Shalva Weil – contested histories of the Ashkenazi Jews

Despite the common knowledge of the possible Khazar extraction of the Jewish people, Shlomo Sand’s internationally best-selling book ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’ has resurfaced as something new. Hebrew University Anthropologist  Shalva Weil attributes this to a will to delegitimise Israel, a movement which supporters from quarters such as The Foundation for the Advancement of Free-Market Thinking, finds helpful to their own projects.

10 Responses to “Shalva Weil – contested histories of the Ashkenazi Jews”

  1. Rebecca Lesses Says:

    I don’t think this article by Shalva Weil is a very helpful response to Sand’s book. Although the Jewish people is not “a race,” there are lines of descent of various Jewish communities that have been shown by contemporary genetics to lead back to ancient Palestine. This does not at all exclude the fact of connections with other groups of people (for example, the Khazars), but shows that Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and Sephardi Jews all have a long-time connection to the ancient Israelite and Jewish communities of Palestine.

    Weil writes: “By this account, North African and other Sephardic Jewish communities (originating in Spain) were also conquered and converted to Judaism as the religion spread along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa.” I guess this is Sand’s argument, not Weil’s, but in any case it’s nonsense – there was no Jewish “conquest” at any time of North Africa or Spain with “forced conversions,” certainly not by the Khazars in the 8th or 9th centuries CE. There was a Muslim-Arab conquest of North Africa and Spain – for example, in 711 Spain was conquered by the Ummayad dynasty – but the Ummayads certainly weren’t interesting in converting people to Judaism! The Muslim conquest of Spain did, however, allow the Jews who were living there to come out of the shadows – the Visigothic rulers had outlawed Judaism, and their decrees were overturned when the Muslims took over.

  2. Abtalyon Says:

    The Khazar myth continues to make waves despite conclusive genetic proof that Jews, in all their sizes and colours, are a genetically distinct people. It seems amazing that someone like Sand, who has no qualifications in genetics, anthropology, Semitic and Central Asian languages and the history of middle and central Asia and its inhabitants over time, wrote a book based on none of these disciplines and yet, because of those who feel antipathy- or worse- to Jews and/or the State of Israel, command attention from the world rather than the obscurity he deserves. Sand’s book is not eevn pseudo-scientific: it is plain nonsense and should be treated as such.

  3. David D. Says:

    Reprising my comment to an earlier thread…

    Arguments about race are inherently distasteful, but it is important to establish that myths about most Ashkenazi Jews being Khazars or the stuff that Shlomo Sand peddled in his notorious book, are pernicious nonsense. One of the happy consequences of recent advances in genetic research is to put the lie to such calumnies. It seems that the Jews are indeed a “people”, that they are genetically and ethnically well defined and they did, indeed, come from the Middle East. That’s not a political claim; it’s science (a selection of citations below). It doesn’t settle the Israel/Palestine problem, by any means, but it does, definitively, refute pretensions that the Jews are merely a “construct” and are somehow less indigenous to the land of Israel than the Palestinians, whose own history as a distinct ethnic group is measured in mere decades.

    Who are the Jews? For more than a century, historians and linguists have debated whether the Jewish people are a racial group, a cultural and religious entity, or something else. More recently, scientists have been weighing in on the question with genetic data. The latest such study, published today in the American Journal of Human Genetics, shows a genetic connection among all Jews, despite widespread migrations and intermarriage with non-Jews. It also apparently refutes repeated claims that most Ashkenazi Jews are descended from Central Europeans who converted to Judaism 1000 years ago.

    “Studies Show Jews’ Genetic Similarity”

    This study demonstrates that European/Syrian and Middle Eastern Jews represent a series of geographical isolates or clusters woven together by shared IBD genetic threads.

    Jews’ Genetics Make Them A ‘Distinct Population’

    The genome-wide structure of the Jewish people.

    Nature. 2010 Jul 8;466(7303):238-42.

  4. Brian Robinson Says:

    Back in July or August 2009, when I knew Sand’s book was about to come out in English translation, I wrote to Prof Steve Jones, Prof of Genetics at UCL about this topic. Specifically I asked for one or two pointers “as to where a non-specialist such as myself might start”. I posed a few questions based on reviews of Sand’s book, which I didn’t read until some months later.

