The return of the Khazar myth


Originally published in The Jerusalem Post

A recent study (‘The missing link of Jewish European Ancestry’) published online by the Oxford journal Genome Biology and Evolution concluded that “the genome of European Jews is a tapestry of ancient populations including Judaized Khazars, Greco-Romans and Mesopotamian Jews, and Judeans, and their population structure was formed in the Caucasus and the banks of the Volga with roots stretching to Canaan and the banks of the Jordan.”

The article has been gaining some buzz in a variety of places, from neo-Nazi websites to radical left-wing blogs, as proof that the Jewish people are not a distinct “people” and that their origins are in the Caucuses, not the Middle East. The author of the article, post-doctoral researcher Eran Elhaik of the Department of Mental Health at Johns Hopkins University, based his conclusion on what he describes as the “Khazar hypothesis,” which he accepts as a reasonable hypothesis that should be tested.

The Khazar theory for the origin of the Jews was invented by the womanizing communist intellectual Arthur Koestler in his 1976 book The Thirteenth Tribe. The Khazars, a Turkish polity that came to dominate the Caucuses in the 7th century, disappeared eventually several hundred years later, like many other tribal mini-states established in that area during the period. Some of the Khazar elite supposedly converted to Judaism. Koestler wrote his book without historical training in the history of the Caucuses and primarily as an intellectual provocation about the history of the Jews.

When he came to the part about the fall of the Khazar empire, he noted that “where the historians’ resources give out, legend and folklore provide useful hints.” Based on his intellectual exercise, which was grounded in nothing more than whimsical thinking, Koestler concluded: “Here, then, we have the cradle of the numerically strongest and culturally dominant part of modern Jewry.”

Elhaik, whose previous articles have dealt with such subjects as the genome sequence of the Leafcutter ant, decided that he could use his background to divine the true origins of the Jewish people. He analyzed data on 1,287 “unrelated individuals of 8 Jewish and 74 non-Jewish populations,” the article said. “As Judeans and Khazars have been vanquished…contemporary Middle Eastern and Caucasian populations were used as surrogates,” Elhaik writes. “Palestinians were considered proto-Judeans” and Armenians and Georgians were considered “proto-Khazars because they emerged from the same cohort as Khazars.”

THE AUTHOR sets out with the claim that he is interested in studying the European Jewish link to the Khazars since European-descended Jews are the “largest ethno-religious aggregate of modern Jewish communities, accounting for nearly 90 percent of over 13 million Jews worldwide.” The analysis then fits the model. According to the author, some 70% of European Jews “and almost all Eastern European Jews cluster with Armenian, Georgian and Azerbaijani Jews.” Surprisingly some 15% of Central European Jews are similar to the Druse and Cypriots.

The author notes that “strong evidence” for the Khazar hypothesis is that Eastern European Jews closely resemble Jews from the Caucuses. “Because Caucasus populations remained isolated in the Caucasus region, and because there are no records of Caucasus populations mass-migrating to Eastern and Central Europe prior to the fall of Khazaria, these findings imply a shared origin for European Jews and Caucasus populations.”

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. However, in the case of Elhaik, the evidence is not only weak and misleading, it is based on numerous sources that are not historical, instead employing conjectures and leaps in logic, as well as claims that cannot be substantiated. One of Elhaik’s very first claims, that “contemporary Eastern European Jews comprise the largest ethno-religious aggregate of modern Jewish communities, accounting for nearly 90% of over 13 million Jews worldwide” is said to be based on a publication by the United Jewish Communities in 2003, titled the “National Jewish Population Survey, 2000-01.” Except this source deals with the demographics of Jews in the United States.

An inquiry with Dr. Elhaik resulted in a note that this was a mistake that would be corrected, and that the actual source should be Harry Ostrer’s 2001 paper in genetics, “A Genetic Profile of Contemporary Jewish Populations.” Except Ostrer wrote that “contemporary Jewry is comprised of ~13 million people… Among the Jews of the United States, ~90% are of Ashkenazi origin.” So right from the beginning Elhaik has made a basic flaw in his use of sources, one that was neither caught by the editors of Genome Biology and Evolution, nor the peer reviewers of his paper.

Yet it is a claim that should have been caught, for most people who study Jews know that 90% of them are not Ashkenazi and their population is much more diverse than that presented by Elhaik. However, the real flaws in this new research are historical. The author claims a massive knowledge of history that has major implications for his findings. “There are no records of Caucasus populations mass-migrating to Eastern and Central Europe prior to the fall of Khazaria.”

