Arthur Koestler
Arthur Koestler; drawing by David Levine

“I have been visiting Lord Derby,” the aristocrat-prone Lewis Namier once told Isaiah Berlin. “He said to me: ‘Namier, you are a Jew. Why do you write our English history, why do you not write Jewish history?’ I replied, ‘Derby! There is no Jewish history, only a Jewish martyrology, and that is not amusing enough for me.”‘ Namier was a Jew cruelly at odds with his own East European origins; there is a certain and not untypical pathos to his scorn for his ancestors’ trials. But like all such generalizations, his is not without its exceptions. The dark annals of Jewish history are punctuated by occasional periods of respite, by flushes of Jewish autonomy in a climate of unwavering hostility. The most extended, intriguing, and unclear of these occurred in medieval Russia, among the marauding shamanistic hosts that swept across the Eurasian frontiers in the period between Attila and Genghis Khan. In AD 740 one of these nomadic tribes, the Khazars, took the unlikely step of converting to Judaism. And for at least two centuries following there flourished along the lower Volga a Jewish kingdom—Zemlya Zhidovskaya, says the Russian Chronicle—ruled by a Jewish king according to a version of rabbinic law.

In its day this enigmatic Jewish empire fired the imaginations of many Jews languishing elsewhere in exile—even in exiles at times less than completely harsh. In some instances Khazaria seems to have done for Jewish self-esteem in the Diaspora what Israel does for that same fluctuating quality today. In the tenth century Hisdai ibn Shaprut, a figure of great political consequence at the court of the Caliphate in Cordoba and a luminary of the Jewish “Golden Age” of Spain, addressed a famous epistle to Joseph, King of the Khazars, asking anxiously for more information, and concluding thus:

I feel the urge to know the truth, whether there is really a place on this earth where harassed Israel can rule itself, where it is subject to nobody. If I were to know that this is indeed the case, I would not hesitate to forsake all honours, to resign my high office, to abandon my family, and to travel over mountains and plains, over land and water, until I arrived at the place where my Lord, the King rules….

Several generations later Judah Halevi, the most accomplished poet and philosopher of Spanish Jewry, wrote his apologetic treatise Kitov al-Khazari, in which he drew upon—and embellished—the story of the Khazar conversion for a searching philosophical exposition of the Jewish idea itself. In later centuries tales of Jewish dominion in the Caucasus continued to lift sagging Jewish spirits. In 1577 one Isaac ibn Aqrish published in Constantinople a popular pamphlet entitled Qol Mevasser (Voice of the Bringer of Good Tidings), in which he placed Hisdai’s correspondence with the Khazar king among sanguine reports of the Ten Lost Tribes and other such encouraging apocrypha.

In our own time the Khazar saga has interested some historians who thirsted, like Namier, for a new kind of Jewish history. Namier was himself a ferocious Zionist, and his laconic dismissal of the Jewish experience of the Diaspora was shared by many others who felt equally ashamed or angered by centuries of Jewish helplessness. Some even tried to make the Jewish past over in the image of their desire. In 1944 Abraham N. Poliak published (in Hebrew) Khazaria, an ambitious study pointedly subtitled The Chronicle of a Jewish Kingdom in Europe. The intention of his book was precisely to revise that time-honored “martyrological” appraisal of Jewish history. “Israel deserves to take pride in all its tribes,” Poliak inveighed.

We must reconsider that view of the Jewish situation in the Middle Ages which was accepted by those Jews themselves. Which is to say, all that we know of decrees, discriminatory laws, persecutions, expulsions, wanderings, and the protection of Gentile benefactors, still stands—but alongside this oppressed Jewish world there existed as well a free Judaism…[Jews] who lived a fully independent national life, who considered themselves not as aliens tolerated by the people of the land in which they lived, nor as adopted children granted the same rights and duties of citizenship as the rest of the population, but as natural children themselves, as themselves the people of the land, graciously tolerating those other nations who sought shelter among them.

Poliak’s Khazaria was, in the Palestine of the 1940s, as much a vision of the future as a reconstruction of the past, a historical romance whose pertinence to their own political horizons was not lost upon its readers.

But the single episode of the Khazar kingdom, however colorful and exhilarating, can hardly eclipse the otherwise very bleak career of the Jews in exile—if ever there was an exception which proved a rule, Khazaria must surely be it.1 Unless, of course, it could be shown that Khazaria had a more lasting effect. This Poliak set out to show. He maintained that historians’ conventional estimate of the Khazars—in the durable Graetz’s words, “that they had but little influence upon the development of Jewish history but contributed to the awakening of Jewish courage and self-consciousness”—was in error. The Khazars were not just a glorious intermezzo on the margins of Jewish experience, Poliak dramatically contended, but “one of the most decisive events in the history of Israel”: they did nothing less than sire the great Jewish community of Eastern Europe. Which in its turn means—rather sensationally—that the overwhelming majority of Jews in the world today are not Semites but Aryans, and hail not from the Mediterranean but from the Caspian.