    Summarising, this was, “Basically, who are the Jews? I should probably rephrase that as something more like, ‘From which parts of the world do the various groups come who together comprise a collectivity known as “the Jewish people”? How much is known and how robust are the findings to date?’.”

    Prof Jones replied and kindly referred me to two specialist academic colleagues in his department, to whom I then re-addressed the question, with more specific requests as to books, papers and so on that I could consult.

    One of the geneticists replied and when I forwarded his reply to other interested colleagues, copying him in, he did not object to my having done so, and so I assume he would have no objection to my quoting his reply, which I found extremely informative and helpful, here.

    I have also bought and read two of the three books he recommended (not the Dunlop, although I read several reviews of it). Dr Neil Bradman is, or at least was at the time, Chair of the Centre for Genetic Anthropology at UCL, and I quote below the email he wrote to me back then.

    [Moderator, if you would prefer me to get specific permission from Dr Bradman before posting this, please let me know, but as I said, I have no reason to think that he would object.]


    I know of no book that directly answers the questions you pose in the way that you pose them. I can suggest two books that do address some aspects of the subject. They are:

    Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen
    ISBN-10: 0446580635
    ISBN-13: 978-0446580632

    Jacob’s Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History
    ISBN-10: 0300151284
    ISBN-13: 978-0300151282

    Incidentally, on the question of the Khazars: The History of the Jewish Khazars by Dunlop DM is a much better source than The Thirteenth Tribe by Koestler.

    Let me try to be helpful by addressing the two questions you pose: you ask “who are the Jews?” There is no genetic answer to this question – which can be more exactly stated as the well known ‘who is a Jew?’. As you know opinions differ on the answer to this question.

    The second question you pose: “From which parts of the world do the various groups come who together comprise a collectivity known as “the Jewish people”?” It is only living individuals who are Jews who come from somewhere else. The individuals do not *come from* their ancestors. They do, however, inherit their genes from their ancestors; but those ancestors are many. An individual has two parents, four grandparents, eight grandparents and so on. Very soon it can be seen that the theoretical number from which an individual could be descended is greater than the population of the world. Not only do we know that there has been extensive conversion to Judaism but that the first Jews (whoever they were and however that may be defined) were descendants of non-Jews. Overwhelmingly the opinion of geneticists today is that all anatomically modern humans are descended from ancestors who lived more than 100,000 years ago in Africa.

    You can see that that the questions you ask depend for their answers on how you define a Jew and how far back you wish to go. While considering those two questions it is also necessary to be clear about whether one is addressing issues of biological continuity as evidenced by transmission of paternally inherited Y chromosomes or maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA or overall genetic similarity. Even a cursory observation of the Jewish people, as it exists today, sees that it displays an extremely wide range of human genetic diversity. Consider, for example: Ethiopian Jews, Indian Jews, Oriental Jews, North African Jews, Ashkenazi Jews and Yemenite Jews.

    When reading the two books I mentioned earlier, keep in mind the different concepts of: genetic similarity, cultural continuity and biological descent.

    I hope the above is helpful.


    I made fairly full notes from the two books and also have a paper (actually a 6-page Letter) published in Nature

    The genome-wide structure of the Jewish people published in Nature in 2010 ( doi:10.1038/nature09103 ), whose first paragraph reads as follows (if anyone would like the pdf, please let me know). It’s by an international group of authors, including some from Tel Aviv and Haifa, but from many other centres as well.
    Contemporary Jews comprise an aggregate of ethno-religious
    communities whose worldwide members identify with each other
    through various shared religious, historical and cultural traditions
    1,2. Historical evidence suggests common origins in the Middle
    East, followed by migrations leading to the establishment of communities
    of Jews in Europe, Africa and Asia, in what is termed the
    Jewish Diaspora3–5. This complex demographic history imposes
    special challenges in attempting to address the genetic structure
    of the Jewish people6. Although many genetic studies have shed
    light on Jewish origins and on diseases prevalent among Jewish
    communities, including studies focusing on uniparentally and
    biparentally inherited markers7–16, genome-wide patterns of
    variation across the vast geographic span of Jewish Diaspora communities
    and their respective neighbours have yet to be addressed.
    Here we use high-density bead arrays to genotype individuals from
    14 Jewish Diaspora communities and compare these patterns of
    genome-wide diversity with those from 69 Old World non-Jewish
    populations, of which 25 have not previously been reported.
    These samples were carefully chosen to provide comprehensive
    comparisons between Jewish and non-Jewish populations in the
    Diaspora, as well as with non-Jewish populations from the Middle
    East and north Africa. Principal component and structure-like
    analyses identify previously unrecognized genetic substructure
    within the Middle East. Most Jewish samples form a remarkably
    tight subcluster that overlies Druze and Cypriot samples but not
    samples from other Levantine populations or paired Diaspora host
    populations. In contrast, Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel) and Indian
    Jews (Bene Israel and Cochini) cluster with neighbouring autochthonous
    populations in Ethiopia and western India, respectively,
    despite a clear paternal link between the Bene Israel and
    the Levant. These results cast light on the variegated genetic architecture
    of the Middle East, and trace the origins of most Jewish
    Diaspora communities to the Levant. etc

