A European Experiment in Jewish Statecraft



The Khazars

A European Experiment in Jewish Statecraft

A thousand years before the establishment of the Modern State of Israel, there existed a Jewish kingdom in the eastern fringes of Europe, astride the Don and Volga rivers, presided over by two Jewish monarchs and inhabited by a mixed population that included many Jews.

A thousand years before the establishment of the Modern State of Israel, there existed a Jewish kingdom in the eastern fringes of Europe, astride the Don and Volga rivers, presided over by two Jewish monarchs and inhabited by a mixed population that included many Jews. Their kings had names like Yosef and Aharon and one of their generals was named Pesach after the Jewish holiday that was celebrated around his birth. This kingdom, called Khazaria, was one of the most interesting and influential countries of the medieval world, wielding great power over economic and diplomatic affairs. Its influence was so great that a 10th-century emperor of the Byzantines, Constantine Porphyrogenitus, sent correspondence to the Khazars marked with a gold seal worth 3 solidi - more than the 2 solidi that always accompanied letters to the Pope of Rome, the Prince of the Rus, and the Prince of the Hungarians. Its power was so great that it had the ability to finance a permanent paid army. Khazaria was "the most significant attempt at the establishment of an independent Jewish state in the Diaspora", according to former Israeli President Itzhak Ben-Zvi in his book The Exiled and the Redeemed.

The Khazars played a major role in principal wars in the Caucasus region. First, in the early 7th century, they joined with Turks and Byzantines to defeat the Persian state. Then, in the 7th and 8th centuries, they defended the southeastern frontier of Europe from invasion by the Arabs, indirectly allowing Christianity to survive in Byzantium and subsequently thrive in Ukraine. As one of the principal authorities on the Khazars, Professor Peter Golden of Rutgers University, wrote in his book Khazar Studies: "Every schoolchild in the West has been told that if not for Charles Martel and the battle of Poitiers there might be a mosque where Notre Dame now stands. What few schoolchildren are aware of is that if not for the Khazars... Eastern Europe might well have become a province of Islam." The subsequent peaceful period in the eastern European steppes has been named the "pax khazarica" since it was the Khazars who enabled various tribes, like Slavs, to expand their settlements and engage in productive activities, free from the threat of warfare and strife.

The remarkable country of the Khazars first entered the Jewish orbit when it allowed Jews to settle in their land free from persecution. Jewish refugees from Byzantium, Persia, Mesopotamia, and elsewhere flooded into the Khazar realm from the 8th through the 10th centuries, bringing with them Hebrew literacy, a love for Israel, the Jewish religion, and technological skill. The Cambridge Document, translated by Norman Golb in his co-authored book Khazarian Hebrew Documents of the Tenth Century, stated that immigrant Armenian Jews "intermarried with the inhabitants of the land, intermingled with the gentiles, learned their practices, and would continually go out with them to war; [and] they [Mideastern Jews and Khazarians] became one people...."

Remarkably, the Khazars, a people of Turkic origin, converted to the Jewish religion sometime in the 9th century, beginning with the royal house and spreading gradually among the general populace. Judaism is now known to have been more widespread among the Khazar inhabitants of the Khazar kingdom than was previously thought. In 1999, Russian archaeologists announced that they had successfully reconstructed a Khazarian vessel from the Don River region, revealing 4 inscriptions of the word "Israel" in Hebrew lettering. It is now the accepted opinion among most scholars in the field that the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism was widespread, and not limited merely to the royal house and nobility. Ibn al-Faqih, in fact, wrote "All of the Khazars are Jews." Christian of Stavelot wrote in 864 that "all of them profess the Jewish faith in its entirety." A Persian work, Denkart, represented Judaism as the principal religion of the Khazars. How sincere was their Judaism? Abd al-Jabbar ibn Muhammad al-Hamdani, writing in the early 11th century, pointed out that "they took upon themselves the difficult obligations enjoined by the law of the Torah, such as circumcision, the ritual ablutions, washing after a discharge of the semen, the prohibition of work on the Sabbath and during the feasts, the prohibition of eating the flesh of forbidden animals according to this religion, and so on." (translation by Shlomo Pines) The common writing system among the Khazars was Hebrew script, according to Muhammad ibn Ishaq an-Nadim, writing in 987 or 988. A large portion of those Khazars who later adopted a script related to the Cyrillic of the Rus were Jews, according to Tįrikh-i Fakhr ad-Din Mubarak Shah, a Persian work composed in 1206.

