The Khazars were a pagan tribe of Turkic-Mongolian extraction inhabiting an area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, whose king and aristocracy, finding themselves pressed between the claims of Byzantium and the Caliphate, opted to convert to a third, or neutral, religion in 740 C.E., and that religion was Judaism. In the following two centuries, the Khazar kingdom achieved a certain military importance, its fighters helping to stave off the Viking-Rus advance from the north, and the Islamic thrust into Europe from the south. At the end of the 10th century, Khazaria was beaten by the Russians and its political identity was lost. Some of the Khazars may have stayed on in their territory for another two centuries, until they were absorbed or displaced by Asiatic hordes. It is generally agreed that beginning in the 10th century numbers of Khazars migrated in the direction of the Euphrates, Kiev, Hungary, and perhaps Poland, but how many, and how long the migration lasted, it is hard even to guess, since the Khazars left no records, and those from other sources are sketchy, to say the least.
In the first half of his new book, The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and Its Heritage,1 Arthur Koestler tells the story of the Khazars’ rise and fall. His account is mostly unexceptionable, based on various, not always congruent, scholarly and amateur studies—the Khazar Question is a hoary one, which has attracted historians of repute and disrepute for almost a hundred years.2 Koestler narrates in his well-known vigorous style, with just a few lapses into cuteness (“What was the motivation for this unique event?” he asks apropos of the Khazar conversion, and goes on: “It is not easy to get under the skin of a Khazar prince—covered, as it was, by a coat of mail.”). In the second half of the book Koestler considers the Khazars’ “heritage” after their dispersion. He believes he has proof that they, and not German Jews as usually thought, provided the bulk of Jewish immigration into Poland after the 13th century, and that therefore Ashkenazi Jews—the majority of Jews today—have their genetic starting-point among the tribesmen of the Caucasus rather than the Hebrews of Canaan. This being so, the logical result for Koestler is that anti-Semitism, the attachment of Jews in the Diaspora to each other and to the state of Israel, and what Koestler calls “the Jewish dogma of the Chosen Race,” are all “meaningless” or “illusory.”
The type of evidence that Koestler offers in favor of his contention that Polish Jewry was mainly formed from Khazar immigrants—an idea that is far from being new—ranges from circumstantial to suggestive. At about the same time that the Khazars were disappearing from their homeland, he says, there were the first signs of a large-scale Jewish presence in Poland. These Jews could not have originated in Germany, because the Crusades, and later the pogroms occasioned by the Black Death, virtually exterminated the German Jews, who in any case preferred martyrdom to emigration. “We may safely conclude,” Koestler says, “that the traditional idea of a mass-exodus of Western Jewry from the Rhineland to Poland . . . is historically untenable . . . a legend.” Koestler directs attention to some Polish place names that have a Khazarian ring to them. As for Yiddish, the language of the Polish Jews, which would seem to be a formidable piece of evidence that they did come from the West, Koestler argues that its origin was not Rhenish-German, but rather that the jargon was created by the Khazars through dealings with ethnic German merchants from Eastern Germany in the areas bordering the Slavonic belt of Europe. To back up this view, Koestler quotes from the work of the Yiddish linguist Mathias Mieses and the Israeli historian Abraham N. Poliak.
How good is Koestler’s evidence? Mieses, who stressed the Slavic roots of Yiddish, was a respected scholar. On the other hand, Max Weinreich (whose Geshikhte Fun der Yidisher Shprakh, “History of the Yiddish Language” , does not appear in Koestler’s bibliography) traced early Yiddish to Germanic city dialects, with the Slavic element added later. As for Polish place names, they do not really seem to advance the Khazar cause. Bernard D. Weinryb, whose books The Jews of Poland (1973) and The Beginnings of East European Jewry in Legend and Historiography (1962) are basic works in the field (neither of them is quoted from by Koestler or cited in his bibliography), writes:
The efforts by some historians and writers to find in certain Polish toponyms . . . some indication of former Khazar or Jewish Khazar settlements were in vain. It has been proven that these names have nothing to do with Khazars or Khazar tribes. They all have other meanings in Polish.
