Who are the Jews?

Claims that contemporary Jews are imposters, not the descendants of biblical Jews, have been around for years and come in many flavors. First, there are several plain vanilla versions, whose proponents are unencumbered by the pesky burden of scholarly proof. As an example, Louis Farrakhan stated in his recent speech, "Who Are The Real Children of Israel?":

I asked the question: "Who Are The Real Children of Israel?" The Honorable Elijah Muhammad has said that Almighty God Allah revealed to him that the Black people of America are The Real Children of Israel. And we are The Choice of God; and that unto us He will deliver His Promise.

This question says that somebody has usurped our position. This question says that somebody has taken The Promise of God to the Children of Israel, and claimed it for themselves.

Likewise, Arab religious scholars appearing on Palestinian TV are unimpressed by "petty details" like archeological evidence or carbon dating. They insist that the two ancient Jewish Temples never existed in Jerusalem, that the Jews falsified the Torah, and that the Western Wall was actually "part of the mosque and once served as a post for Muhammad's horse." Other prominent Muslim clerics have made bizarre claims that the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem predates King Solomon and that it was built by angels at the time of Adam.

A more historically based construct involves the Khazars, a Turkic people whose kingdom flourished in what is now southern Russia between the 7th and 10th centuries. This construct acquired a large following after the publication of Arthur Koestler's book The Thirteenth Tribe. Koestler, who was a novelist, a journalist, and a political writer, rather than a professional historian, put forward the idea that the present-day Jews are descendants of the Khazars, rather than of the Jews of the Bible. Ironically, Koestler popularized the Khazar theory, hoping that it would defuse Christian antisemitism by absolving the Jews of the "crime of deicide." But it was seized upon by Antisemitism, Inc., which quickly realized that Koestler's theory might also be used to delegitimize Israel. The Khazar theory was enthusiastically embraced by the historical revisionists, who play fast and loose with historical facts. It has become a staple in revisionist lore, on a par with Holocaust-denial, the claim that 9/11 was not carried out by Arab terrorists, and the allegation that HIV was engineered by the U.S. government.

Here is what is known about the Khazarian kingdom. At some point circa 800, the Khazarian royalty adopted Judaism. The historians disagree on how widespread Judaism was there. Some believe that only the ruling elite followed the royalty, while others think that part of the general population did, too. In any case, many Khazars kept practicing Christianity, Islam, and even Norse Paganism. The Khazars practicing Judaism established contacts with Jewish communities in Europe, Persia, and the Middle East. In the 10th century, the Khazarian kingdom gradually declined, and it was eventually destroyed by its neighbors.

Note that the Khazars were by no means the only community ethnically unrelated to the ancient Jews that adopted Judaism. Another well-known example is the Falasha community that existed in Ethiopia for many centuries. There have been other, smaller groups that adopted Judaism in various parts of the world. Furthermore, the romantic quest for Israel's ten lost tribes has led many writers to speculate that other ethnic groups not practicing Judaism, such as Kurds, Irish, and even American Indians, have a Jewish connection.

Obviously, most of such assertions are tenuous at best. If we limit our discussion to serious, evidence-based arguments, then the possible arguments may be drawn from several fields: archeology, historiography, and linguistics. Most of the mainstream scholars in these fields rejected the theory of the Khazarian origin of contemporary Jewry as baseless. But, as it often happens in social sciences, there was no consensus among the experts. Their bickering could have continued forever, but it came to an abrupt end in 2010. The final verdict on the Khazar theory came from an unexpected source: a quantitative science called computational genomics, which finally connected the historical dots and settled two tantalizing questions:

  1. Are the present-day Jews descendants of the Biblical Jews?
  2. Are the Ashkenazi Jews genetically closely related to the Sephardic Jews?

Before we get to these genomics studies, let us briefly outline the historical and linguistic arguments concerning the thesis of Khazar ancestry. The standards of proof in social sciences are not the same as those in computational genomics, yet social sciences provide illuminating insights into the subject. There is no shortage of documented evidence of flourishing Jewish communities that existed in the Iberian and Italian peninsulas, the Byzantine Empire, Persia, North Africa, and elsewhere before, during, and after the Khazarian kingdom. At various times, the Jews were expelled from, and readmitted to, Spain, Portugal, England, France, and other countries. Most of the Ashkenazi Jews spread into Poland, Lithuania, and western parts of Russia from Germany, as evidenced by their spoken language -- Yiddish. Yiddish is a Germanic language with a heavy influence of Hebrew, which originated in the 10th century. It also has traces of Latin-derived languages. The vocabulary of eastern dialects of Yiddish includes many Slavisms. All of the above indicates that the main pattern of the migration of European Jewry was from west to east. Ladino, the main language of the Sephardic Jews, is a member of the Romance group of languages. It is derived from Old Castilian, with a heavy influence of Hebrew. The Ladino spoken by the Sephardic communities in North Africa, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Turkey also borrowed many words from the local languages. Both Yiddish and Ladino use the Hebrew alphabet.

The following two quotations from leading academics convey their attitude towards the Khazar theory. The Khazar theory "is supported by no evidence whatsoever. It has long since been abandoned by all serious scholars in the field" (Bernard Lewis). "The notion that Ashkenazi Jewry is descended from the Khazars has absolutely no basis in fact" (Daniel Lasker).

The best-known challenger to the mainstream school in academia is Shlomo Sand, professor at Tel Aviv University, who has been an unabashed Communist all his life. His political views and the atmosphere in Israeli universities are relevant to this discussion, so let us start with that. The political situation in Israeli universities is somewhat similar to that in the United States and other Western countries. Even though the Communists and other left-wing radicals make up a small part of the Israeli population, they are heavily overrepresented in the social sciences departments, where they promote Marxist views. In line with Communist ideology, these professors deny Israel's right to exist, vilify it, and call for an international boycott of their own country. The Israeli counterparts of professors Bill Ayers, Angela Davis, and Ward Churchill advocate the destruction of Israel under the protection of academic freedom. Yet they do not extend the same protection to their students. As Nira Hativa, head of Tel Aviv University's Department of Curriculum and Instruction, wrote, "There are no small number of students of lecturers with left-wing views who complain bitterly that they are extremely offended by the presentation of materials that oppose their views, but are fearful of expressing contrary viewpoints in class, lest it harm their grades."

Shlomo Sand's book, titled The Invention of the Jewish People, was published in 2008. In it, he takes a broad swipe at the established historical paradigms. Not only does he argue against the Semitic origin of the Jewish people, but he argues against the very notion of the Jewish people, period. According to Sand, a Jewish people, as a coherent group with a common origin, does not exist and never existed. Rather, it was "invented retrospectively" in the 1850s by a German-Jewish historian named Heinrich Graetz, who laid the intellectual ground for Zionism. Sand revives the Khazar theory and further claims that the Jews are a hodgepodge of descendants of Khazars and other ethnic groups, who converted to Judaism at various points in history, whereas the Palestinian Arabs are true descendants of the ancient Jews. Hence, according to Sand, Zionism is a mere conspiracy, spanning 150 years, to create imposters to steal Palestine.

Many reputable historians harshly refuted Sand's work. To this effect, professor Anita Shapira wrote that Sand seeks to "undermine the credibility of important scholars by dismissing their conclusions without bringing any evidence to bear." Another prominent scholar of Jewish history, Israel Bartal, was even less subtle: he called Sand's work "baseless" and "bizarre and incoherent." 

Nevertheless, The Invention of the Jewish People was met enthusiastically by Antisemitism, Inc. It was immediately translated into several languages and received a prize awarded by French journalists. The PR campaign has been manifoldly amplified by the internet. For example, Sand's revelation, "But once I started looking at the evidence, I discovered that the kingdoms of David and Solomon were legends," yields thousands of Google hits. It was gleefully reproduced on websites run by Pravda, Stormfront (a white supremacist site), and many Muslim groups, among others, even though Sand himself admitted that he is a "historian of France and Europe, and not of the ancient period."

This jubilation had a rather anticlimactic ending. In June of 2010, the American Journal of Human Genetics published a report by a team of scientists that delivered a conclusive verdict on both Koestler's and Sand's theories: the verdict was "no on both counts." A layman's version of the report was published by Newsweek and by several other magazines. In a nutshell, the DNA research demonstrated a high degree of genetic similarity between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews and proved that both branches descended from a common Middle Eastern ancestral population. Of course, no serious scholar believes in "racial purity" of any population group, including the Jews. There have always been a certain amount of intermarriages and conversions. However, the DNA study "refuted large-scale genetic contributions of Central and Eastern European and Slavic populations to the formation of Ashkenazi Jewry" (a quote from the report).

