesmen who founded Hungary had spent centuries as vassals of the Khazars, and when they finally broke free during the ninth century and migrated into Central Europe, a small segment of their former Khazar overlords came with them. So if Koestler had successfully established his theory, he would have been able to trace his own Jewish ancestry to the former rulers of the Hungarian Gentiles of his own country, providing a pleasant psychological boost to the self-esteem of someone raised in the ethnic patchwork quilt of mitteleuropa.

The main argument in favor of the Khazar Hypothesis had been the question of numbers. The Khazar Empire was relatively large and populous, and advocates tend to argue that most of the inhabitants eventually followed their rulers in converting to Judaism, thereby becoming a far more plausible source of the eventual millions of Central and Eastern European Jews than the immigrant Jews from the Rhineland, who probably numbered only a few thousand. But this ignores the reality that populations that find a successful economic niche can grow very rapidly over time.

For example, top Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann had ten siblings in his Russian family, and similarly high fertility rates had helped Russia’s Jewish population grow from roughly a half-million around 1800 to a figure ten times larger a century later. So if we know that Russian Jews had increased ten-fold during the course of a single century, it’s perfectly possible that a few thousand German Jews might have multiplied a hundred-fold during the course of six or seven hundred years. In a different historical example, today’s many millions of French Canadians and Louisiana Cajuns are all the descendants of just a couple of thousand French settlers who arrived in the New World three or four hundred years ago, while many tens of millions of Americans trace most of their ancestry to a few thousand British settlers who had arrived on the continent around the same time.

Moreover, the very distinct economic activities of the Ashkenazi Jews is another factor strangely ignored both by Koestler and his critics. The Rhineland Jews overwhelmingly filled a minority business niche, being money-lenders and traders among their Gentile host population, and together with estate-management and alcohol sales, this was the same sort of occupational profile filled by the much later and larger Ashkenazi populations of Central Europe and the Ukraine. In sharp contrast, the Khazars were fierce Central Asian tribal warriors, and their sudden transformation into a middleman minority earning its livelihood from business and finance seems much less likely.

Prof. Shlomo Sand and The Invention of the Jewish People

Koestler’s book provoked considerable discussion when it was published almost two generations ago, but many of the reviewers were skeptical or even dismissive, so I’m not sure whether it had much long-term impact on the debate. Indeed, some of Koestler’s sharp critics even suggested that he had written it merely in hopes that such a controversial work would revive his public profile which had largely faded away since his early writings of the 1940s had originally established his name.

Far more recent and more influential in mainstream circles has been the widely-praised international bestseller The Invention of the Jewish People by Prof. Shlomo Sand, a dissenting anti-Zionist Israeli historian, whose English translation had been released in 2009, a year after the original Hebrew edition. Sand’s basic thesis was considerably more measured than that of Koestler, primarily arguing that the majority of present-day Jews both in Europe and elsewhere were probably the descendants of later converts rather than the ancient Israelites of the Bible, with the Khazars merely being one of many such strands. I’d casually read the book about a dozen years ago, and despite the favorable recommendations had been rather unimpressed, but I decided to reread it.

Perhaps because I was now much more focused upon the topic of Jewish origins, my reaction to Sand’s work was far more positive than it had been the first time through.

For example, whereas Koestler had stretched the very thin historical evidence of the Khazars across an entire book, presenting his material in a rather tendentious and credulous manner, a professional historian such as Sand was far more judicious, treating it with considerable caution across 40 pages of text, much of which carefully summarized the conflicting views of many of the leading Jewish historians over the last two centuries.

As Sand explained, mainstream Jewish scholars who held a belief in the Khazar origins of European Jewry had always been a decided minority, but a minority that was both substantial and highly-regarded. During the 1950s, Prof. John Beaty had been roasted and vilified in our own country for his endorsement of the Khazar Hypothesis, which was portrayed as a lunatic-fringe belief probably motivated by his hatred of Jews; but during that very same period, Israel’s own Minister of Education was a prominent Jewish scholar holding very similar beliefs.

While Sand does seem to accept that a considerable fraction of Eastern European Jews probably have substantial Khazar roots, he hardly regards the case as solidly proven, nor is it central to his overall analysis, which instead focused upon a wide variety of different conversions to Judaism over the last two thousand years and more.

Some of the conversions emphasized by Sand seem absolutely undeniable though previously unknown to a non-specialist such as myself. For example, around 125 BC, King Yohanan Hyrcanus of the Maccabean dynasty conquered the small neighboring Semitic state of Edom and forcibly converted its inhabitants to Judaism. This history was often embarrassing and under-emphasized by many modern Jewish historians, especially since some of the most important later Judean leaders such as King Herod the Great, various leading rabbis, and even the most extreme Zealots involved in the Great Revolt against Rome were primarily of Edomite convert descent.

Numerous other apparent large-scale conversions to Judaism also took place, but on a voluntary basis. Sand gives the background to the later Jewish kingdom of Yemen that survived for more than a century, as well as the very large and flourishing Jewish communities of Alexandria and North Africa in the era of the late Roman Republic, while Cicero had famously remarked in 59 BC upon the substantial number of Jews living at Rome itself. Judaism was a proselytizing religion during this period, and that fact was almost certainly responsible for the rapid appearance of these large Jewish populations across the shores of the Mediterranean rather than any massive emigration of Jewish peasants from Palestine or any implausibly rapid natural population increase in small immigrant Jewish communities.

Indeed, despite the considerable loss of Jewish life during the revolts against Roman rule, over the next century Jewish numbers reached their high-water mark in the ancient world, perhaps 7-8% of the entire population of the Roman Empire, amounting to many millions. Sand plausibly argues that the rapid expansion of Judaism through conversion had probably begun with Alexander’s conquests and the creation of the large Hellenistic kingdoms that replaced the Persian Empire, and this process had then accelerated with the rise of Rome. All of this supports Sand’s central thesis that by the time of the late Roman Empire only a rather small fraction of its large Jewish population could actually trace their roots back to the Israelites of the Bible.

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