There’s a new chapter in the ever-heated, ongoing, and somewhat esoteric debate over whether Ashkenazi Jews descended from the Khazars, a Turkic people who lived in the Caucasus region between the 7th and 10th centuries. A long-held theory posits that members of the kingdom converted to Judaism at the behest of their ruler, a notion that anchored Yehuda Ha-Levi’s Kuzari and fascinated Stalin. But in a new article in the journal Jewish Social Studies, Hebrew University researcher Shaul Stampfer argues there is no evidence from Medieval Jewish, Islamic or Christian texts that such a conversion took place.
“The silence of so many sources about the Khazars’ Judaism is very suspicious,” Stampfer tells Haaretz. “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.”
Assuming it’s a myth, it’s one that offered Jews “a source of encouragement in difficult times” Stampfer writes in his study. “The history of the Khazars is an important topic in its own right and deserves to be studied seriously and carefully, without the unnecessary distraction of looking for hints of a conversion that never took place. The same is true for Jewish history. Research must be subordinated to facts and not to personal agendas.”
Stampfer’s findings serve as a retort to the controversial work of Tel Aviv University historian Shlomo Sand whose 2009 book, The Invention of the Jewish People, argued for the link between Ashkenazi Jews and the Khazars of the Steppe and saw in that truism an upending of the Jews’ historical claims on the land of Israel.
Sara Ivry is the host of Vox Tablet, Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast. Follow her on Twitter@saraivry.