When Ukraine Was Run by Jews

Haaretz, March 2014

As Ukraine writhes in crisis with sovereignty over Crimea hanging in the balance, it’s an apt time to revisit a time when the region was a Jewish kingdom. Not that this is a call to Israel to throw its hat in the race for control of Crimea.

The Crimean Peninsula has changed hands and rulers time and again. One such occasion was some time in the 4th to 5th century, when a Turkic horde invaded from Mongolia-Siberia and settled the western steppe, mainly the north shores of the Caspian and Black seas.

The invaders were a loose confederation of semi-nomadic pagan tribes, who gradually assumed control over the variegated local population. It took time, but by the mid-7th century, a state had taken shape: the Khazar Kingdom.

This kingdom grew in power and wealth, mostly from taxing the Silk Route to China and other important trading routes between the Arabian and Persian kingdoms and Europe.

The people of Khazar constituted numerous ethnic backgrounds and spoke many languages. They also practiced different religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But the ruling elite was a Turkic aristocracy speaking a Turkic language and practicing a Turkic form of paganism called Tengriism, which focused on a sun deity called Tengri.

That is – until at some point in the 8th or 9th centuries, the ruling elite converted to Judaism.

An angel drops by

This conversion is confirmed by Jewish, Persian, Arab and Byzantine sources. Khazar sources do not exist and no archaeological evidence has been found. One interpretation is that only a thin, elite segment of the population converted while the bulk of the populace remained religiously diverse.

Legend, and letters from a Khazar monarch preserved in Jewish sources, relate that King Bulan decided to convert after a series of angelic visions told him to seek the one true religion.

In his most famous book “The Khuzari,” Judah Halevi provides a slightly different version: Bulan had invited Christian and Muslim philosophers to explain their beliefs, when a rabbi came in and argued the case for Judaism. The king was convinced and converted together with the aristocracy.

Some scholars have suggested that the real reason the Khazar elite decided on Judaism was to take up an Abrahamic religion that would ingratiate them with their Christian and Muslim neighbors on the one hand, while not take either side and thus raise the ire of the members of the religion not chosen. Whatever the reason, the Jewish kingdom didn’t survive for long.

Incessant wars with Islamic kingdoms in the 9th century and then the rise of the Rus in the north during the 10th century precipitated the decline of the Khazar kingdom, until its ultimate destruction by the Rus in the second half of the 10th century.

It has been suggested that Ashkenazi Jews are the descendants of these Khazari people, but this is unlikely, based on genetic studies – and the fact that only a very thin segment of the Khazar kingdom had apparently ever converted to Judaism.


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