This is not the first attack by historical revisionists on the Jews, and certainly it will not be the last. As Walter Cronkite used to say, "And that's the way it is."
Claims that contemporary Jews are imposters, not the descendants of biblical Jews, have been around for years and come in many flavors. First, there are several plain vanilla versions, whose proponents are unencumbered by the pesky burden of scholarly proof. As an example, Louis Farrakhan stated in his recent speech, "Who Are The Real Children of Israel?":

I asked the question: "Who Are The Real Children of Israel?" The Honorable Elijah Muhammad has said that Almighty God Allah revealed to him that the Black people of America are The Real Children of Israel. And we are The Choice of God; and that unto us He will deliver His Promise.

This question says that somebody has usurped our position. This question says that somebody has taken The Promise of God to the Children of Israel, and claimed it for themselves.

Likewise, Arab religious scholars appearing on Palestinian TV are unimpressed by "petty details" like archeological evidence or carbon dating. They insist that the two ancient Jewish Temples never existed in Jerusalem, that the Jews falsified the Torah, and that the Western Wall was actually "part of the mosque and once served as a post for Muhammad's horse." Other prominent Muslim clerics have made bizarre claims that the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem predates King Solomon and that it was built by angels at the time of Adam.

A more historically based construct involves the Khazars, a Turkic people whose kingdom flourished in what is now southern Russia between the 7th and 10th centuries. This construct acquired a large following after the publication of Arthur Koestler's book The Thirteenth Tribe. Koestler, who was a novelist, a journalist, and a political writer, rather than a professional historian, put forward the idea that the present-day Jews are descendants of the Khazars, rather than of the Jews of the Bible. Ironically, Koestler popularized the Khazar theory, hoping that it would defuse Christian antisemitism by absolving the Jews of the "crime of deicide." But it was seized upon by Antisemitism, Inc., which quickly realized that Koestler's theory might also be used to delegitimize Israel. The Khazar theory was enthusiastically embraced by the historical revisionists, who play fast and loose with historical facts. It has become a staple in revisionist lore, on a par with Holocaust-denial, the claim that 9/11 was not carried out by Arab terrorists, and the allegation that HIV was engineered by the U.S. government.

Here is what is known about the Khazarian kingdom. At some point circa 800, the Khazarian royalty adopted Judaism. The historians disagree on how widespread Judaism was there. Some believe that only the ruling elite followed the royalty, while others think that part of the general population did, too. In any case, many Khazars kept practicing Christianity, Islam, and even Norse Paganism. The Khazars practicing Judaism established contacts with Jewish communities in Europe, Persia, and the Middle East. In the 10th century, the Khazarian kingdom gradually declined, and it was eventually destroyed by its neighbors.

Note that the Khazars were by no means the only community ethnically unrelated to the ancient Jews that adopted Judaism. Another well-known example is the Falasha community that existed in Ethiopia for many centuries. There have been other, smaller groups that adopted Judaism in various parts of the world. Furthermore, the romantic quest for Israel's ten lost tribes has led many writers to speculate that other ethnic groups not practicing Judaism, such as Kurds, Irish, and even American Indians, have a Jewish connection.

Obviously, most of such assertions are tenuous at best. If we limit our discussion to serious, evidence-based arguments, then the possible arguments may be drawn from several fields: archeology, historiography, and linguistics. Most of the mainstream scholars in these fields rejected the theory of the Khazarian origin of contemporary Jewry as baseless. But, as it often happens in social sciences, there was no consensus among the experts. Their bickering could have continued forever, but it came to an abrupt end in 2010. The final verdict on the Khazar theory came from an unexpected source: a quantitative science called computational genomics, which finally connected the historical dots and settled two tantalizing questions:

  1. Are the present-day Jews descendants of the Biblical Jews?
  2. Are the Ashkenazi Jews genetically closely related to the Sephardic Jews?

Before we get to these genomics studies, let us briefly outline the historical and linguistic arguments concerning the thesis of Khazar ancestry. The standards of proof in social sciences are not the same as those in computational genomics, yet social sciences provide illuminating insights into the subject. There is no shortage of documented evidence of flourishing Jewish communities that existed in the Iberian and Italian peninsulas, the Byzantine Empire, Persia, North Africa, and elsewhere before, during, and after the Khazarian kingdom. At various times, the Jews were expelled from, and readmitted to, Spain, Portugal, England, France, and other countries. Most of the Ashkenazi Jews spread into Poland, Lithuania, and western parts of Russia from Germany, as evidenced by their spoken language -- Yiddish. Yiddish is a Germanic language with a heavy influence of Hebrew, which originated in the 10th century. It also has traces of Latin-derived languages. The vocabulary of eastern dialects of Yiddish includes many Slavisms. All of the above indicates that the main pattern of the migration of European Jewry was from west to east. Ladino, the main language of the Sephardic Jews, is a member of the Romance group of languages. It is derived from Old Castilian, with a heavy influence of Hebrew. The Ladino spoken by the Sephardic communities in North Africa, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Turkey also borrowed many words from the local languages. Both Yiddish and Ladino use the Hebrew alphabet.

