Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 20, 2017

Where did I come from? The Khazar hypothesis

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 10:45 pm

When I was in high school, I always assumed that I was a Sephardic Jew since my last name was the same as the Spanish word for project (el proyecto). It was only years later that I discovered in a book of Jewish surnames put together by Czarist scribes that is available at the YIVO library in NYC (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, or Yiddish Scientific Institute) that the name was Yiddish for the counting house of a tax farmer, prevalent in the Slutsk district of Byelorussia in the 1860s.

A tax farmer was a court Jew historically, someone authorized to collect taxes for a monarch or other landed gentry for a percentage of the take. When I read Abram Leon’s “The Jewish Question” shortly after joining the SWP, I was persuaded that my ancestors were like those described in the book—people who carried out financial transactions that were banned by the church. When a Christian banking class began to emerge in the late middle ages, the old-line Jewish bankers and tax collectors et al were banished from Spain, England and elsewhere. They headed east to Poland and Russia, where feudalism persisted. From various accounts, I have learned that the most vicious pogroms of the 19th century were carried out against tax collectors on estates owned by the Russian and Polish aristocracy who had little contact with the serfs they exploited.

The only alternative history of the origins of the Ashkenazi Jews is based on Khazaria, a Jewish kingdom that existed from 800 to 1000 AD. The most famous account of the kingdom is found in Arthur Koestler’s “The Thirteenth Tribe” that I read when it came out in 1976. Based on scholarship that the Jewish establishment, particularly those identifying with the Zionist project, dismissed as nonsense, the book argues that a Turkic-speaking nomadic people decided to adopt Judaism as a way of establishing an ethnic/religious identity that would serve as a firewall against Christianity to the West and Islam to the East.

Up until recently, I assumed that Khazaria was in the eastern regions of Turkey that they call Anatolia. But I was quite surprised that the kingdom was north of the Black Sea (Turkey lies to the south of the sea) in a geographical region largely occupied by Ukraine.

This I learned from reading in Paul Magocsi’s fascinating 894-page “A History of Ukraine”. In the chapter titled “The Slavs and the Khazars”, Magocsi describes the Jewish state as a place where the pagan Slavic peoples began to flourish under a regime that provided a stable, peaceful and tolerant environment for different faiths in the same manner that North African Muslim states around the same time provided a haven for Jews. Magocsi writes:

Living within the protective shadow of the Pax Khazaria, the Slavic tribes on Ukrainian lands were spared for a while the worst nomadic invasions from the east, and, as a result, between the seventh and ninth centuries they were able to expand their agricultural and trading activities. But despite such protection, some Slavic princes began to resent their vassal-like relationship to the Khazar rulers. For the longest time, however, the Slavs were not united, and no individual tribe had the strength to confront the Khazar Kaganate. Building up the necessary strength became a possibility only in the mid-ninth century, with a new development in the region of Kiev. This development combined local forces with a group of leaders from Scandinavia — the Varangians — and the result was the eventual consolidation of a new power known as Rus’. How did this new phenomenon arise? Or, to cite the opening passage of the Primary Chronicle, the most famous discussion of the subject, what was “the origin of the land of Rus’, [and of] the first princes of Kiev, and from what source did the land of Rus’ have its beginning?”

It was up to Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev, to assemble an army to break the power of the Khazars and begin the process of creating a Christian empire over the territory once ruled by the Jews. Vladimir was a scion of the Viking royalty who had expanded their influence eastward over the nomadic Slavic tribes and the rest is history.

After reading Magocsi’s account, I decided to have a look at Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People” that was published by Verso in 2009. As you might glean from the title, Sand rejects the notion that the Jews who came to live in Israel as part of the Zionist colonizing project had little biological ties to those who lived in Palestine in the time of Jesus. In a nutshell, he believes that the Khazar Jews continued to live in the same way as they always had but under Christian rule. You might ask yourself how they ended up speaking Yiddish, a language with obviously close relations to German. He says that this is a result of some German Jewish inflow into the area. Since the educated elites from Germany were socially superior to the native Jewish population, their language and liturgy eventually became hegemonic. I doubt if any of this will ever be resolved short of an exhaustive archaeological project that few Jewish scholars—mostly in sympathy with Zionist ideology—would bother to undertake. It is better to continue with the old time legends and myths about the Red Sea being parted, etc.

