With the Russian invasion of Crimea, it is surprising to remember that much of the area, and areas around it, were once part of a Jewish kingdom. This was the kingdom of the Khazars, a people that converted to Judaism, and held off the advance of Islamic armies. They were finally overrun by the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan, holding out longer than their neighbors, but finally collapsing. Before this conversion (sometime in the eighth century), there had been many Jews residing in the area of what is now the Ukraine, Crimea, and Southern Russia.
The first Jews in the area were fleeing from war and intolerance of the Byzantine empire (Christian) and Sassanian empire (Persians). Joining earlier Jews in the area they contributed to the development of the region both in its intellectual development as well as in practical arts like agriculture. For instance they taught their neighbors writing. A contemporary Muslim geographer described the land as being full of “sheep, honey and Jews.”
Khazarian kings were called Khagans, and Khagan Bulan is said to have chosen Judaism after listening to a presentation of the various religious systems. It is also possible that embracing Judaism was a means of choosing neutrality between the rival religions of Islam and Christianity, that were both powerful outside Khazaria.
The Khazar’s resistance to Muslim armies, according to historian D. M. Dunlop, prevented the outflanking of Byzantium by the Arabs, “and the history of Christendom and Islam might well have been very different.” In fact they prevented a Muslim advance into Europe through the Caucasus mountains in 737, while 5 years earlier Charles Martel stopped the advance of an invading Muslim army in France.
The Khazars allowed liberty of conscience, and visitors from the Caliphate (Muslim) and Byzantium were amazed to see a supreme tribunal consisting of seven judges, including two Jews, two Christians, two Muslims, and one pagan.
The Khazars relied mainly on the Bible, and it embarrassed a Spanish jurist, Yehuda bar Barzillai al-Barceloni, to see them offering animal sacrifices.
The priests may have been dressed in leather vestments tailored to the biblical descriptions, judging from a find of a body of that period in a cave near Phanagoria.
Though tolerant, the Khazar rulers were prepared to institute sharp reprisals for anti-Jewish measures in neighboring lands. When a Muslim mob destroyed a synagogue, they went in and demolished the tower of the town Mosque, and executed its Muezzins. They also replied to the forced conversion of Jews by Byzantines by persecuting Christians
According to historian Salo Baron (see sources) it was out of Khazaria that came a messianic movement led by David Alroy, whose goal was the military conquest of the holy land. He did not get the aid of enough Jews in the intervening Muslim countries in this effort, but Baron suggests that the “star of David” may have come from him, and that symbol is still with us. (Wikipedia says he was born in Iraq, which was not Khazar territory).
Jews in other lands were flattered by the existence of an independent Jewish state and spun romantic tales about them. It was also a debating point – when they were told that the prediction “The scepter will not fall from Judah” (Genesis 49:10) had been proved false, they could point to the Khazar kingdom.
The Mongol invasion put an end to Khazar sovereignty. Their state had lasted a remarkably long time, about 500 years. After the Golden Horde defeated it some of the inhabitants made it to mostly Slavic lands, where they became an element in the growth of the great Jewish centers of Eastern Europe. In fact Jews were those areas long before the arrival of the Serbs and Bulgars and Magyars, and before the Khazarian empire emergence as well. They were there as early as the 2nd century, and perhaps earlier.
It is ironic that eventually the newer peoples regarded the Jews as aliens living amidst the native majority.
If you look at the above map, you will see a town called Kerch that is on one of side of the narrow strait at the north of the Black Sea that separates it from the sea of Azov. This has been in the news, because after Putin’s invasion of Crimea, the Russians want to build a bridge over it. Kerch was called Karsch Al Yahud by Arab geographers, because it was a Jewish town surrounded by Jewish territory on both sides of the strait. Another leader who wanted to build a bridge over it was Adolf Hitler, who planned to use the bridge to cross eastward into the Caucasus mountains, where he could capture oil fields and advance toward Persia. Part of the bridge was built, but then the Soviets pushed out the Nazi armies, and the bridge began to break up under the pressure from ice by early 1945. The rest was removed as a hazard.
Since the Khazar kingdom, there have been periods where the Jews did fairly well in the area which became the Ukraine and its periphery. In 1648-9, however, Bohdan Khmelnytsky led an uprising, and since Polish estate owners had often used Jews as supervisors of their estates, the Jews became objects of hatred to the oppressed and long-suffering peasants. Khmelnytsky told the people that the Poles had sold them as slaves “into the hands of the accursed Jews.” With this as their battle cry, Cossacks and the peasantry massacred a large number of Jewish and Polish-Lithuanian townsfolk, as well as Szlachta (Polish nobility) during the years 1648–1649. The contemporary 17th-century Eyewitness Chronicle (Yeven Mezulah) by Nathan ben Moses Hannover states:
Wherever they found the szlachta, royal officials or Jews, they [Cossacks] killed them all, sparing neither women nor children. They pillaged the estates of the Jews and nobles, burned churches and killed their priests, leaving nothing whole. It was a rare individual in those days who had not soaked his hands in blood ..
Then came the riots throughout Southern Russia of 1881, and the Kishinev pogrom of 1903.
The New York Times described the First Kishinev pogrom of Easter, 1903:
“The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia [modern Moldova], are worse than the censor will permit to publish. There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Orthodox Easter. The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, “Kill the Jews”, was taken up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. The dead number 120 [Note: the actual number of dead was 47–48] and the injured about 500. The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description. Babies were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews.
Other Jews in the area included Karaites (they are Jews who do not believe in the Talmudic law, and just accept the Bible), and they were treated better by Russian authorities, partly for that reason. Also residing in Crimea were the Krimchaks, another group, who did accept rabbinic Judaism Krimchaks often were blond and had distinctive garb, and sidelocks as the modern Hasidim do.
After the first World War, there was an attempt at a Jewish agricultural revival in Crimea, but the Soviets then prohibited an effort by a charitable organization called Agro-joint to equip the Jewish farmers. There was even a split in a Jewish Kibbutz in Israel, where one faction became so leftist that they decided to head to the Crimea, where they founded an agricultural village called Via Nova. .
Then came the Nazis in 1941. They killed many Jews in the area before their defeat.
In 1952, there was news of a nationalist plot to establish a Jewish territorial unit – a Jewish republic in the Crimea. The Russians thought that if it would be permitted, it would encourage others, for example Armenians, so Soviets annihilated the intellectuals behind it in August 12 1952.
Today in the Ukraine, the leader of a party called Svoboda said that a Muscovite-Jewish mafia” had come to rule Ukraine. There is a movement of Jews in the areas of Ukraine now being conquered by Russia to leave for Israel.
So what was the legacy of the Khazar kingdom, and the lasting influence?
For that period, they were tolerant, and relatively free, more so than the regimes that followed them. They had expansionist neighbors, but managed to hold them off for hundreds of years.
The fact of a Jewish kingdom for a while in that area did have an impact on other Jews elsewhere – and Yehudah Ha Levi wrote the Kuzari – one of the greatest books in Judaism, and he frames his ideas as a discussion between the King of the Khazars and a Rabbi.
It is sad that a people that had such a large and vibrant presence in a large territory, is now almost completely gone from that area.
A Social and Religious History of the Jews (Volume 3) by Salo Baron, Columbia University Press (1957)
Kremlin’s Bridge Plan Spans Dark Past – March 4, 2014 Wall Street Journal
Kiev Coalition Tries To Tame Nationalists – March 20, 2014 Wall Street Journal