The Eurasian Steppe is a belt of flat grasslands extending thousands of miles from Northern China to Central Europe. It is one of the most consequential pieces of geography in history and for thousands of years it served as a pasture and battlefield for many different nomadic empires.
Being a highway between East and West and a crucible for the development of fearsome nomadic warrior culture, the Steppe made Attila and the Huns the most feared enemy of the Roman Empire. It forced China to build the Great Wall on its northern border. And it allowed Genghis Khan and his Mongol descendants to build the largest land empire in human history.
As generations of nomads conquered settled civilizations, many of them adopted the religions and beliefs of settled peoples. These included Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity.
Judaism was unlike these religions in many regards. For most of history, Jews did not command a powerful state or demographically dominate much land. Furthermore, Jews have been persecuted for almost the entirety of their existence as a people; and they do not actively seek out converts. So it wouldn’t make much sense for a group of nomads to show up to a new region and adopt the Jewish faith. But that may be exactly what happened in 8th century Caucasia.
The Khazars were a Central Asian Turkic people who, in the 6th century, formed an empire in between and around the Black and Caspian Seas. They likely practiced Tengrism originally, a shamanic and polytheistic religion indigenous with the Turks and Mongols to the Eurasian Steppe. The first Jews to come to this land of the Khazars (Khazaria) likely immigrated there to avoid the persecution they experienced in the Christian Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire.
When, how, why, and even if the Khazars adopted the Jewish faith is a subject of much scholarly debate, largely because these people left no written remains and very little archeological evidence in general.
But if they did convert, it may have been more of a foreign policy solution than a spiritual revelation. The two most powerful neighbors of the Khazars were the Muslim Abbasid Caliphate and the Christian Byzantine Empire. Under pressure from both powerful entities to choose their religion, they could have picked Judaism as a declaration of neutrality. Given this, the supposed conversion would have likely been limited to the royalty and nobility.
The issue of Khazaria and Judaism is an interesting academic question, worthy of further investigation. But it has also found a home in antisemitic conspiracy theories and unfounded pseudo-ethnography.
Some people have proposed that when the Khazar state collapsed at the end of the 10th century, its Jewish population dispersed into Eastern Europe, forming the ancestral core of Jewry’s Ashkenazi (Eastern European) population. This is a useful hypothesis for some bad actors because it grants credence to the agendas of various strains of antisemitism.
For the racial theorists of early 20th century America, an “Asiatic” origin for Eastern Europe’s Jews was just one more reason they weren’t white and why Jewish immigration should be restricted.
For the Nazis, one reason that Jews were so insidious was because they were believed to be landless people of mixed, and therefore tainted, blood. So it’s not difficult to see how a theory suggesting a diverse ancestry for Europe’s Jews might be useful in confirming this belief. In fact, Hans Gunther, the Nazis’ most prominent racial theorist and a mentor to Heinrich Himmler himself, wrote about the Khazar hypothesis.
For the antisemites of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, “Khazaria” became a useful euphemism for the supposed domineering and parasitic influence that the (Ashkenazi) Jews of that country had over society.
And for the anti-Zionists of the 20th and 21st centuries, who oppose the existence of the Jewish state (Israel), a Khazar ancestry for the Ashkenazi Jews is just another way that they can deny the Jewish people’s historical ties to the Near East.
Of course, this hypothesis does not stand up to scrutiny. It has no basis in recorded history or archeology. And the genetics of Ashkenazi Jews reflect ancestry that is largely Near Eastern and European in nature, but not Turkic.
In truth, we may never know the real history of the Khazars. But it ultimately matters very little whether a group of Turkic nomads converted to Judaism over a thousand years ago. What does matter is how that history has been spun into myths that perpetuate racism against Jews today. So it is best to be consumed neither by history nor mythology. Instead, we should all dedicate ourselves to the potential of the present. Because for better or worse, it’s the only time we have any power over.