While most Ashkenazy Jews like Golda Meier or David Ben-Gurion would likely not make such a claim, it was doubtful that any of them would acknowledge being descendants of the Khazars who were Turkic converts to a faith that had one foot in traditional Jewish liturgy and the other in an alien culture that persists to this day, if you look carefully for it. Rejecting implicitly Abram Leon’s thesis that the Jews of Eastern Europe had fled from France, Germany and England, Sand writes:

At the center of the Jewish townlet stood the synagogue, with a double dome reminiscent of the Eastern pagoda. Jewish dress in Eastern Europe did not resemble that of the Jews of France or Germany. The yarmulke—also derived from a Turkic word—and the fur hat worn over it were more reminiscent of the people of the Caucasus and the horsemen of the steppes than of Talmudic scholars from Mainz or merchants from Worms. These garments, like the long silk caftan worn chiefly on the Sabbath, differed from clothing worn by the Belorussian or Ukrainian peasants. But any mention these features and others—from food to humor, from clothing to chants, connected to the specific cultural morphology of their daily life and their tory—scarcely interested the scholars who were occupied in inventing the eternal history of the “people of Israel.” They could not come to terms with the troublesome fact that there had never been a Jewish people’s culture, but only popular Yiddish culture that resembled the cultures of their neighbors much more than it did those of the Jewish communities of Western Europe or North Africa.

I was intrigued by the reference to yarmulke being derived from the Turkish. Wikipedia states that the word probably from the Turkish yağmurluk (“rainwear”), though it could also be from Medieval Latin almutia (“hood, cowl”).

In terms of the fur hat, that is probably a reference to the shtreimel worn by Satmar Hasidim. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, it is of Crimean Tatar origin, which is consistent with Sand’s account of how many Khazaris ended up in Crimea.

A Jew in a shtreimel

One of the more interesting discussions of the Khazarites can be found in “A History of the Jews”, written by Ilan Halevi who was a high-ranking Jewish member of the Palestine Liberation Organization. His discussion of the linguistic affinities between the long-gone Jewish state and other ethnicities is intriguing:

Some of these groups, however, took control, for considerable lengths of time, major communication centres, establishing around them short-quasi-states which entered into contact with the neighbouring empires in complex relationships of clientage and suzerainty, essentially on the imperial need for human barriers against the main body of the wave. For both Byzantium and Persia, the Ghassanid and Lakhmid Arab tribes had played this role of frontier guards against the tribes of the desert. It was against this background that there appeared, in the 6th century, on the west bank of the Caspian Sea, the kingdom of the Khazars. Originally the term “Khazar” did not describe a particular ethnic group: it was a sort generic name for all the Turco-Mongol peoples on the move in this region. It seems that the word itself derives from a Turkish root meaning “nomad” in which case it would be a Turkish equivalent of the Arabic bedu (Bedouin) describing, within a multi-tribal language, not an ethno-linguistic group, but a sociological category, the occupation and way of life of whole populations and even, at the extreme, a value system based on the specifity of this mode of organization. Thus, the Khazars were called Kaissak in the Urals, and Kazakh on the borders of China and Afghanistan where the Russian revolution would establish Kazakhstan; from their name would come the name of the Cossacks and the English word “Hussar”. But the Turcoman peoples of the Volga and the Caspian or the Crimea, whose own ethnic names were the Kalmyks and the Khirghiz, the Uzbeks and the Bashkirs, the Tatars called Tartars and many others, were, at the time of which we are speaking, Khazars on every criterion.

The only other linguistic item worth mentioning is that the king of the Khazars was called the Kagan. That’s the same name of the Supreme Court justice as well as many other Jews living in Brooklyn and elsewhere. If there was any justice in the world, the Zionists should have stayed out of the Middle East and come to Brooklyn instead—the real homeland of the Jews.



  1. Thanks for an interesting post.

    Comment by Michael Yates — March 20, 2017 @ 11:56 pm

  2. Louis, I do a lot of reading on Jewish DNA. The vast majority of the researchers deny the Khazar hypothesis, and these are scientists with no axe to grind for Zionist ideology or any other. The Ashkenazi Jews are a mish-mash of Middle Eastern , and traces of the lands they lived in the Diaspora. My wife, for example, with the maternal surname Shapiro (meaning from Speyer in Bavaria, btw) is 21% Northern European, some Middle Eastern, a smidgen of Central Asian via the Russian interbreeding with the Kalmyks, Tatars. (Lenin was 1.4 Kalmyk , just to make it relevant to this blog). Many of the place-name surnames come from Germany or Poland. Oh, and both my wife and myself, are, typically, a percent Neanderthal! (explains my dinner habits, she says). Peter Myers

    Comment by Peter Myers — March 21, 2017 @ 12:48 am

  3. this type of thing is more common than not.
    the Germans are a Germano-Slavic people.
    The great exodus of German tribes in their invasion of the Roman Empire was followed by a quieter, but large scale, invasion
    of German lands, to the Elbe, by Slavic peoples, as part of a bigger process that involved Central Europe and the Balkans,
    In later centuries, the German states and crusading orders reconquered those territories and absorbed the Slavic
    Rare would be the German leader who would describes the Germans as Germano-Slavs.
    The British—-a Keltic-German-Scandinavian people.
    The French—a Keltic-German people.
    The Greeks—a Greco-Slavic people.
    That the Jews are of highly mixed origins is of little practical consequence.
    This is the way most peoples are formed aside from the Icelanders, Papuans and some others.

