Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 1991, Page 71

Book Reviews

The Thirteenth Tribe

By Arthur Koestler. Random House, 1976. 256pp. List: $9.95: AET: $7.95 for one, $9.95 for two

Reviewed by Grace Halsell

Since 1948, when Zionists succeeded in carving out a Jewish state from the land of the Palestinians, the question "who is a Jew" has been endlessly debated.

Zionists (both Christian and Jewish) often declare that "God gave the land" of Palestine "to the Jews. " They infer that God deeded territories, in perpetuity, to a biblical tribe of Oriental Middle Eastern people.

Since millions of American Christians accept a dogma that God has a Chosen Land and a Chosen People (the Jews), then the question "who is a Jew?" takes on political connotations that impinge on national and international decisions.

In his carefully researched book entitled The Thirteenth Tribe, Arthur Koestler refutes the idea of a Jewish "race. " Moreover, he says that most Jews of the contemporary world did not come from Palestine and are not even of Semitic origin. His research shows that most Jews originated in what today is the Soviet Union. And that a group of people there became Jews through conversion, on the orders of their king.

"The bulk of modern Jewry is not of Palestinian, but of Caucasian origin," Koestler writes. "Their ancestors came not from the Jordan but from the Volga, not from Canaan but from the Caucasus. " And he stresses:

"The mainstream of Jewish migrations did not flow from the Mediterranean across France and Germany to the east and then back again. The stream moved in a consistently western direction, from the Caucasus, from the Ukraine into Poland and thence into Central Europe."

While Jews of different origin also contributed to the existing Jewish world community, "the main bulk originated from the Khazar country" in the USSR.

Koestler, a Jew born in 1905 in Budapest, writes that the Khazars, who flourished from the 7th to the 11th century, were a major power. Their empire extended from the Black Sea to the Caspian and from the Caucasus to the Volga.

They were located "between two major world powers: the Eastern Roman Empire in Byzantium and the triumphant followers of Muhammad."

Since the world was polarized between these two superpowers representing Christianity and Islam, the Khazar Empire, representing a Third Force, "could only maintain its independence by accepting neither Christianity nor Islam—for either choice would have automatically subordinated it to the authority of the Roman Emperor or the Caliph of Baghdad."

Not wishing to be dominated by either of the two, the Khazar king "embraced the Jewish faith" in AD 740 and ordered his subjects to do the same. Judaism thus became the state religion of the Khazars.

The king's motives in adopting Judaism, Koestler stresses, were purely political.

At the peak of its power, from the seventh to the tenth centuries AD, the Khazar kingdom controlled or exacted tribute from some 30 different nations and tribes inhabiting the vast territories between the Caucasus, the Aral Sea, the Ural Mountains, the town of Kiev and the Ukrainian steppes.

People under Khazar suzerainty included the Bulgars, Burtas, Ghuzz, Magyars (Hungarians), the Gothic and Greek colonies of the Crimea, and the Slavonic tribes in the northwestern woodland.

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, in the 16th century Jews numbered about one million. Koestler quotes scholars as documenting that "the majority of those who professed the Judaic faith were Khazars. "

Koestler, who after the Second World War became a British citizen, and whose most famous book, Darkness at Noon, was translated into 33 languages, has one main thesis: the bulk of Eastern Jewry—and hence of world Jewry—is of Khazar-Turkish, rather than Semitic, origin.

As Koestler points out, Jews of our times fall into two main divisions: Sephardim and Ashkenazim. The Sephardim, descendants of the Jews who had lived in Spain until their expulsion, with the Muslims, at the end of the 15th century, and who later settled in the countries bordering on the Mediterranean, spoke a Spanish-Hebrew dialect, Ladino. In the 1960s, the Sephardim numbered about 500,000.

The Ashkenazim, at the same period, were about 11 million. Thus, "in common parlance, Jew is practically synonymous with Ashkenazi Jew. " However, Koestler adds, the term Ashkenazim is misleading because it is generally applied to Germany, thus contributing to the legend that modem Jewry originated on the Rhine. There is, however, no other term to refer to the non-Sephardic majority of contemporary Jewry, which came after conversion to Judaism from the Khazar country.

After the destruction of their empire (in the 12th or 13th century), the Jewish Khazars migrated into those regions of Eastern Europe, mainly Russia and Poland, where, at the dawn of the modem age, the greatest concentrations of Jews were found. It is "well documented, " Koestler writes, that the numerically and socially dominant element in the Jewish population of Hungary during the Middle Ages was of Khazar origin.

An Israeli scholar, A.N. Poliak, a Tel Aviv University professor of medieval Jewish history, quoted by Koestler, states that the descendants of Khazar Jews, "those who stayed where they were (in Khazaria), those who emigrated to the United States and to other countries, and those who went to Israel constitute now the large majority of world Jewry.

Since Israel's support among millions of American Christians is founded on a concept that God had bequeathed territory to a biblical "tribe" of Oriental Middle Eastern Jews, it becomes ironic to learn from Koestler's research that most Jews today are not descended from natives of the "holy land," or even of the Middle East.

Koestler, who originally published The Thirteenth Tribe in 1976, noted that the story of the Khazar empire "begins to look like the most cruel hoax history has ever perpetrated. " The Palestinians, imprisoned and brutalized by Zionism's "hoax, " would be the first to agree.

Needless to say, the book has been difficult to find. It disappears from many library shelves. A check at the Library of Congress reveals that the most prestigious library of our land had one reading copy. That one copy, however, is "missing from the shelf. 


Grace Halsell is a journalist based in Washington, DC and the author of more than 10 books.

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