Passing to Koestler’s main “evidence.” it is obvious that the question of Jewish population in various lands in medieval times is crucial. The whole subject of pre-modern Jewish demographics has recently begun to be studied systematically. As Salo Baron has noted, figuring Jewish populations in pre-modern times is risky, for censuses were usually rigged by governments to increase tax revenue. In addition, of other records that came down to our times, many were lost in the Holocaust. Koestler himself states, concerning both the Khazars and the Polish Jews, “regarding the numbers involved, we have no reliable information.” Nevertheless, historians such as Baron and Weinryb have painstakingly drawn a demographic picture with what materials are available, and their findings do not lend support to Koestler.
To begin with the German Jews, Baron (in his A Social and Religious History of the Jews) warns that their tribulations during the Crusades should not be telescoped, lest the student get the impression that there was nothing but massacre for two or three centuries. Although “guestimates” at exact population figures must be “unfortunately quite arbitrary,” for Baron the weight of several kinds of evidence inclines him to think that actually, during this period, “European Jewish communities constantly increased in numerical, economic, and cultural strength.” Massacres did not happen in every center, and “certainly, by 1200 many more Jews lived under Christendom than had in 1095.” Thus there would have been enough Jews in the West to begin populating Poland once the expulsions from Germany and Bohemia started after the Crusades.
Their numbers need not be exaggerated. To be sure, Baron, like Dubnow before him, speaks of a “tremendous influx of Western Jews” into Poland after 1503, a date at which the Jews already in Poland probably didn’t exceed 30,000. By 1648, there may have been 450,000 Polish Jews, an increase Baron calls “not surprising,” taking into account continuing immigration from the West, Polish economic expansion, and the high Jewish birth rate combined with early marriage and rudimentary but effective public health care. Nor does Weinryb, who arrives at much lower figures, doubt the ability of this small population to grow into a Jewish community that was counted at half a million in 1764, in the first halfway reliable census in Poland. Through exhaustive analysis of poll-tax and burial-society records, Weinryb comes to a figure of only 12,000 Polish Jews in 1500, and 170,000 in 1648. Even this represented something of a population explosion. The principal factors, Weinryb believes, were natural increase and continuing immigration from the West. Indeed, writes Weinryb, although “nothing approaching a mass settlement [of Jews in Poland] can be observed until the 15th century,” contemporary commercial charters, location of settlements, and liturgical traditions all strongly suggest that the tiny community in the year 1500 was mostly from the West:
Information, though fragmentary, indicates that the bulk of Polish Jewry was of German-Bohemian origin in the 13th and 14th century, when Jewish settlement in Poland was founded, although a few individuals may have come from Italy or from the Genoese colony in Kaffa (Theodosia) on the Black Sea coast.
Some historians are less explicit than Weinryb about the origin of that small number of very early Jews in Poland; they do not rule out the possibility that some of them were Khazars. Baron, for instance: “Before and after the Mongol upheaval [12th through 14th century] the Khazars sent many off-shoots into the unsubdued Slavonic lands, helping ultimately to build up the great Jewish centers of Eastern Europe.” Koestler quotes Baron here, and also Baron’s remark that Khazaria, “this noteworthy experiment in Jewish statecraft, doubtless exerted a greater influence on Jewish history than we are as yet able to envisage.” Koestler fails to consult Baron on later developments, however. If some of the 30,000 Jews in Poland in 1503 had Khazar antecedents, Baron says that the newcomers from Germany imposed their own rituals, customs, and speech on the locals “because of their superiority in numbers.” Cecil Roth, too, in his History of the Jews, says with suitable vagueness that the dispersed “remnant” of the Khazars “continued, as it seems, to give additional strength to Jewish life in Eastern Europe.”
The point here is to try not to play a numbers game in ignorance or defiance of available historical data, or, when evidence is lacking, to concoct it. This much, anyway, has been clear even to most of the partisans of the not-so-new Khazar theory, which emphasizes the presence of Khazars in Poland in the very early days of Jewish settlement, a period described by Baron as “misty.” For example, one such partisan, the modern Polish historian, Adam Vetulani, is quoted by Koestler as follows:
Scholars agree that these oldest settlements [in Poland] were founded by Jewish emigrés from the Khazar state and Russia, while the Jews from Southern and Western Europe began to arrive and settle only later . . . and that a certain proportion at least of the Jewish population originated from the Khazar country.3
All in all, Koestler is not too far wrong when he writes in an opening chapter of The Thirteenth Tribe:
Historians agree that immigration from Khazaria must have contributed to the growth of Polish Jewry. . . . But they feel less certain about the extent of this contribution—the size of the Khazar immigration compared with the influx of Western Jews, and their respective share in the genetic make-up of the modern Jewish community.