    Comment by Ralph Levitt — March 21, 2017 @ 2:09 am

  4. How interesting all this is. In the United States especially, “ethnic” identities are defined by contrast with the bog-standard “whiteness” of “white people” who somehow both claim a privileged status and confirm this by subtracting everything that fills up the story of an actual people. White people, white bread, Colby cheese, vanilla ice cream, baloney, peanut butter, Budweiser, cola. Everything that contributes to whiteness –even if originally an Italian sausage, a rare, expensive, and exotic flavoring, an English cheese, an African legume, a nut from the jungles of Latin America, a beverage from Bohemia–undergoes this denaturing transformation into a symbol or sacrament of sacred emptiness–crowned, one might add, by sacred stupidity. The fashionable exoticisms of foodism, high fashion, and cell phones have never really done more than add a few berry flavors to the fundamentally insipid palette of whiteness.

    To reclaim the story of one’s people–unless you are so white or so bourgeois you have no people–while it carries with it the peril of nationalism, nevertheless can be a way of pushing back the dead weight of American ideology in favor of something that is or once was truly alive. Perhaps therein lies one path to the truly human universal.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 21, 2017 @ 11:26 am

  5. thanks, Louis, for the information on the history of the Jewish people

    Comment by isabelle rawich — March 21, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

  6. Dog bless eh and f— DNA evidence (unless you are a victim of a Trump ad). Could it not have been northeast of the Black Sea? Merci.

    Comment by Lawrence — March 21, 2017 @ 8:19 pm

  7. Might be related linguistically:
    In Iran, the Caspian Sea’s Persian name is ‘Daryaa-e Khazar’ (Sea of Khazar).

    Also, In Turkmenistan’s west coast, on the Caspian Sea, there is a coastal town named ‘Hazar’.

    Comment by Reza — March 21, 2017 @ 8:59 pm

  8. Well, Louis, that would be the homeland of Ashkenazim jews, there are many arab jews…

    Comment by semyorka — March 22, 2017 @ 9:10 am

  9. I’ve always found the Khazar hypothesis unbelievable, mainly because it sweeps under the carpet so many obvious historical and linguistic facts.

    Most Ashkenazi Jews once lived in the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth.
    At its height this included Poland, most of Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, the Courland, Latvia, parts of Estonia, and what became the Pale of Settlement in Russia.
    There’s no mystery about how they got there- they were invited by the Polish King, Casimir Piast III.

    The developing Polish state was multi-ethnic.
    An influx of German speaking peasants in the 13th Century helped repopulate the countryside after the Mongol invasions.
    Many of the towns were ruled by German Magdeburg Law.

    Yiddish, the common language of the Ashkenazi Jews, which is a Judaeo-Germanic language, developed in this region.
    If the bulk of the Eastern European Jewish population were descended from the Khazars, you might expect words of Turkic origin to be more common.
    Yet they’re incredibly rare.
    Middle German makes up some 70-75 percent of the vocabulary. 15-20 percent words come from Hebrew/Aramaic, Slavic elements 10-15 percent, 2 percent is of early Romance origin.

    The Russian-Jewish scholar Abraham Harkavy (who influenced Koestler’s “13th Tribe”) claimed that Russian Jews originally spoke ‘Slavonic’ and had entered Russia via Greece and Crimea, picking up some Judaised Khazars on the way.
    According to Harkavy, many Khazars (who were a tribal confederation rather than an ethnic group) spoke a Slavonic language by this time.
    But no “Khazar language” has ever been discovered.

    Even if his theory is correct, it doesn’t explain why Jews in the Russian Pale & Belarus spoke Yiddish.
    In fact, many words of Slav origin in Yiddish are derived from Polish rather than Russian.
    Or at least they are Polonisms, which both Polish Jews and Christians shared.
    Russian loan words seem to have been introduced in a later era.
    Could it be that Harkavy, who was given a prominent position in the Imperial Library in St Petersburg, was providing support for the Tsarist policy of Russification?