The following two quotations from leading academics convey their attitude towards the Khazar theory. The Khazar theory "is supported by no evidence whatsoever. It has long since been abandoned by all serious scholars in the field" (Bernard Lewis). "The notion that Ashkenazi Jewry is descended from the Khazars has absolutely no basis in fact" (Daniel Lasker).

The best-known challenger to the mainstream school in academia is Shlomo Sand, professor at Tel Aviv University, who has been an unabashed Communist all his life. His political views and the atmosphere in Israeli universities are relevant to this discussion, so let us start with that. The political situation in Israeli universities is somewhat similar to that in the United States and other Western countries. Even though the Communists and other left-wing radicals make up a small part of the Israeli population, they are heavily overrepresented in the social sciences departments, where they promote Marxist views. In line with Communist ideology, these professors deny Israel's right to exist, vilify it, and call for an international boycott of their own country. The Israeli counterparts of professors Bill Ayers, Angela Davis, and Ward Churchill advocate the destruction of Israel under the protection of academic freedom. Yet they do not extend the same protection to their students. As Nira Hativa, head of Tel Aviv University's Department of Curriculum and Instruction, wrote, "There are no small number of students of lecturers with left-wing views who complain bitterly that they are extremely offended by the presentation of materials that oppose their views, but are fearful of expressing contrary viewpoints in class, lest it harm their grades."

Shlomo Sand's book, titled The Invention of the Jewish People, was published in 2008. In it, he takes a broad swipe at the established historical paradigms. Not only does he argue against the Semitic origin of the Jewish people, but he argues against the very notion of the Jewish people, period. According to Sand, a Jewish people, as a coherent group with a common origin, does not exist and never existed. Rather, it was "invented retrospectively" in the 1850s by a German-Jewish historian named Heinrich Graetz, who laid the intellectual ground for Zionism. Sand revives the Khazar theory and further claims that the Jews are a hodgepodge of descendants of Khazars and other ethnic groups, who converted to Judaism at various points in history, whereas the Palestinian Arabs are true descendants of the ancient Jews. Hence, according to Sand, Zionism is a mere conspiracy, spanning 150 years, to create imposters to steal Palestine.

Many reputable historians harshly refuted Sand's work. To this effect, professor Anita Shapira wrote that Sand seeks to "undermine the credibility of important scholars by dismissing their conclusions without bringing any evidence to bear." Another prominent scholar of Jewish history, Israel Bartal, was even less subtle: he called Sand's work "baseless" and "bizarre and incoherent." 

Nevertheless, The Invention of the Jewish People was met enthusiastically by Antisemitism, Inc. It was immediately translated into several languages and received a prize awarded by French journalists. The PR campaign has been manifoldly amplified by the internet. For example, Sand's revelation, "But once I started looking at the evidence, I discovered that the kingdoms of David and Solomon were legends," yields thousands of Google hits. It was gleefully reproduced on websites run by Pravda, Stormfront (a white supremacist site), and many Muslim groups, among others, even though Sand himself admitted that he is a "historian of France and Europe, and not of the ancient period."

This jubilation had a rather anticlimactic ending. In June of 2010, the American Journal of Human Genetics published a report by a team of scientists that delivered a conclusive verdict on both Koestler's and Sand's theories: the verdict was "no on both counts." A layman's version of the report was published by Newsweek and by several other magazines. In a nutshell, the DNA research demonstrated a high degree of genetic similarity between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews and proved that both branches descended from a common Middle Eastern ancestral population. Of course, no serious scholar believes in "racial purity" of any population group, including the Jews. There have always been a certain amount of intermarriages and conversions. However, the DNA study "refuted large-scale genetic contributions of Central and Eastern European and Slavic populations to the formation of Ashkenazi Jewry" (a quote from the report).

This is not the first attack by historical revisionists on the Jews, and certainly it will not be the last. As Walter Cronkite used to say, "And that's the way it is."