Obviously this is a legitimate problem for research and dispute, which no one could wish to be approached with anything other than passionate concern. The trouble with Koestler is not that he is not a professional historian. It is that he has an extra-scholarly axe to grind; by the logic of his peculiar argument he is obliged to find that the Khazars provided the “bulk” of Jewish immigration into Poland early and late, come what may. But in order for the Khazar Theory in its extreme reductive form, as Koestler preaches it, to begin to be credible, one would have to have hard evidence that the German Jews could not have migrated in sufficient numbers into Poland in the 16th century, and that the Khazars, presumably moving in from the other direction, were still Jews at that very late date in their history. On the first point, Koestler’s ideas are unsubstantiated and fly in the face of authoritative opinion.
As for the extent and permanence of the Khazar conversion, although Koestler quickly gets into the habit of using “Khazar” and “Jew” interchangeably, there is really much uncertainty among historians as to how many Khazars became Jews and stayed Jews. No writer except Koestler—including the outstanding advocate of the Khazar Theory, Poliak—proposes that the conversion was universal. Most limit its penetration to the upper crust of the pluralistic Khazar society. For example, Dubnow (World History of the Jewish People): “All the members of the government and the nobility observed the Mosaic faith, but the middle and lower classes adhered to Islam, Christianity, or paganism.” Weinryb is very severe and says the Khazar Theory is just one of a bunch of theories on the origin of Polish Jewry that “are no more than myths or speculations or wild guesses based on some vague or misunderstood references”; but he does accept the historicity of the conversion, saying: “The elite members of Khazar society, led by their king and his entourage, embraced Judaism; the rest of the Khazars, however, remained idolators or were converted eventually to Islam or Christianity.” Baron speaks of the conversion of “the royal house and large sections of the population,” which still left the Jews a minority in Khazaria until the influx of “real” Jews seeking refuge from Byzantine mistreatment. D.M. Dunlop, author of The History of the Jewish Khazars (1954), who is described by Koestler as one of the “foremost . . . authors whose writings are of central importance to the [Khazar] problem,” notes that “while the religion of the ruling class was Judaism . . . other religions were extensively practiced.” So unanimous are historians on this matter that Koestler could not help quoting one of them, J.B. Bury, in A History of the Eastern Roman Empire (1912): “[The converting king] allowed the mass of his people to abide in their heathendom and worship their idols.” But this does not sink in, and Koestler continues throughout to assume that all the Khazars converted for good, their entire gene pool being appropriated by the Jewish people.
Koestler’s methods make it impossible to perceive The Thirteenth Tribe as a scholarly work, and one casts around for another genre to which it might be assigned. If there were any doubts, they are dispelled on reading the following lines in Dunlop, which Koestler missed, although elsewhere he quotes Dunlop’s study copiously and defers to his authority:
The theory that the modern Jews of Eastern Europe, or more particularly those in Poland, are the descendants of the medieval Khazars . . . can be dealt with very shortly, because there is little evidence which bears directly upon it, and it unavoidably retains the character of a mere assumption. . . . To speak of the Jews of Eastern Europe as descendants of the Khazars seems to involve Ashkenazim in general . . . and would be to go much beyond what our imperfect records allow.
Call it pseudo-scholarship, historical novel, polemic, the question remains why Koestler wrote The Thirteenth Tribe. Was it to entertain, scandalize? To challenge authoritative, therefore conventional, wisdom? The answer would seem to be no, that it actually comes as the latest skirmish in a battle he began fighting when he matriculated at college more than fifty years ago. In his admirably honest autobiography, Arrow in the Blue (1952), Koestler recalls how he arrived in Vienna in 1922 at the age of seventeen and was recruited to a Zionist dueling and drinking society. Up to that time he had never heard of Zionism, indeed had had nothing to do with things Jewish: “I was brought up in an assimilated environment without roots in Judaic tradition.” He joined, he declares, rather mindlessly, out of a desire for comradeship and glamor, which the other clubs, anti-Semitic, did not offer him. It was at college that he first learned something of Judaism, and met observant, Yiddish-speaking Jews from Poland. “Judaism did not attract me,” he remembers. “I was only aware of my revulsion against a form of worship which seemed to consist in cheating the Lord and one’s own conscience.” This formula about Judaism being a cheat is a favorite with Koestler. In Promise and Fulfillment (1949)—his account of the British Mandate in Palestine and the creation of Israel—he speaks of the religious Jews with their ingenuity in “cheating the Lord and their own consciences.” As a collegian, his antipathy was also excited by non-religious, Yiddish-speaking Jews, because Yiddish “had no fixed grammar and syntax. . . . I disliked this language, and the mentality which it reflected, from the first time I heard it, and I have never lost my aversion for it.”