Enter Arthur Koestler. The Thirteenth Tribe was written to persuade that “the bulk of modern Jewry is not of Palestinian, but of Caucasian origin.” In fact Koestler has merely reproduced Poliak’s allegations and garnished them with a medley of quotations from better-known historians, all of which combine to make him appear learned. References to such arcana as the Bibliotheca Geographorum Arabicorum notwithstanding, a closer look tells otherwise. His book is not history for history’s sake; nor is it just another concoction of its author’s much vaunted curiosity, here again satiated a bit too soon. It is rather a barely verled and singularly defeasible argument about the character and prospects of the contemporary Jewish community.

Koestler has, for a start, been highly selective with his sources, attending only to those lone Hebrew and Russian voices which concur in his own folly. He seems not to have seriously considered any of the several criticisms of Poliak’s thesis. When it appeared Khazaria provoked a monsoon of controversy. Scholars descended on it from all quarters, and when they finished, little remained. Poliak, they showed, had worked unbothered by the paucity of reliable evidence on his subject; nor did his cavalier way with what evidence he could muster inspire much confidence. The Khazar kingdom, even in its heyday, could not have been the Jewish Versailles-by-the-Caspian he depicted. And in the matter of the beginnings of East European Jewry—admittedly one of the great riddles of Jewish history—other theories were much more acceptable.

All of this Koestler explains by insinuating that a cover-up has taken place. He notes solemnly that Poliak’s name is not mentioned in the 1971-1972 edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica; its 1973 edition, furthermore, hardly mentions the putative Khazar origins of East European Jews, and hence must have been “written with the obvious intent to avoid upsetting believers in the dogma of the Chosen Race.” (More on said race presently.) But has it occurred to Koestler that his theory is passed over because it deserves to be?

The Khazars, a people of Turkish stock, first appear in the fifth century, as fellow-travelers with Attila’s grisly horde. After the empire of the Hun collapsed they succeeded rapidly to a commanding position among the tribes north of the Caucasus; by the middle of the seventh century they held sway over all “the Kingdom of the North,” and remained a major power in the region for at least the next two hundred years. The Byzantine emperor-historian Constantine Porphyrogenitus records that the Khazar king commanded greater ceremony of protocol than both the Pope and the Roman Emperor of the West.

This uncommon deference was not undeserved. In the eighth century the Khazars placed Europe permanently in their debt by withstanding the onslaughts of the invading Arab armies, and holding the line of Moslem advance to south of the Caucasus. Without their resistance Byzantium would almost certainly have been overrun and the complexion of medieval culture transformed. The Khazars achieved in the east what Charles Martel did in the west at the battle of Tours. Their success, needless to say, left them also unenviably caught between the competing monoliths of Christianity and Islam.

As Koestler rightly describes it, the predicament of the Khazars was that of a nonaligned nation in a world polarized between two superpowers. They could maintain their independence only by steering clear of the powerful Christian and Moslem theocracies which tirelessly vied for their allegiance.

Their intimate contacts with Byzantium and the Caliphate had taught the Khazars that their primitive shamanism was not only barbaric and outdated compared to the great monotheistic creeds, but also unable to confer on the leaders the spiritual and legal authority which the rulers of the two theocratic world powers, the Caliph and the Emperor, enjoyed. Yet the conversion to either creed would have meant submission, the end of independence, and thus would have defeated its purpose. What could have been more logical than to embrace a third creed, which was uncommitted towards either of the two, yet represented the venerable foundation of both?

And so the Khazars, with a touch of political genius, became Jews. As Jews they continued to expand their empire and increase their fortune, generating a culture of considerable opulence and sophistication.


But the belle époque of the Khazar Jewish state was short-lived. By the ninth century their domains were already threatened by the Vikings from the north, known also as the Rus. At first their Byzantine neighbors joined with the embattled Khazars to oppose the murderous invaders. As the Rus presence grew more formidable, however, Constantinople found its interests better served by a change of allies. The Khazars were roundly defeated in 965 and their empire severely reduced. Political misfortune was quickly compounded by religious and cultural isolation—in 989 Vladimir was baptized, and shortly thereafter all of the Russian people entered into the hieratic orbit of Greek Christianity.