    • Brian Robinson Says:

      This prompted me to have another look at the Nature Letter, from which I’ve extracted this, which I think is helpful.
      [M]ost Jewish samples, other than those from Ethiopia and India,
      overlie non-Jewish samples fromthe Levant (Fig. 1b). The tight cluster
      comprising the Ashkenazi, Caucasus (Azerbaijani and Georgian),
      Middle Eastern (Iranian and Iraqi), north African (Moroccan) and
      Sephardi (Bulgarian and Turkish) Jewish communities, as well as
      Samaritans, strongly overlaps Israeli Druze and is centrally located
      on the principal component analysis (PCA) plot when compared with
      Middle Eastern, European Mediterranean, Anatolian and Caucasus
      non-Jewish populations (Fig. 1). This Jewish cluster consists of
      samples from most Jewish communities studied here, which together
      cover more than 90% of the current world Jewish population5; this is
      consistent with an ancestral Levantine contribution to much of contemporary
      Jewry. A compact cluster of Yemenite Jews, which is also
      located within an assemblage of Levantine samples, overlaps primarily
      with Bedouins but also with Saudi individuals (Fig. 1b). In contrast,
      Ethiopian and Indian Jews are located close to those from neighbouring
      host populations (Fig. 1c, d). Ethiopian Jews clustered with
      Semitic-speaking rather than Cushitic-speaking Ethiopians. See Supplementary
      Note 2 for a discussion of the assignment of samples representing
      the Belmonte and Uzbek (Bukharan) Jewish communities.

      To glean further details of Levantine genetic structure, we repeated
      PCA on a restricted set of samples from west Eurasia (Fig. 2, Supplementary
      Fig. 3 and Supplementary Note 2) and by inspecting
      lower-ranked PCs in the Old World context (Supplementary
      Fig. 2b, c; PC1 versus PC3 and PC4). These analyses reveal three
      distinct Near Eastern Jewish subclusters: the first group is located
      between Middle Eastern and European populations and consists of
      Ashkenazi, Moroccan and Sephardi Jews. The second group, comprising
      the Middle Eastern and Caucasus Jewish communities, is
      positioned within the large conglomerate of non-Jewish populations
      of the region. The third group contains only a tight cluster of
      Yemenite Jews.

      [From the concluding paragraphs]
      Our PCA, ADMIXTURE [an algorithm] and ASD [allele sharing distances] analyses,
      which are based on genome-wide data from a large sample of Jewish communities, their
      non-Jewish host populations, and novel samples from the Middle
      East, are concordant in revealing a close relationship between most
      contemporary Jews and non-Jewish populations fromthe Levant. The
      most parsimonious explanation for these observations is a common
      genetic origin, which is consistent with an historical formulation of
      the Jewish people as descending from ancient Hebrew and Israelite
      residents of the Levant. This inference underscores the significant
      genetic continuity that exists among most Jewish communities and
      contemporary non-Jewish Levantine populations, despite their longterm
      residence in diverse regions remote from the Levant and isolation
      from one another. This study further uncovers genetic structure
      that partitions most Jewish samples into Ashkenazi–north African–
      Sephardi, Caucasus–Middle Eastern, and Yemenite subclusters
      (Fig. 2). There are several mutually compatible explanations for the
      observed pattern: a splintering of Jewish populations in the early
      Diaspora period, an underappreciated level of contact between members
      of each of these subclusters, and low levels of admixture with
      Diaspora host populations. Equally interesting are the inferences that
      can be gleaned from more distant Diaspora communities, such as the
      Ethiopian and Indian Jewish communities. Strong similarities to their
      neighbouring host populations may have resulted from one or more
      of the following: large-scale introgression, asymmetrical sex-biased
      gene flow, or religious and cultural diffusion during the process of
      becoming one of the many and varied Jewish communities.