The sense of a very physical distress, incompletely mediated by rationalization, rises palpably from Koestler’s recollections of early encounters with Jews different from himself. Indeed, his response has not seemed to change much over the years. From everything that he has ever written about them, it appears that observant and/or Yiddish-speaking Jews arouse a nausea in Koestler that he has not had the desire or ability to get over or understand insightfully. The reader is reminded of the classic feelings of anti-Semites, and some of the cruder, less reflective Zionists. In fact, Koestler did not content himself with dueling and drinking in sweet Vienna, as most of his comrades did, but quit school in a fit of romanticism and moral indignation, to go up to Palestine. Again, writing many years later, a wiser head, he remembers that he believed when he set out for Eretz Yisrael that the deformations he had observed among other Jews were a result of ghetto life and the lack of a territory, and that “When the Jewish state was reestablished, the cure would be automatic and all would be well.” That was rather naive, he implies, yet it seems to be precisely the stiff-necked failure of the Jews to be so simply “cured” that has vexed him so since May 15, 1948.
Koestler has let it be known repeatedly that since that day, when the Jews got a territory and Koestler’s moral duty to them was paid off once and for all, everyone in the world who calls himself a Jew has had a choice: either emigrate to Israel straightaway, or cease being a Jew and imposing the burden of Jewishness on “helpless children.” On this score Koestler has outdone Ben-Gurion, who only insisted that all Zionists move to Israel. For his part, Koestler chose to become a “European with British citizenship.” Asked by an interviewer in 1955 whether he still considered himself a Jew, Koestler answered curiously, “Insofar as race is concerned, I have no idea and take no interest in the question how many Hebrews, Babylonians, Roman legionnaires, Christian crusaders, and Hungarian nomads were among my ancestors.” Nevertheless, although declaring his role finished and ceremoniously cutting himself off from the Jews as a group, he has kept coming back to the subject of Jews, Judaism, Israel, the Diaspora, anti-Semitism, “race,” always repeating the same ideas. In an essay published in 1954, entitled “Judah at the Crossroads—An Exhortation,” he noticed with displeasure that, even in liberal and democratic societies, Jews were still fostering special ties among themselves instead of disappearing into the non-Jewish majority, maintaining a separate identity even when not observant of religious ritual, and this because they were still in thrall to an “inert tradition voided of all spiritual content which, to quote Arnold Toynbee, is merely ‘the fossilized remnant of a once independent culture.’”
Actually, there is no such thing as Jewish culture, Koestler announced, only a “Mosaic religion” or “Jewish faith,” that was also on its last legs. One of the reasons for this was that everything worthwhile in the Ten Commandments and the Prophets had long ago been taken over by a mysterious conglomerate, “our Heleno-Judeo-Christian tradition”; the other reason for Judaism’s “dying out” was the advent of the state of Israel: “If the mystic yearning for the return to Palestine is eliminated from the Jewish faith,” as it logically must be now that return is possible, Koestler explained, “then the very foundations and essence of that faith will have gone. . . . In fact the major part of Judaism’s prayers, rites, and symbols have become meaningless since the restoration of the Jewish state.”
In the same essay, Koestler was moved to deal with “racial” matters, again with the effect of denying the community of Jews and predicting or urging its demise. “Take away the ‘Chosen Race’ idea,” he wrote,
the genealogical claim of descent from one of the twelve tribes, the focal interest in Palestine as the locus of a glorious past, and the memories of national history perpetuated in the religious festivals . . . and all that remained would be a set of archaic dietary prescriptions and tribal laws.
As for the non-observant:
The only alternative to the perpetuation of Jewish separateness for that nondescript majority who have outgrown Jewish nationalism and the Jewish religion is to renounce both, and to allow themselves to be socially and culturally absorbed by their environment.