Historians have traditionally located the dissolution of the Khazar kingdom in that tumultuous tenth century. Poliak, on the other hand, took great pains to prove that a shrunken Khazaria persisted into the twelfth, even the thirteenth, century. And well he might have, because the earliest traces of organized Jewish life in Poland date from precisely that time. Khazars had, after all, still to be around if they were to become East European Jews. Poliak claimed that they migrated westward into Poland in retreat from the ravages of the Mongol invasion.

This, too, is Koestler’s primary argument—that Jews appear in Poland at just the moment Khazars disappear from Khazaria. That such an argument is only circumstantial does not ruffle Koestler, an old student of coincidence; nor is he in the least put out that there exists not a shred of evidence to tell of Khazars migrating into what became the centers of Jewish population in Poland. Moreover, the coincidence is itself not as pretty as he thinks. Fugitive mentions of Khazars after 965 hardly qualify as proof that they continued to survive in large numbers or as an intact society beyond that catastrophic date. And how can a thirteenth-century movement of Khazars account for the presence in Poland of the Jewish farmer near Wroclaw of whom we begin to hear about 1150? The Chronicler Cosmas of Prague even tells of Jews fleeing to Poland in 1098, and from Bohemia. Khazars, it appears, could at most have been a single strand in the tangle of nascent Polish Jewry—the Mongols came, many Khazars died, many fled, and some were bound to have reached Poland and joined up with its Jews. Such a qualified role many reasonable historians have anyway not been reluctant to assign them.2

This is only the beginning of Koestler’s problems. Why, if the Jews of Khazaria begot the Jews of Poland, and if this “did not entail any brutal break with the past,” does there not survive in the culture and folklore of Polish Jewry a single mention or memory of its Khazar heritage? Poliak himself was worried by this apparent amnesia on the part of his Khazars’ alleged descendants. He tried to talk his way around the problem with a crudely applied notion of repression. “The destruction of the Khazar empire,” he wrote, “aroused in the Jews a wave of disappointment in themselves, and a critical attitude towards their past.” A demoralized community put its recent Khazar patrimony safely out of mind. To which one critic memorably retorted: “If the people of Israel were to react this way every time they suffered political disappointment, we would have neither a literature nor any historical recollections whatsoever.”

Happily Koestler does not repeat this particular extravagance of Poliak’s, but he makes do with others. He moves on to social and economic history. The original Jews in Poland, we are told, were employed largely in financial and commercial enterprises—as were the wealthy Khazars, whose principal sources of income were foreign trade and the levying of customs. Another satisfying coincidence, except that numerous Jews of Poland appear to have begun their unfortunate existence there as farmers, even as landowners. And those many merchants who did not could just as well have gained their livelihoods in the West, where Jews for centuries trafficked in money.

Next, we have the argument from the horse cart. Gradually, reports Koestler, Jews took in large numbers to the timber trade, and so resourcefully developed that “superbly built” (?) cart which viewers of Fiddler on the Roof will remember as Tevye’s constant companion.

Now this specialization in coachbuilding and cartering [sic] could certainly not have developed in the closed ghettoes of Western Jewry; it unmistakably points to a Khazar origin. The people of the ghettoes were sedentary; while the Khazars, like other semi-nomadic people, used horse- or ox-drawn carts to transport their tents, goods, and chattel….

So also with the sartorial and architectural styles of Polish Jewish life—they, too, reflect eastern derivations. And then the clincher, the craving for gefilte fish on the Sabbath: “Was it derived from distant memories of life on the Caspian, where fish was the staple diet?” (Now we know why there isn’t a whitefish, pike, or carp to be had in Brooklyn by Friday noon.)

At this point we must extend to Koestler the benefit of the doubt. He must realize that such speculations fall far short of what we admit as historical evidence. There just is no reliable or direct evidence that at some time in the thirteenth century Khazar manners metamorphosed into the folkways of East European Jewry. The parallels Koestler cites, when they are at all accurate, prove little. But can they at least suffice to disturb the alternative, and prevailing, theory concerning the origins of Polish Jews, that they most probably descended from Jews who migrated to Poland from Germany and Bohemia in the thirteenth century? Perhaps Koestler wants no more than to establish what Perry Mason used to call “a reasonable doubt,” no more than the probability that these Jews were not from the German west.

