I asked Charles Nydorf, an authority on Yiddish whom I know slightly, about Prof. Sand’s notion of Ashkenazi Jews originating with the Khazars, and his reference to Paul Wexler (a professor of linguistics at Tel Aviv University) in this connection. I see from some online citations, that Prof. Sand did not adequately explain Prof. Wexler’s work.
As discussed in a 1996 science article in the NY Times: “… in a 1993 book, “The Ashkenazic Jews: A Slavo-Turkic People in Search of a Jewish Identity” (Slavica Publishers),…. Dr. Wexler uses a reconstruction of Yiddish to argue that it began as a Slavic language whose vocabulary was largely replaced with German words. Going even further, he contends that the Ashkenazic Jews are predominantly converted Slavic and Turkic people who merged with a tiny population of Palestinian Jews from the Diaspora.”
This was Nydorf’s response to my query:
Paul Wexler is very well respected but his opinions are in the minority. The 20th century consensus was that Yiddish originated about 1000 years ago on the Rhineland or in Bavaria and that it is based on a mixture of Germanic, Semitic, Romance and Slavic elements with the dominant structural influence being German.
There are of course, dissenters. Wexler is one and my own research based on materials from the Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry has led me to a new theory which I have been presenting in my blog. In my theory Yiddish originated considerably before 1000 and its original Germanic elements came not from German dialects but from Gothic.
As for the Khazars, Nydorf disagrees with Wexler: “The Ashkenazim already existed at the time the Khazars converted and they were living far away from Khazaria in Austria, Germany, Bohemia and France.”
Hillel Halkin wrote a devastating response to Sand’s book in The Forward. Halkin, an American-Israeli writer and translator who leans toward the right, may have marred it just a bit by getting personal. The following is a taste:
… Sand’s book, which argues that there was no such thing as a Jewish people until one was “constructed” by Zionism and Jewish nationalism in the 19th century, would have attracted little notice had it been written by a professor of history at the University of Damascus. As the work of a supposed historian at the University of Tel Aviv, it is a scandal, a fashionably phrased political screed against Zionism that cherry-picks its data while pretending to be history. Alas, it will be accepted as history by many readers who are as dutifully impressed by its 568 footnotes, as were, it would seem, the French journalists on the Aujourd’hui panel.
Not that Sand gets everything wrong. His book is full of perfectly correct and quite unoriginal observations: some elaborating why today’s Jews are not all descendants of biblical Israelites and stem in part from ancestors who joined the Jewish people by religious conversion over the ages (although Sand’s treatment of the considerable genetic research on the subject is shockingly shoddy, he is not wholly wrong about the matter); some pointing out that Diaspora Jews never shared a single spoken language or material culture, let alone territory, as do most peoples; and some dwelling on the problematic nature of the State of Israel, which aspires to be Jewish, democratic and secular while denying non-Jews certain privileges extended to Jews and defining Jewishness in terms of traditional religious law. These are all issues worthy of discussion, and there is nothing wrong with raising them.
And yet to go from there to Sand’s absurd conclusions that the Jews, who considered themselves a distinct people from their early history, were “invented” as one in modern times; that their historical connection to Palestine is “imaginary,” because they are not descended in their entirety from ancient Palestinian Jewry; or that the idea of a Jewish state is therefore less acceptable than the idea of a French or Spanish state, demands a thoroughly dishonest manipulation of the facts. Indeed, if one is talking about the “construction” of national identities, an enterprise that numerous post-modernist historians of nationalism to whom Sand is indebted have written about, it is the French and Spanish who are the parvenus, having undertaken the task only in the late Middle Ages. And if you are looking for peoples who accomplished this even later, in the last two or three centuries, say, you might consider the Italians, the Germans, the Americans, the Brazilians, the Indians and a host of others (including those latest of latecomers, the Palestinians). You would never, unless you wanted to flaunt your ignorance, mention the Jews, who had a fully developed national consciousness at least 2,500 years ago. …
This article inspired a huge number of online comments, including this one. I can’t judge the truth of the first paragraph on genetics (such research in Israel was ridiculed by Shlomo Sand, who depicted it as completely bogus and ideologically motivated) but the second paragraph below seems particularly insightful in indicating that conversion to Judaism through most of the post-Judean history of the Jews (basically an “exile”– notwithstanding Sand’s protestations to the contrary) had to be rare. It does not even mention that such conversions under Islam were punishable by death and those in “Christendom” also dangerous:
… More studies have been carried out on the genetic history of the Jews than on most ethnic groups, perhaps because there are so many Jewish doctors to take advantage of the fabled willingness of Jews to participate in research. These studies not only show that almost all Jewish populations have origins in the Middle East, but that the DNA of Jews from almost every corner of the Diaspora is more similar to that of other Jews than to any other population. When compared with non-Jewish groups, the closest match is with the Muslims of Kurdistan, not with the European peoples alongside whom Ashkenazi Jews lived for centuries or the Arab neighbors of many Sephardi populations.
Other groups with histories of ancient migrations do not have the same degree of continuity. Hungarians are known to have originated on the Eurasian steppe and moved westward in a migration many centuries long, arriving in the Carpathian basin about 995 CE. They speak a language from the steppe, take pride in their history of migration and military conquest and expected that genetic research would demonstrate their central Asian origins. The evidence to date, however, has shown a varying but quite small element of central Asian ancestry in Hungarian populations, along with great similarities between Hungarians and their Slavic and German neighbors. This does not mean that the Hungarians with Slavic ancestry are not real Hungarians. Rather, Hungarian culture has been so powerfully attractive that for many centuries people of Slavic, Germanic and other ancestry elected to join the Hungarian people. Ironically, the genetic distinctiveness of the Jews in part may reflect the unattractiveness of joining a religious minority that was oppressed and impoverished through much of its history.