Predictably, Koestler’s words angered and hurt many British Jews, which Koestler, always a controversial writer up to a certain point, did not seem to mind. A rather restrained answer was given by Isaiah Berlin:
To demand social and ideological homogeneity, to wish to get rid of minorities because they are tiresome . . . is illiberal and coercive and neither rational nor humane. This is the position that, in very different forms, I attribute to Plato, to T.S. Eliot, and to Arthur Koestler: it forms the heart of the “integralist” nationalism in Europe in the last century and a half, and now almost everywhere, which tells men to assimilate to the prevailing laws and customs; or else get out, or, at best, acquiesce in the treatment accorded to not very desirable outsiders, what Charles Maurras and his followers used to call métèques. The notion that differences should not (or cannot) be tolerated, and should therefore be ironed out, and so obliterated, is what, in my view, distinguishes barbarian from civilized societies.
Berlin did not inquire what right Koestler—with his skimpy knowledge and heavy overlay of emotion—had to lecture on the meaning or meaninglessness of Judaism. In the subsequent controversy Koestler replied:
If my saying that we [sic] must decide whether we belong to the Chosen Race or to the nation whose citizen we are, if the revolutionary discovery that we can’t eat our cake and have it, are figments of a totalitarian mind, then I must confess to a totalitarian mind.
Once more, in an essay last year entitled “The Vital Choice” and published at the same time that The Thirteenth Tribe was being written, Koestler returned to his familiar themes, repeating the formulations of twenty years before, often word for word. Obviously, his ideas about Jews, Judaism, etc. are intimately tied up with and precede his consideration of the Khazars, for according to his logic, if most Jews descend from the Khazars, this is a “proof,” a historical vindication, of Koestler’s lifelong notions and complaints. Once The Thirteenth Tribe is placed in context, it begins to make sense as the work of a writer in the grip of an obsession. The Khazar Theory is new for Koestler, but it is just the windup; the pitch at the end is Koestler’s old pitch to the Jews. This time, thanks to the Khazars, it is supposed to be irresistible.
For a reader who comes to The Thirteenth Tribe without knowledge of Koestler’s previous writings, the ulterior motive may not start to loom until late in the book, when Koestler considers “Race and Myth.” Due to interbreeding and conversions over the millennia, Koestler says, Jews are more similar genetically to the people of their host nations than to Jews in other countries; therefore there is no such thing as a Jewish “race,” let alone a “Chosen Race.” The Khazar conversion is the prime reason for this: “The evidence from anthropology concurs with history in refuting the popular belief in a Jewish race descended from the biblical tribe.”
Koestler, a Middle European whose pre-war German education has affected his thinking and expression all the while that he has consciously tried to reject its quirks and misconceptions, has always used the word “race” loosely, so that it was impossible to know whether it was meant as a figure of speech or a scientific term. In his autobiography he says, “Most bewildering of all was the discovery that the saga of the ‘Chosen Race’ seemed to be taken quite literally by traditionalist Jews.” But in his book on the birth of Israel, Koestler wrote without putting that word in inverted commas, “The mandatory power was caught between two antagonistic races,” and, “Israel today is a race in transition.”
The term “Chosen Race,” which Koestler in The Thirteenth Tribe treats pejoratively, as a scientific non-starter, and wrongly attributes to religious and other Jews, is a usage that is strictly confined to anti-Semites, a corruption of the passage in Jewish liturgy, “Atah v’chartanu mikol ha’amim”—“chosen us from among all the peoples” (to receive the Law). The 20th century is full of attempts to put a simplistic racist construction on that complex, essentially theological ideal, with the aim of preparing to bait, persecute, and kill the Jews. A recent attempt was the UN’s Zionism-equal-racism resolution, which renders any book such as Koestler’s on the Khazars and their “heritage” less dusty and more topical.
Because of the crimes committed in its name, genetic anthropology has a stench coming off it. Yet to practice it probably should not be taboo, for like any description of nature its moral charge is neutral until its findings are somehow applied or abused. First of all, a lot depends on the sensibility and scrupulousness of the scientist or writer, especially the popularizer. A recent book that measures up to high standards is The Myth of the Jewish Race by Raphael Patai. It is interesting to compare the treatment given by Koestler and Patai to several topics that they both touch on.