    Rather than ‘wandering’, the Ashkenazim lived in the much the same area for 600 years.
    This was subsequently divided between the Hapsburg and Tsarist empires.
    They exerted competing cultural and political influences on the Jewish population.
    Yet Yiddish flourished into the 20th century, developing a press and literature, even travelling to Western Europe and the USA.

    The Khazar hypothesis remains an unproven, fringe (dare I say crackpot) theory.

    Comment by prianikoff — March 22, 2017 @ 10:20 am

  10. I’ve always found the Khazar hypothesis unbelievable,

    Have you read Shlomo Sand?

    Comment by louisproyect — March 22, 2017 @ 11:43 am

  11. There is an analogy between the creation of Judea in ancient times and the creation of the Jewish communities of eastern Europe.
    The biblical description of the Conquest after the Exodus cannot be accepted.
    Rather a process was in play—the Judean hills became a refuge for several groups over the course of a few centuries.
    The Shasu (who worshipped Yahweh according to Egyptian records)—refugees from Egypt—the Habiru—put upon peasants from the lowlands,
    combined with native Canaanites.
    Likewise, Poland/Lithuania became a refuge for— western European Jews—some from the Byzantine empire—Khazar remnants—native Slav
    (Professor Wechsler argues that Yiddish is at its core a Slavic language—-I can’t evaluate that).
    It would be unwise to dismiss the Khazar Jews from the equation. It is only the numbers and percentages that are open to dispute.

    Comment by Ralph Levitt — March 22, 2017 @ 12:54 pm

  12. Louis,

    My impression is that Ashkenazim in East Europe came east from Germany (Ashkenaz) because the language is basically an Aramaic dialect of German.

    HOWEVER, since you are looking at the Khazar angle, then the most relevant, clearest case would be the Crimean Karaites and the Krymchaks, who have a Turkish dialect and have practices rather different than Ashkenazim.

    In the late 7th century most of Crimea fell to the Khazars. The extent to which the Krymchaks influenced the ultimate conversion of the Khazars and the development of Khazar Judaism is unknown. During the period of Khazar rule, intermarriage between Crimean Jews and Khazars was likely, and the Krymchaks probably absorbed numerous Khazar refugees during the decline and fall of the Khazar kingdom (a Khazar successor state, ruled by Georgius Tzul, was centered in Kerch). It is known that Kipchak converts to Judaism existed[citation needed], and it is possible that from these converts the Krymchaks adopted their distinctive language.

    The Crimean Karaites or Krymkaraylar

    Comment by Hal — April 6, 2017 @ 2:30 am

  13. I love reading these accounts. I also find it implausible that so many similarities – linguistic, ritualistic and basic clothing items like headgear – refute what most Jewish historians before the rise of Zionism accepted as fact: namely that most Eastern European Jews are a Turkic people, descendents of the conversion to Judaism of Khazarian aristocracy in the 8th century. The real reason this is disputed is to do with the dreadful human rights record of the nation called Israel. Here we have this surreal mixture of biblical bulldust which gets the far right so-called Christian fundamentalists on their side, religious fanaticism which resonates when New York Jews who have settled on a Palestinian’s Olive Grove talk bulldust like ‘God gave us this land’, and the last – hopefully – example of European Colonialism wreaking chaos, havoc and slaughter on a totally innocent people who, as Shlomo Sand points out, were the original Israelites.

    Comment by Dieter Barkhoff — September 17, 2018 @ 11:20 am

  14. Shaul Stampfer has debunked the myth of the conversion of the Khazarian royal family and nobility to Judaism in “Did the Khazars Convert to Judaism? ” (Jewish Social Studies, vol. 19, no. 3, spring-summer 2013, pp. 1-72).

    So far, I have not seen any convincing rebuttal.

    Comment by M. Martin — October 11, 2020 @ 11:23 pm

  15. Depends on where you look, M.Martin. And how closed your mind is. There are two Articles in The Conversation, a publication sponsored by the University of Melbourne –
    Sort: Relevance
    Language: English

    May 6, 2016
    Uncovering ancient Ashkenaz – the birthplace of Yiddish speakers
    Eran Elhaik, University of Sheffield

    Yiddish was at one time the international language of Ashkenazic Jews, but it’s exact origin has always been somewhat unclear, until now.

    September 5, 2018
    Ashkenazic Jews’ mysterious origins unravelled by scientists thanks to ancient DNA
    Eran Elhaik, University of Sheffield

    DNA evidence tracks the ancient history of the Jewish people.

    Comment by dieter barkhoff — October 15, 2020 @ 12:49 am

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