In the early 10th century, the Khazarian Jews of Kiev wrote a Hebrew-language letter of recommendation on behalf of one of the members of their community, whose name was Yaakov bar Hanukkah. The letter is known as the Kievan Letter and was discovered in 1962 by Norman Golb of the University of Chicago. The names of the Kievan Jews are of Turkic, Slavic, and Hebrew origins, such as Hanukkah, Yehudah, Gostata, and Kiabar. Scholars disagree as to whether these Jews were Israelites who had merely adopted local names, or whether their local names were a sign of their Turkic Khazarian origin. But we do know that there was an entire district in Kievan Podol named after the Khazars, called "Kozare", which points to the residency of Turkic Khazars in Kiev. The Khazars apparently played an important role in the economic vitality of the city, importing caviar, fish, and salt into Kiev. The Khazars also traded in silverware, wine, coins, glassware, and other useful goods throughout Europe and Asia, reaching as far northwest as Sweden and as far southeast as what is now Uzbekistan. There is no doubt that Khazaria exhibited a high level of civilization and that Jews contributed to its success.

In the capital city, the Khazars established a supreme court composed of 7 members, and every major religion (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Slavic paganism) was represented on this judicial panel. The Khazars thus sponsored religious tolerance in a time when surrounding countries persecuted those who refused to follow the faith of the rulers.

The story of the Khazars came to the attention of a famous Spanish Jewish diplomat and physician named Hasdai ibn Shaprut. He was amazed and inspired by what he learned about this people. Upon learning from Byzantine messengers that Khazaria was ruled by a king named Yosef and that they are a powerful military and commercial center, Hasdai ibn Shaprut wrote "...I was filled with power, my hands became strong, and my hope gained courage." Seeking contact with Yosef, Hasdai had his literary secretary pen a special letter to be delivered to the Khazar king himself. Towards the end of Hasdai's letter, he remarked: "We live in the Diaspora and there is no power in our hands. They say to us every day, 'Every nation has a kingdom, but you have no memory of such in all the land.' But when we heard about our master the King, the might of his monarchy, and his mighty army, we were amazed. We lifted our heads, our spirits returned, our hands were strengthened, and my master's kingdom was our response in defense. Were it that this news would gain added strength, for through it we will be elevated further." (translation by Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin in the 1998 edition of The Kuzari) As Raymond Scheindlin remarked in his book The Chronicles of the Jewish People: "To the oppressed Jews of the world, the Khazars were a source of pride and hope, for their existence seemed to prove that God had not completely abandoned His people."

Hasdai's letter, and Yosef's reply to it, were preserved due in large part to the work of the scholar Yitzhak Aqrish (1489-1578?), a Spanish Jew who later lived in Egypt. Aqrish discovered copies of the Hasdai and Yosef letters in Cairo. In 1577 he published these letters in Constantinople in a Hebrew pamplet called Kol Mebasser ("Voice of the Messenger of Good News"). Aqrish's publication of these valuable letters was designed to raise the spirits of oppressed Jews around the world.

But Hasdai wrote to Yosef just before events began to unfold that ultimately crushed the Khazar kingdom. The Pechenegs, Rus, Oghuz, and Byzantines descended upon the kingdom from the 960s to the 1010s and overwhelmed them. After the fall of Khazaria references to the Judaized Turkic Khazars become much more sparse. But even after the final fall of Khazaria in the 11th century, there remained many Khazars who remained Jews. Abraham Ibn Daud, writing Sefer ha-Qabbalah in the year 1161, said that he met Khazar students in person while in Toledo, Spain and that they were rabbinical Jews.

The ultimate fate of the Khazars is still somewhat of a mystery, even though some clues point to their continuance among various Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities. Some have speculated that the Mountain Jews of the eastern Caucasus are descended in part from the Khazars. Various Turkic groups living in the North Caucasus today may be descended from Khazars who adopted Islam. Abba Eban, Israel's foreign minister from 1966 to 1974, argued in his 1968 book My People that it is likely that "...Khazar progeny reached the various Slavic lands where they helped to build the great Jewish centers of Eastern Europe."

Serious scholarship into the Khazars only began in the 19th century, and throughout the 20th century many important discoveries were made. In modern Israel, there is considerable interest in the grand history of the Khazar Jewish people. Several Israeli novels include Khazarian themes and characters. In 1997 the Israeli journalist Ehud Ya'ari broadcast a fascinating 3-part documentary on the Khazars entitled Memlekhet ha-Kuzarim. Israeli media such as The Jerusalem Report and The Jerusalem Post have covered Khazarian history from time to time. In 1999 the first international Khazar Symposium was held in Jerusalem, bringing together many of the brightest scholars in modern Khazar studies from Russia, the United States, and Israel.


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