  5. Brian Robinson Says:

    Jon Entine in the book I cited previously, “Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People” (New York & Boston, Grand Central Publishing, 2007) deals with the theories concerning Khazaria, and specifically with Koestler’s part in popularising it.

    He writes, “Because of [Koestler’s] status as a renegade intellectual, the Khazar theory soon became the popular wisdom and remains so in some circles today. But this thesis, however progressive in its original intent, has provided fuel for decades of anti-Jewish ramblings and is widely circulated among anti-Israeli Arabs and white Christian supremacists …”

    And, “The controversial notion of the right of return has endowed the Khazarian theory with toxic importance. And what a sad Irony: while the Nazis damned anyone with even “one drop”of distant Jewish ancestry as ‘real Jews’ and thus indelibly stained, Jew haters quote the liberal icon Arthur Koestler as though his words were the embodiment of historical truth, thus damning Jews because they supposedly aren’t real or pure enough …”

    Entine cites, approvingly, the website run by Kevin Brook, not a formally trained historian but “an impressively self-taught scholar”. The website “includes a comprehensive collection of studies and journalistic accounts on Jewish ancestry and genetics”. His book, “The Jews of Khazaria” was, says Entine, well-received.

    Brook is convinced that the supposed “religious competition” and mass conversion are apocryphal. This relates to the anecdote that in the 8th or 9th century CE, the Khazarian King Bulan staged a debate between the three monotheistic religions and that “supposedly the Jewish representative rhetorically outdueled his rivals”. And that, according to the legend, is how Khazaria became Jewish — although accounts vary as to whether it was just Royalty and the court circle, or the entire people who were said to have converted: according to Brook, who bases his view on the historical record, only “the royal court and select nobility converted”.

    Entine continues his discussion on how the legend developed and some of its consequences. He is not a scientist but has a background in journalism, and is attached to the American Enterprise Institute.

    But the author of the other book recommended by Dr Bradman, and cited by me previously, is indeed a practising scientist, the geneticist David B Goldstein, professor of molecular genetics and director of the Institute for Genome Science and Policy’s Center for Population Genomics and Pharmacogenetics, Duke University.

    The book is “Jacob’s Legacy: A genetic view of Jewish history”, Yale UP, 2008). Dealing with the question as to why King Bulan, according to the story, chose Judaism, Goldstein writes that the reason might have been political. “To become Muslim would have meant accepting the leadership of Khazaria’s arch enemy, the caliph … On the other hand, conversion to Christianity might have led to exxcessive dependence on Constantinople, the Christian stronghold of the Byzantine Empire”.

    Goldstein continues: “Could Khazaria, I wonder to this day, be the source of Ashkenazi Levite R-M17 Y chromosome? As with much else of genetic history, there is no way to be sure. (Goldstein’s researches had revealed a very high frequency of a particular collection of Y-chromosome markers, a haplogroup called R-M17, that is rare in Jewish populations and rare or absent in Near East populations.)

    Goldstein records that, “in a rare moment of humility, [Koestler] admitted the hypothesis was in part designed to undermine anti-Semitism by connecting the lineage of European Jews to that of Gentile Europe”. In a footnote, Goldstein points out the irony that “the Khazar theory has been seized upon by anti-Zionists as evidence that the Jews have no historical right to the land of Israel.” He further notes that despite Koestler’s brilliance he was often perceived as an amateur and crank, who attacked Darwinian theory and defended discredited Lamarckian theories of inheritance (aside from other unpleasant aspects of his behaviour).

    But in the end, Goldstein is at best ambivalent on the theory, which “seems no more far-fetched than the spectacular continuity of the Cohen line or the apparent presence of Jewish genetic signatures in a South African Bantu people” and he concludes, “the idea does now seem to me plausible, if not likely”. Personally I find this the least convincing part of Goldstein’s book, and of the two I much prefer the non scientist Entine’s coolly rational assessment.