The footnote for this is another genetic research study, but a claim like this requires historical knowledge of the Caucuses. In fact, the Caucuses were a place of great human movement from the 15th to 19th centuries. Cossacks, Circassians, Chechans, Tatars and numerous other groups roamed the region in the period, some of whom, like the Khazars, vanished to history. The author claims that his evidence shows that “Judaized Greco-Roman male-driven migration directly to Khazaria is consistent with historical demographic migrations and could have created the observed pattern.” Following in the footsteps of Tel Aviv University academic Shlomo Sand’s work, The Invention of the Jewish People, Elhaik claims “no Jewish historiography was produced from the time of Josephus Flavius (1st century CE) to the 19th century.”

But the source, Sand, is not an expert on Jewish history in the period – his book, like Koester’s, was more a polemic. Elhaik goes further, noting that “the religious conversion of the Khazars encompassed all the Empire’s citizens and subordinate tribes and lasted for the next 400 years…the Judeo- Khazars fled to Eastern Europe and later migrated to Central Europe and admixing with the neighboring populations.” There is actually no evidence of this; the general view has been that only some of the Khazar elite converted to Judaism.

Yet Elhaik even claims to know the details of the Judeo-Khazar life. “After the decline of their Empire, the Judeo-Khazars refugees sought shelter in the emerging Polish Kingdom and other Eastern European communities, where their expertise in economics, finances, and politics were valued.” The source for much of this is Koestler, passed off as fact with no mention that Koestler simply inferred most of it from his imagination and theories. The author argues that his study showed a remarkably “high genetic similarity” between Jews and Armenians, but not Georgians.

In order to explain similarities between Jews and Druse, the author argues that the Druse have “Turkish-Southern Caucuses origins… the genetic similarity between European Jews and Druse therefore supports the Khazarian Hypothesis.” Yet the author is not a historian of the Druse, and has not investigated the Druse religion. He claims the Druse migrated to Syria and Palestine, but doesn’t bother to mention that they migrated from Egypt, not modern-day Turkey.

Still, the author is convinced that the Druse-Jewish connection “should not be confused with a Semitic origin,” – as evidently the author knows, without having genetically tested the Druse, that they are not Semites or Arabs. Because the author believes his data shows that Jews are related to Armenians, he posits that “our findings support a largescale conversion scenario that influenced the majority of the [Khazar] population.”

THE TROUBLING issue with Elhaik’s paper is that it was accepted for publication by an academic journal. It is a problem because it becomes part of the historical record, so that the Koestler thesis can now be said to be supported by “genetic evidence.”

Commentators who have written about it now embrace the science as a “groundbreaking study.” Rev. Ted Pike posted an enthusiastic message on his blog noting that “new genetic research confirms Koestler’s Khazar theory.” Therefore, Pike concludes, the Jews “are proselytes who seized land in Palestine that never belonged to their true ancestors.”

But what is equally disturbing is that even the genetic evidence Elhaik presents is unclear. He argues that modern-day Ashkenazi Jews share around 30% of their ancestry with modern-day people in the Caucuses, such as Armenians. From this he postulates that Jews and Armenians share Khazar ancestry.

But one might equally conclude that in fact many Armenians are simply descended from Jews. Similarly with the Druse, rather than concluding that the Druse have a convoluted Caucuses ancestry, one could note that many Druse share some genetics with Jews – since Jews and Druse once lived in similar areas in the Middle East, such as Alexandria, where they both were significant populations in the 11th century.

The author’s claim that there are “significantly smaller” genetic distances between Jews and Armenians and Georgians than between Jews and Palestinians, the Beduin and Jordanians, is based on the odd assumption that the Beduin in Jordan should necessarily share genetic material with Jews. Why would modern-day Palestinians be any better stand-ins for 1st century Jews than, say, modern Jews? Why would anyone assume the Jews and Beduin are related? The data presented also doesn’t appear to show “significant” differences, with scores of .234 and .2387 provided as evidence of “genetic distance” between Caucuses and Middle Eastern origins of Jewish populations– without an explanation of the significance of the scores (i.e what is the score of a Japanese person and an Icelander?). The author also doesn’t include a dummy variable or control for the fact that neither the Beduin or Armenians are good stand-ins for Jewish ancestry.

If we think of the Elhaik study in another context, consider this: If one did a genetic study of African-Americans and white Americans and found that both of them share 30% of their ancestry with the British, one would not be correct in concluding that African-Americans have their origins in London. Yet the author has seemingly made this leap of logic.

This points to the sad tragedy that due to an obsessive interest in the “true” origins of the Jewish people, all sorts of scientific norms are discarded in favor of embracing any wild theory. That Elhaik, not previously an expert on Jewish genetics or history, can publish an academic paper “proving” the origins of the Jews, is evidence of this tendency. 

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