Antisemitism: A History

Sixth Century through Eighth Century: The Khazars and the Birth of an Enduring Conspiracy Theory Attacking Jewish Identity

Beginning in the sixth century, a Turkic people from the Caucasus Mountains area between the Black and Caspian seas amassed an empire in Eurasia that attracted exiles from Palestine and surrounding areas due to its position along the Silk Road and other trade routes. Known as the Khazars, the kingdom’s citizens allegedly converted en masse to Judaism in the eighth century following the lead of the Khazar rulers. The Khazar kingdom collapsed in the thirteenth century and its citizens migrated to Eastern and Central Europe where they continued to mix with local populations. Andrew Beider, “Ashkenazi Jews Are Not Khazars. Here’s The Proof,” Forward, September 25, 2017, https://forward.com/opinion/382967/ashkenazi-jews-are-not-khazars-heres-the-proof/; Eran Elhaik, “The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypotheses,” Oxford University Press, December 14, 2012, https://academic.oup.com/gbe/article/5/1/61/728117. This gave rise to a conspiracy theory that modern Ashkenazi Jews—who represent a large segment of Jews worldwide—are not, in fact, the Jews of the Bible, but rather products of the Khazars and their mass conversion.

White supremacist and neo-Nazi groups have latched onto the idea that modern Jews are not, in fact, descended from the ancient Israelites as an attack on Jewish identity and continuity. A search of the term “Khazar” on the neo-Nazi forum Stormfront returns thousands of hits. According to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, once a proponent of the Khazar hypothesis, the theory gained popularity among anti-Zionists after World War II in order to dispel links between modern Jews and the land of Israel (then Palestine). David Duke, “Rethinking the Khazar Theory!,” DavidDuke.com, November 15, 2016, http://davidduke.com/rethinking-khazar-theory/. The Khazar theory has also garnered attention from groups such as the Black Israelites and the Nation of Islam. Founded in the eighteenth century, the Black Israelites is an African-American movement that believes its members are the true descendants of ancient Israelites and white people descended from the Edomites, a biblical antagonistic nation descended from Esau. Sam Kestenbaum, “Who are the Black Israelites at the center of the viral standoff at the Lincoln Memorial?,” Washington Post, January 22, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/01/22/who-are-black-israelites-center-viral-standoff-lincoln-memorial/. The Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan, holds that modern Ashkenazi Jews are false Jews descended from Germans, whom he has called “the worst people in the world in their hatred,” second only to white Americans. “Minister Farrakhan Reveals Truth About Trump, Weinstein, Antisemitism & Black America,” YouTube video, 2:55:54, posted by “Nation of Islam” on May 28, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTGBgIeaStc.

The complete truth about the Khazar Empire and its relationship to the Jewish people may never be known. Indeed, even Duke has renounced the faith he once put into the Khazar theory, though not for any philo-Semitic reasons. He has argued that Jews themselves promote the theory to dispel the notion that they are indeed a tribal race that condemns gentiles. David Duke, “Rethinking the Khazar Theory!,” DavidDuke.com, November 15, 2016, http://davidduke.com/rethinking-khazar-theory/. Despite Duke’s repudiation, the theory remains persistent among the far right.

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