  6. Brian Robinson Says:

    Also see SPME Archives No. 2220, May 11, 2007 Steven Plaut: The Khazar Myth and the New Anti-Semitism

    “It is one of the great ironies of the 21st century that anti-Zionists and anti-Semites on both the Left and the Right, have returned to racialist arguments against Jews that most of us thought had died out after World War II. One of the most bizarre aspects of this “re-racializing” of anti-Semitism is the role played by the Khazar myth …

    “[I]t would be hard to exaggerate how widespread the misuse of the Khazar myth is among those seeking to delegitimize Israel and Jews today. A recent investigation showed nearly 30,000 websites using the Khazar “theory” as a bludgeon against Israel and Zionism …”


    Last year I came across an account of the Use of Sand’s “Invention” book by Hungarian antisemites, but I can’t at the moment find the article or reference.

  7. Brian Robinson Says:

    Just one more on this (maybe I’ve already posted more than enough, however the topic is important for both positive and negative reasons).
    Forthcoming, “Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People” by Harry Ostrer MD Publication date May 2, 2012

    According to Wikipedia, “In [the book[ Dr. Ostrer has explored how these genetic observations might influence collective Jewish identity as well as be used to create a personalized genomics for Jewish people”

    The Forward 50 list–/ (2010) includes him with this citation:

    “A professor of human genetics and division director of the Human Genetics Program at New York University School of Medicine, Harry Ostrer is a leader among scientists working to understand Jewish genetics. As director of the Jewish HapMap Project (a collaboration between the NYU School of Medicine and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University), Ostrer conducts a smaller version of the Human Genome Project — which defined the sequence of the entire human genome — to understand the structure of the genomes in Jewish populations. That, in turn, has led to discoveries about the causes of and treatments for genetic diseases.

    “In June [2010], Ostrer, 59, and several co-authors published the paper “Abraham’s Children in the Genome Era” in the June issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, highlighting the strong genetic bonds both within and among Jewish communities around the world. The paper focused on Jews’ distinctiveness compared to the populations among which they have dwelled, and the links among distinct Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, Italian, Turkish, Greek and Ashkenazi Jewish groups that can be traced to a common source in the Middle East. As Ostrer told the Forward, “We found a high degree of relatedness among Jewish Diaspora groups. It supports the notion of Jewish peoplehood — that there’s greater relatedness between the Jewish populations than between the Jewish and non-Jewish populations.” But he is careful to note that this is different from the question of who is a Jew; Ostrer does not think that answer can be found in genetics.”

    See also for a copy of Judy Siegel-Itzkovich’s Jerusalem Post article, “Sheba, NYU Researchers to draw genetic map of wandering Jew” from July 20, 2009

    “[G]eneticists at Sheba Medical Center and New York University have launched the world’s first comprehensive gene-mapping project of the Jewish people, in an effort to trace their wanderings to and from Israel and in the Diaspora over the millennia …” etc

    But perhaps we may recall that Shlomo Sand, during his video’d NY University lecture berated one of his critics in the audience, for the disgrace (or some similar or stronger word, I can’t quite remember) of — after the 20th century — wanting to base his Jewish identity on biology.

  8. BrianRobinson Says:

    Kevin Alan Brook, on his regularly updated website:

    [A] genetic study published by Harry Ostrer and his team in 2010 showed that Ashkenazic Jews have more northern Mediterranean ancestry than Slavic/Khazar ancestry, and also showed strong links between Ashkenazim and Italian Jews, Greek Jews, Sephardic Jews, and Syrian Jews.

    The Israelite traces among the East European Jews came from three sources: (1) Sephardic Jews fleeing Spain and Portugal and resettling in Lithuania and Poland, (2) Roman Jews, and from (3) Khazarian Jews who merged with Israelites, just as the Schechter Letter states “they became one people”. The Khazars and the Israelites mixed with each other.

    Are all Jews around the world descended from the Khazars? Certainly not. East European Jewish ancestry originates substantially from ancient Judea, and the same is true of most other modern Jewish populations (with the exception of groups like Libyan Jews and Ethiopian Jews). But, it is rational to conclude that some Jews also have some Khazar ancestors.

    ( also )

  9. Rangjan Says:

    I find the focus on genetics, rather than religious, cultural and social organisation to be tasteless.

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