Patai shows how, during three thousand years of their history—in Palestine and in the Diaspora—the Jews have “continually received an inflow of genes from neighboring populations as a result of proselytism, intermarriage, rape, the birth of illegitimate children fathered by Gentiles, and so on.” The Khazar conversion is dramatic, but it is not unique—among the so-called Sephardim, Yemenite Jewry had a largely non-Hebrew ancestry, and “on the basis of admittedly scanty historical data, most scholars have formed the opinion that most of the Jews of North Africa are of Berber origin” [Patai’s emphasis]. As for the fate of the Khazar Jews, Patai reports that “Some historians and anthropologists go so far as to consider the modern Jews of East Europe, and more particularly of Poland, the descendants of the medieval Khazars”; he neither accepts nor rejects this, for lack of data. As a consequence of these hundred generations of intercourse with the Gentiles, Jews today display a genetic “picture”—composed of morphological traits, blood-group genes, and red blood cell and serum proteins—consistent with the history of “a group of people who originated in the Mediterranean region and subsequently have diversified greatly in their genetic make-up.”
So far, Patai is in agreement with Koestler. But Patai also says that genetic information shows “that most Jews have at least one distant ancestor of Mediterranean stock,” disproving the strenuous claim, so important to Koestler, that there is nothing physical linking a Polish Jew to a Jew in England or Iraq, or the three of them to the sliver of territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. The best evidence for the partially Mediterranean or Semitic ancestry of most Jews comes from the elegant research of several Israeli scientists (published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, uncited by or unknown to Koestler) on the fingerprint patterns of eight diverse Jewish populations, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, from Germany to Iraq. As Patai notes: “Fingerprint patterns are believed to be very resistant to environmental change, and may therefore reveal remnants of a common gene pool in a population which has subsequently undergone much change in other characteristics.” In fact, this is what the Israeli study revealed: “Fingerprint patterns were found to be similar among all Jewish groups analyzed and were suggestive of a Mediterranean origin.”
Does this mean that the Jews constitute a “race,” scientifically speaking, or a “Chosen Race,” inheriting superiority and a license to lord it over others? Only a fool or a psychopath could believe it or propagate it; furthermore, there is no good reason to think that such a belief is “dogma” among “traditionalist Jews,” as Koestler declares it to be. Separation, even a sense of election, are not equivalent to racism, and a feeling of physical connection to the Patriarchs is not the same as belief in some fantastic purity. As Chaim Raphael says:
The Jews have always known that physically they are a mixed people: if faith and kinship are vivid and satisfying, it is not (even for the Orthodox, who are fully aware of biblical and later intermarriage and conversions) dependent on the link with Father Abraham but on the acceptance and enjoyment of values felt to be authentic in their own right.
The fact that Judaism is open to converts should prove that the notion of chosenness is not construed racially or genetically, especially by the Orthodox. Maybe this distinction between particularity and superiority is too fine; maybe the temptation to misunderstand is too compelling. At any rate, there is still, after all that has happened, no end in sight of the writers and others who are ready to accuse religious Jews or Jews generally of originating and perpetuating the very myth-patterns that, in the hands of anti-Semites, have been used to set the stage for genocide. The fact that racism is now in bad odor has not changed things basically, only given them a new twist—see the UN resolution.
Patai, in contrast to Koestler, attributes no racist belief to observant, Zionist, or any other group of Jews. Yet his book, objective and sensible as such books go, also evidently has an extra-scientific motive, which is to discredit, among those who are not already confirmed anti-Semites, the stubborn libel that the Jews are a race apart. Perhaps the best refutation is the most graphic—Patai’s section of photographs of El Al employees, their faces ranging from the typically Norwegian to the typically Persian. In fact, of course, one need do no more than take a walk along any main street in Israel to realize again that the Jews are a salad of genes and that Zionism is racially promiscuous.
So far as Koestler too broadcasts these facts, he is doing a service in his lively way. He has especially good sport at the expense of the anti-Semites of his native Hungary, a region where the settlement of Khazar Jews is much better documented than for Poland. The Magyars “received—metaphorically and perhaps literally—a blood transfusion from the Khazars,” Koestler writes. But to embarrass anti-Semites is far from being Koestler’s only purpose, or even his main one. He goes on to say that it the Jews are mainly Khazar and not Semitic,
then the term “anti-Semitism” would become void of meaning, based on a misapprehension shared by both the killers and their victims. The story of the Khazar Empire, as it slowly emerges from the past, begins to look like the most cruel hoax which history has ever perpetrated.
It is a token of Koestler’s old-fashioned assumptions that he thinks a “scientific” proof of the absurdity of anti-Semitic doctrine would make anti-Semites mend their ways. Presumably, if Jews carry mostly Khazar, not Semitic genes, they do not bear the curse of deicide and therefore should be left alone. The assumption here is that anti-Semitism is rational in nature, so that if it can be shown to have been misinformed, it will be rendered “meaningless.” However, the opposite is the case: to show an anti-Semite that the Jews have mixed with other peoples merely whets his prurient interest.
