The year was 1976 when a book was published that provoked worldwide shock and anger. The book was The Thirteenth Tribe by Hungarian-born British writer Arthur Koestler.
It was referred to as “the political bombshell of the century”.
Koestler, a prominent Jewish journalist/writer sought to rid the world of anti-Semitism. After years of extensive research, he finally published his explosive theory: the Ashkenazim or European Jews were not Semitic. They were descendants of a European nation name Khazaria.
That turned the world inside out and upside down.
Countries come and go; empires rise and fall. The Khaganate, Qaghanate of Khazaria (c. 650-969), was one of the foremost leading empires of the early Mediaeval world, covering the southeastern section of modern Europe.
At some point in history, between 740-920 AD, the Khazar royalty and nobility converted to Judaism. Koestler’s theory is that the Khazars who converted to Judaism in the eighth century eventually migrated westwards into current Eastern European nations, primarily to Ukraine, Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Belarus, and Hungary. Therefore, Ashkenazi Jews like himself are not descended from the historical Israelites of antiquity.
“Jews originated in what today is the Soviet Union,” wrote Koestler. “The bulk of modern Jewry is not of Palestinian but of Caucasian origin. Their ancestors came not from the Jordan but from the Volga, not from Canaan, but from the Caucasus.”
In the last chapter of his book he tried to show “the evidence from anthropology concurs with history in refuting the popular belief in a Jewish race descended from the Biblical tribe.”
Highly praised by some, fiercely denounced by others, Koestler’s theory was not new. It had been bandied around in several publications, notably The Myth of the Jewish Race (1975) by Raphael Patai; The History of the Jewish Khazars (1967) by Douglas Morton Dunlop; and Khazaria: History of a Jewish Kingdom (1951) by Abraham Poliak.
Koesler’s book was the most widely read, creating a mountain of controversy worldwide. It received hundreds of reviews, many by fellow authors.
Shlomo Sand, French intellectual and himself author of The Invention of the Jewish People suggests that those who attacked Koestler’s book did so, not because it lacked merit but because the critics were cowards and ideologues “while the Khazars scared off the Israeli historians, not one of whom has published a single paper on the subject.”
What was Koestler’s intention for writing his book? He was one of the first visitors of the new-born Israel, receiving visa no.6. He wrote a series of articles about the young Jewish state. Koestler told French biologist Pierre Debray Ritzen he was convinced that if he could prove that the bulk of Eastern European Jews (Ashkenazim) were descended from the Khazars, the racial basis of anti-Semitism itself could disappear. He himself had suffered the scorn of anti-Semitism during his young years, in Hungary, France, and Spain, before he came to Britain.
It was by no means a desire to diminish the Jews’ right to an independent state. Koestler did not see that his alleged “Khazarian” ancestry as diminishing the claim of Jews to Israel. The creation of Israel was based on a United Nations mandate and not on “Biblical covenants or genetic inheritance,” or so he thought.
Unfortunately, his theory backfired, creating a furore in Israel and among world Jewry. Not everyone shared his view that the question of Khazar ancestry of 1,000 years is irrelevant to modern Israel. It was indeed of great relevance. Hebrew readers had no access to the book itself for many years. They learned about it only through the many loud and furious denunciations.
The book, however, had its many supporters. Followers of the Christian Identity praised the book to high heaven as it confirmed their own beliefs regarding the Jews.
In the Arab world the theory was adopted by those who argued that if the Ashkenazi Jews are primarily Khazars and not Semitic in origin, they have no historical claim to Israel, nor would they be the subject of the Biblical promise of Canaan to the Israelites.
The Saudi Arabian delegate to the UN argued that Koestler’s theory “negated Israel’s right to exist”. This enraged both Christian and Jewish Zionists.
While savaged by some, many critics were prolific in their praise of the book. The New York Times called it “thought provoking, written with skill, elegance, erudition with which he marshalls his facts and develops his theories.”
The Washington Post report wrote it was a carefully researched book that refuted the idea of a Jewish race.
Koestler reignited the burning question as to “who is a Jew?” It is still widely debated since the carving of a Jewish state out of the land of Palestine in 1948.
Even though the Koestler theory remains a theory, there is enough evidence to prove that Ashkenazi genetic make-up is not Semitic.
How would Israel continue on its warpath without accusing any critical voice of being anti-Semitic? It has become the most feared and condemning accusation of all time.
Rather than eradicate anti-Semitism Koestler ended up emphasising it further. It was a fatal mistake. A few years after the book’s publication, in 1983, Koestler and his wife were found dead in their London apartment seated side by side. A wide cover-up described it as suicide, many thought otherwise.
When next you hear Benjamin Netanyahu cry out that this land belonged to his ancestors, you can bet that he is lying — again.
“The truth is rarely true and never simple.”
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly