Haters and Lies about Judaism & Jews
Many absurd and dangerous conspiracy theories have intellectual or otherwise benign origins.
In the late 1990s a team of British researchers published a paper identifying and arguing for a causal link between the vaccine for measles and autism. The paper concluded that families should currently forgo normal vaccines, opting instead for a string of weaker, single-antigen shots given over a long period of time. The article made its rounds throughout the medical community and the idea that vaccines may cause autism became a household one.
Of course as the study began to be mass replicated it was immediately demonstrated that the original study had been susceptible to a myriad of errors, some accidental others intentional. Most of the authors withdrew their names from the paper and the publishing journal officially separated itself from this demonstrably false idea.
But the damage was already done.
According to a 2016 poll roughly 10% of parents believe that the relative damage caused by vaccines outweigh the benefits. Strings of websites, groups, books, and public figures tout the pathologies of vaccines, spreading this false information that is extremely detrimental to the health of society as a whole. While the initial idea that vaccines cause autism may have arisen from a good-intentioned, well researched claim, it has quickly spiraled into something increasingly dangerous.
In 1976 Arthur Koestler, a Hungarian Jew, wrote a now-infamous book called the Thirteenth Tribe where he popularized and advanced the theory that Ashkenazi Jews are the descendants of the Khazars, an eighth century Turkic people who had converted rabbinic Judaism en masse. The theory was goes that following the collapse of the Khazar empire hundreds of years later, these converts subsequently spread throughout Europe and Ashkenazi Jewry was born. The massive implication of this idea being that Judaism is actually not a race or nation given that the Ashkenaz community would have no racial connection with the ancient Jews who had once populated the land of Israel or ones in another areas of the globe.
Now Koestler didn’t come up with this theory out of nowhere. In the medieval period a handful of Jewish philosophers made reference to a mass Jewish conversion of the Khazars, although they never claimed that this conversion was the basis for all Ashkenazi Jewry. Then, throughout the 18th and early 19th century, this idea began to proliferate within Jewish scholarship, just as anti-Semitism was beginning to take its modern and racial form.
The evidence for the theory was scant and unconvincing but many Jewish scholars figured that if they could disconnect Ashkenazi Jewry from the Jewish race and instead link them to a European ancestor they could create a stop to the growing anti-Semitism that seriously threatened the European Jewish community. Even Koestler admits in his book that his purpose for defending this idea was to fight anti-Semitism by disproving its racial basis.
Sadly this theory did not stop anti-Semitism and ironically, in some cases, it actually provided and continues to provide fodder for various modern types of anti-Semitism. In 1947 during discussions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian UN Partition Plan a string of Muslim leaders argued against recognizing the legitimacy of Zionism on the basis that the European Jews who had backed this nascent idea of modern Zionism had no connection to the ancient Jews or their homeland. These Jews, they said, were racially and nationally European and therefore had no right to this far away land. Even today, long after the theory has been rejected by the majority of scholars (more on this below), the Khazar theory is commonly touted by anti-zionists and various Arab governments around the world.
The Khazar theory is another example of the paradox and lose-lose situation that fuels anti-Semitism. On the one hand when Koestler wrote his book in 1976 the book immediately went up for sale on a variety of neo-nazi, white nationalist, and websites pertaining to the Christian Identity Movement as “proof” that the “real” people of the Bible were not these dirty Jews. Even today many on the far right commonly cite this theory to bolster a number of conspiracies against the Jews.
On the other hand this same exact claim is used to fuel anti-Semitism in the exact opposite way. For fervent anti-Zionists the Jews are really just white Europeans who have come over to colonize Israel. There is no Jewish “nation” only a religion with no shared history amongst its adherents.
For anti-Semites on the right the Jews are a race (not a religion) and there is something within their blood or essence that renders them deficient. For this reason they will never fit in with mainstream (white) society. For anti-semites on the left the Jews are a religion (not a race or nation) and therefore should receive none of the benefits or protections from racism that all other races or nations deserve. No matter what we can’t win.
So what are the arguments against the Khazar theory?
First of all there is a large corpus of data from the field of population genetics that directly contradicts the Khazar theory. This research, best summarized by Dr. Harry Ostrer in his book Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, concludes that the majority of modern Jews share a significant amount of their genetic identity that can be traced back to the Middle East. This means that all Jews, whether Ashkenazi, Sephardic, or Mizrahi all trace back to a common geographical and temporal setting. While some percentage of Ashkenazi DNA can be traced back to Europe, this only means that there was some number of conversions, intermarriages and rapes, as opposed to the inception of an entire community.
Second, and perhaps just as important as the genetic data, we have no primary historical sources that attest to the Khazar theory. As stated earlier, Jewish thinkers did recognize the fact that a sizeable community of Khazars did convert to Judaism - but this is a far cry from positting that this was the origin of the entire Ashkenazi population. If such an event did happen, there would have been no reason for Jewish writers to obscure the facts, especially since modern ideas of religion, nations, and race were not yet in existence and they would have nothing to lose by being transparent.
Finally it is important to realize that the majority of early scholars who did put forth this theory had an agenda, namely, to reduce European antisemitism. While this was certainly a noble reason, it also underscores why Jewish scholars in the 19th and early 20th century would attempt to argue for a conclusion inconsistent with the data.
Today the Khazar theory is nothing more than a pernicious myth that has been co-opted by racists and anti-semites to perpetuate their harmful ideas about Jews and or Israel. Jews, whether Ashkenaz, Sephardi, or Mizrachi, are all a part of a single nation - indigenous to the ancient land of Israel - and any denial of this is both racist and simply false.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
Is there a value in continued interfaith dialogue with Christian institutions or others that organize boycotts of Israeli products and divestment from Israel? This seems to be a blatant act to try to deny Israel the right to defend against threats by terrorist organizations that seek Israel’s destruction. [Administrator's note: This issue seems to have arisen again in the news (June 2014, and more recently) with the vote for divestment from companies doing business in Israel by the Presbyterian Church USA.]
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