The most important consequence for Koestler of this canard of the Jews’ mainly Khazar background is that he really seems to believe that. if true, or if thought true, it must deprive Jews of their last logically defensible reason for sticking together, or even remaining Jews, in the Diaspora and perhaps in Israel too (in 1949, Koestler predicted, “One thing seems fairly certain: Within a generation or two Israel will have become an entirely ‘un-Jewish’ country” [his emphasis]).4 So the Khazars come as the clincher to Koestler’s long argument with his fellow Jews—now they must see the light.
One recalls that, before he came to Zionism, Theodor Herzl had the brainstorm of personally leading the Jews of Vienna to St. Stephen’s Cathedral to be converted en masse, solving their Jewish problem and his own. Koestler, who lived opposite the Cathedral as a boy and whose outlook was shaped by much the same really defunct environment as Herzl’s, appears to cherish a similar solution, on a worldwide scale. His discovery of the Khazars has given him the chance to fulfill his ambition by reasoning with the Jews more, and fulminating against them less.
1 Random House, 246 pp., $8.95.
2 A large part of the literature on the Khazars has been produced under Soviet auspices and is suspect; in Czarist times, too, there were some strange treatments—such as Abraham Firkowich’s attempt to link the Khazars to the Karaites, a Jewish sect. Firkowich was one of the foremost forgers of the 19th century. For a scholarly work analyzing some previously neglected material from the Cairo Genizah, see Documents of the History of the Khazars, by Omsyljan Pritsak and Norman Golb, to be published soon by the University of California Press.
3 Vetulani adds, and Koestler doesn’t quote this, “The increase in the Jewish population from the 13th century on was probably connected with the increasing immigration waves of Western Jews.”
4 Koestler is at pains to insist that his version of the Khazar Theory should have no harmful repercussions for Israel. In an appendix, “Some Implications—Israel and the Diaspora.” he admits that there is a “danger” his book “may be maliciously misinterpreted as a denial of the state of Israel’s right to exist.” But that right “is not based on the hypothetical origins of the Jewish people . . . it is based on international law—i.e., on the United Nations decision in 1947 to partition Palestine.” Whatever the genetic makeup of the Israelis, Koestler declares that it is the “moral obligation of any civilized person, Gentile or Jew, to defend” the Israelis’ right to their own state. Perhaps Koestler is alluding to such “misinterpretations” as those of Jamil Baroodv, Saudi Arabia’s permanent UN representative, who was airing the “facts” about the Khazars at the UN even before the publication of The Thirteenth Tribe. The Zionists are not Jews at all, Baroody told his listeners, they are Khazars; therefore Israel, the so-called Jewish state, has no right to be. No doubt his audience dozed through his presentation; but Koestler, because of Darkness at Noon, commands more respect and attention. It is debatable whether, in the form that he puts it, and considering the conclusions he draws, the Khazar Theory does not invite misinterpretations damaging to Israel and to Israeli relations with Jews and Gentiles, clouding the climate of popular non-thought. For example, a press release from the American publisher of The Thirteenth Tribe erroneously trumpets Koestler’s “startling thesis” that “virtually all Western Jews except the Sephardim aren’t really Jewish al all.” The New York Times reviewer made the same mistake. It is also questionable whether the birthright of Israel as Koestler pinpoints it is not too precarious—what the UN has given, the UN can take away. The symbol of Israel is the menorah, which is not a Khazar symbol, and for all the continuing and necessary discussion over what that symbolism means and how well it is living up to its name, Israel is seen by Israelis and Jews, and its Gentile friends and enemies, as the Jewish state. Thus the question of the Jews’ “blood” ties to the Maccabees and Isaiah, to Abraham and the others, is not all-important, but it is not irrelevant, either. The Bible that is read by Christians and Muslims, agnostics and Marxists, says that God promised the Land to Jacob’s “seed.” If people really were to think that such a connection was fictitious, then the Exile from and Return to Eretz Yisrael—not Khazaria, not Uganda (once proposed as a possible Jewish homeland)—would become mere metaphors—obscurantist and pernicious metaphors, in Koestler’s eyes—and Israel, possibly being rid of some international anti-Semitic opposition, would forfeit even more of its support.