Still objections arise. Koestler is mistaken about the exclusively urban, ghetto-like character of medieval German Jewry. Particularly in southern Germany, the Jews were very much an agricultural people as well, and could have provided those Jewish farmers who settled in Poland—which the Jewish mandarins of Khazaria clearly could not. Koestler also exaggerates the differences between the early German-Jewish village and the early Polish-Jewish shtetl: both were part rural, part urban, both were organized under the jurisdiction of feudal nobles. (The charter of privilege granted to Polish Jewry in 1264 appears to have been modeled on those of Austria, Bohemia, and Hungary.) Most important, those indisputably eastern aspects of Jewish life in Eastern Europe can be explained much less rashly than Koestler would explain them. They could simply mark the inevitable assimilation by immigrant German Jews of the ways of a culture much affected by migrations from the steppes—when in Lithuania…. It had happened before, and has happened since.

Of course the strongest argument for the German origins of the Jews of Eastern Europe is the language they spoke—Yiddish. Why would the offspring of Turkish Khazars have conducted their business in a variant of German? Koestler contends that they could have learned it from the predominantly German clergy and bourgeoisie of late medieval Poland. Some four million Germans are known to have moved to Poland during that period, and their impact upon Polish life must have been pervasive. “Khazar immigrants pouring into medieval Poland had to learn German if they wanted to get on.” Assuming, of course, that such Khazars were indeed pouring in.

Koestler is naturally eager to demonstrate that Yiddish is not quite the unalloyed German dialect it is often assumed to be—that it is rather a hybrid tongue, a patois comprised as well of many Slavonic elements. He is further elated to discover that the German contribution to Yiddish most likely originated in eastern Germany, in those regions adjacent to Eastern Europe. But almost doesn’t count. Yiddish did originate under the influence of German. Certainly it has salient Slavonic features—features quite plausibly contracted by German-speaking Jews in a Polish culture. On his premises Koestler could just as well have argued against the English origins of the Massachusetts settlers because nobody in Boston today speaks the King’s English. But the capacities of language—particularly languages spoken in the busier parts of the world—to absorb other languages is very great; hence historical linguistics. What Koestler would have had to show is rather that the German component of Yiddish is not also its base—which, alas for him, it incontestably is.

The Thirteenth Tribe contains scarcely a creditable argument. “It will probably be impossible to say definitely where the hundreds of thousands of Jews in Poland in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries came from,” concludes Bernard Weinryb, a leading authority whom Koestler has neglected to consult.

But the information, though fragmentary, indicates that the bulk of Polish Jewry was of German-Bohemian origin in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when Jewish settlement in Poland was founded, although a few individuals may have come from Italy or from the Genoese colony in Kaffa (Thedosia) on the Black Sea coast.

And theories about Khazars “have little or no basis in reality, and lack any factual value for dealing with the early settlement of Jews in Poland.”3

Why, then, has Arthur Koestler gone to such trouble about them?

Khazaria is a usable past. Jewish nationalists can point to it as a time when Jews were masters of their own fate. But they would do best not to harp upon it, or at least to spurn its alleged connections with East European Jewry, because it is a past that can be used for ends very different from their own. Koestler’s thesis is not a new one, and it has had a rather unedifying provenance.

Briefly, it has for a very long time been the stock-in-trade of those who would deny the Jewish state its right to exist. For if the Jews are really Khazars, then Zionism is a fraud. If the Jews of Eastern Europe are not of Semitic decent, then what are they doing coming home to the Middle East? They should have sailed for the Black Sea instead. “From the descendants of these non-Semitic Jews sprang the [Zionist] movement—a European movement,a colonial movement, an expansionist movement…. And it is not a movement of our own Arab Jews who are the real Semites.” These words are those of the redoubtable representative from Saudi Arabia, who appealed to Khazar origins during the United Nations Third Committee debate on Zionism and racism last October.4

But it is not this axe which Koestler is grinding. He is commendably firm that “the problem of the Khazar infusion…is irrelevant to modern Israel.,”

But that right [of Israel to exist] is not based on the hypothetical origins of the Jewish people, nor on the mythological covenant of Abraham with God; it is based on international law—i.e., on the United Nations’ decision in 1947 to partition Palestine…into an Arab and a Jewish state. Whatever the Israeli citizens’ racial origins, and whatever illusions they entertain about them, their State exists de jure and de facto, and cannot be undone, except by genocide.

Koestler has always, in his own way, been thrilled by Israel. “Not by arguments but by the hard facts of Zionist pioneer achievement” was he won over to the Zionist cause in the 1940s. His subsequent novel Thieves in the Night was a paean to the ideals and heroism of the Jewish settlers in Palestine; it was even dedicated to the memory of Vladimir Jabotinsky, Jewish militarist and founder of right-wing Zionism.

No, it is not against Israel that Koestler’s animus is directed. It is his Zionist sympathies themselves that have dragged him into the ethnographic mire. For Koestler’s is a supremely vulgar Zionism—at once pro-Israeli and anti-Jewish. He believes that the creation of the Jewish state was the annulment of the entire Jewish tradition which preceded it. He elaborated on this provocative assessment in Promise and Fulfillment (1949):

To break the vicious circle of being persecuted for being “different,” and being “different” by force of persecution, [Jews] must arrive at a clear decision, however difficult this may be. They must either follow the imperative of their religion, the return to the Promised Land—or recognize that that faith is no longer theirs. To renounce the Jewish faith does not mean to jettison the perennial values of Judaic tradition. Its essential teachings have passed long ago into the mainstream of the Judaeo-Christian heritage. If a Jewish religion is to survive outside Israel, without inflicting the stigma of separateness upon its followers, and laying them open to the charge of divided loyalty, it would have to be a system of faith and cosmopolitan ethics freed from all racial presumption and national exclusivity. But a Jewish religion thus reformed would be stripped of all its specifically Jewish content.

These conclusions, reached by one who has been a supporter of the Zionist movement for a quarter-century, while his cultural allegiance belonged to Western Europe, are mainly addressed to the many others in a similar situation. They have done what they could to help to secure a haven for the homeless in the teeth of prejudice, violence, and political treachery. Now that the State of Israel is firmly established, they are at last free to do what they could not do before: to wish it good luck and go their own way….

Koestler’s ultimatum to modern Jewry is: emigrate or assimilate. Not Israel, then, but the Diaspora offends him; it is Jewishness itself, not Zionism, of which he wants to be free.5

According to Koestler only two things can compel a Jew to remain Jewish—religious belief and shared origins. Religious belief, he remarks with evident satisfaction, has been seriously undermined in the modern world. Which leaves only the confused Jew’s lingering conviction that he is already a member of a single people—a “Chosen Race”—irretrievably distinct from all others. It is this last conviction that The Thirteenth Tribe was written to gainsay.

By demonstrating the Khazar origins of East European Jewry, Koestler aims to impugn the genuineness of modern Jewish identity, to dissociate it from its own deepest understanding of itself, to paint it even as a kind of historical hoax—and thereby to make it that much easier to eschew. He wants above all to give the lie to the idea of the “Chosen Race,” and avidly rehearses the arguments against the genetic integrity of the Jewish people. The Jews have always been an amalgam of peoples, he insists; proselytization, intermarriage, and rape are just a few of the means by which foreign blood has found its way into Jewish veins. The Jews are not, then, a single people—they are not even really Jews.6

Of course Koestler is right. There is no such thing as a Jewish race. But the Jews know that too. No Jew has ever believed that the Jewish difference is a biological one. The faithful will maintain that at Sinai God charged a people, not their chromosomes. And those whom Sinai leaves cold will fix their Jewish identity in Jewish history. The Jews are a community of fate, not a community of origins. If it were otherwise, Khazars could not have become Jews, and their exploits could not have electrified the remote Hisdai ibn Shaprut, who was hardly of Turkish stock.

Koestler believes that a new theory about the ethnographic origins and genetic bedlam of the Jewish people will have immense repercussions upon their consciousness and destiny. This must be the popular-science writer’s simpliste fixation on etiology; there are indeed moments when Koestler on the Jews reads like that other purveyor of unlikely genealogies, Erich von Daniken. But, as the Yiddish adage has it, der mentsh is vos er iz, ober nit vos er iz geven—a man is what he is, not what he used to be. Even if Poliak and Koestler were right, it would change little. Blood did not make the Jew, and it will not unmake him.

Koestler’s either/or for modern Jewry is misguided. That the Jews can assimilate does not mean that they should. Faced with continuing anti-Semitism—which the state of Israel could anyway have done nothing to alleviate—Koestler would rather the Jews switch than fight. But if there is still no place for Jewish Jews among the nations of the West—as he is only the most recent to argue—then that is something for which those nations, and not the Jews, must be held to account. Koestler’s prescription not only does no justice to the tenacity with which people will cling to what makes their world intelligible to them; it also belittles our culture’s capacities for tolerance. Surely such misgivings have their grounds. But Koestler’s Jewish defeatism does not.

Zionism will release from their Jewishness only those Jews for whom it was already insufferable; others will not find the two incompatible. And Arthur Koestler is of course free to go his own way, but not because his grandfathers roamed the steppes. He is no Khazar. The evidence for his Jewishness rests not in the ratio of his blood cells, nor in his Hungarian birth—the Magyars emigrated from Khazaria in the ninth century—but in the much less controvertible fact that only a Jew would have taken so much trouble to come up with an alibi for his own self-effacement.

This Issue

October 28, 1976