An editorial by Yosi Beilin in the Washington Post…
Shimon Peres was an optimist. Not somebody who believed that everything would be okay at the end of the day, but someone who trusted that if you do the right things, you can change a situation for the better. Not a daydreamer, not a detached visionary, but a shrewd politician who knew what he wanted and how to achieve it.
Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press)
When I came to know him, it seemed to me obvious that he was a politician with an agenda, but it took me a while to understand that this was unusual. Today I can testify: Most politicians come to office simply in order to be there. When asked why, they say vague things about making their country better. But Peres was in politics for a reason: to ensure that his Israel was safe, both by creating the best means of deterrence and by promoting peaceful relations with our neighbors. In his youth, Peres was considered a technocrat.
He was a member of a generation born in the 1920s who were sick and tired of the Socialist ideology of David BenGurion’s generation. They were proud of being pragmatic. When he was much older, he was portrayed as a dreamer and even as naive. In the 1960s, he was not ready to use the label “Social Democracy” in the Israeli Labor Party platform, but in 1978, he became the vice president of Socialist International. In the 1970s, he was a staunch supporter of settlements in the occupied territories. Later, as the leader of the Labor Party and the opposition, he became very critical of these settlements and was perceived by many as a dove, and by a few as a traitor. Yigal Amir, the murderer of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, testified that his next target was to be Peres.
In the 1990s, when I told Peres — I was his deputy in the foreign ministry at that time — about my secret efforts to negotiate an interim agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization in Oslo, he could have easily told me that it was a rogue operation without his authorization. But instead he immediately hugged the embryonic idea and went to Rabin to get the green light to continue, because he believed that the project was in Israel’s national interest. His attitude toward the country was different from mine. I was born in Israel a few weeks after its establishment; he was there at its cradle. For me, the military and economic achievements of my country, as its success at absorbing Jewish immigrants in a number twice the size of its original population in 1948, were a given. For him, everything was a kind of a miracle. If my love for Israel is the love of a son, his was the love of a father, who admires every move made by his child — including those that may not objectively deserve this admiration.
We had our differences. It was difficult for me to understand why he thought that the illegal settlements in the occupied territories could contribute to our security. I was very much against the Israeli Labor Party joining a government of Ariel Sharon — the settlements’ father — and refused to serve in it. But even during that bitter collision, I knew that it was not personal for him. He believed deeply then that joining the government, after Ehud Barak’s defeat, was the only way to save Israel from the kind of ultra-right government that we have today. He was wiser than most people I know. He had a wonderful sense of humor, even about himself. He had a kind of self-assurance that was never smug but enabled him to take bold decisions, such as the economic plan of 1985, which saved Israel from out-of-control inflation, or the decision to leave Lebanon once we couldn’t find a Lebanese partner for an agreement. Ben-Gurion’s grandson once told me that he thought that his grandfather was the most important Israeli leader, but that Peres was the best prime minister, because he was both a visionary and an executive who knew how to achieve his goals. He was right. Shimon Peres led a full life of achievements, despite the many difficulties he faced, and became the most famous Israeli in the world.
A short time before becoming president, he visited New York. One evening, as he entered a Broadway theater to see a show with friends, there was a standing ovation. At first, he didn’t understand what was happening, thinking the audience was applauding the actors, even though the show hadn’t started. Then he understood that the people stood for him. Shimon Peres, “Mr. Security,” the Israeli patriot who believed in peace, surely deserved it.
The popular notion that the Khazars converted to Judaism in the 9th century CE is a widespread common assumption. Various writers, some of them of an anti-Semitic bent, have made much of this idea, claiming that modern eastern European Jewry primarily traces back to these Asiatic peoples rather than to a Semitic/Abrahamic lineage. It turns out the whole idea is without historical foundation as this new research from Prof. Shaul Stampfer of Hebrew University demonstrates.
Here is a summary of his work as reported on the Hebrew University website with links to his academic article.
Did the Khazars Convert to Judaism? New Research Says ‘No’
Hebrew University professor cites lack of reliable source for conversion story
Did the Khazars convert to Judaism? The view that some or all Khazars, a central Asian people, became Jews during the ninth or tenth century is widely accepted. But following an exhaustive analysis of the evidence, Hebrew University of Jerusalem researcher Prof. Shaul Stampfer has concluded that such a conversion, “while a splendid story,” never took place.
Prof. Shaul Stampfer is the Rabbi Edward Sandrow Professor of Soviet and East European Jewry, in the department of the History of the Jewish People at the Hebrew University’s Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies. The research has just been published in the Jewish Social Studies journal, Vol. 19, No. 3 (online at http://bit.ly/khazars).
From roughly the seventh to tenth centuries, the Khazars ruled an empire spanning the steppes between the Caspian and Black Seas. Not much is known about Khazar culture and society: they did not leave a literary heritage and the archaeological finds have been meager. The Khazar Empire was overrun by Svyatoslav of Kiev around the year 969, and little was heard from the Khazars after. Yet a widely held belief that the Khazars or their leaders at some point converted to Judaism persists.
Reports about the Jewishness of the Khazars first appeared in Muslim works in the late ninth century and in two Hebrew accounts in the tenth century. The story reached a wider audience when the Jewish thinker and poet Yehudah Halevi used it as a frame for his book The Kuzari. Little attention was given to the issue in subsequent centuries, but a key collection of Hebrew sources on the Khazars appeared in 1932 followed by a little-known six-volume history of the Khazars written by the Ukrainian scholar Ahatanhel Krymskyi. Henri Gregoire published skeptical critiques of the sources, but in 1954 Douglas Morton Dunlop brought the topic into the mainstream of accepted historical scholarship with The History of the Jewish Khazars. Arthur Koestler’s best-selling The Thirteenth Tribe (1976) brought the tale to the attention of wider Western audiences, arguing that East European Ashkenazi Jewry was largely of Khazar origin. Many studies have followed, and the story has also garnered considerable non-academic attention; for example, Shlomo Sand’s 2009 bestseller, The Invention of the Jewish People, advanced the thesis that the Khazars became Jews and much of East European Jewry was descended from the Khazars. But despite all the interest, there was no systematic critique of the evidence for the conversion claim other than a stimulating but very brief and limited paper by Moshe Gil of Tel Aviv University.
Stampfer notes that scholars who have contributed to the subject based their arguments on a limited corpus of textual and numismatic evidence. Physical evidence is lacking: archaeologists excavating in Khazar lands have found almost no artifacts or grave stones displaying distinctly Jewish symbols. He also reviews various key pieces of evidence that have been cited in relation to the conversion story, including historical and geographical accounts, as well as documentary evidence. Among the key artifacts are an apparent exchange of letters between the Spanish Jewish leader Hasdai ibn Shaprut and Joseph, king of the Khazars; an apparent historical account of the Khazars, often called the Cambridge Document or the Schechter Document; various descriptions by historians writing in Arabic; and many others.
Taken together, Stampfer says, these sources offer a cacophony of distortions, contradictions, vested interests, and anomalies in some areas, and nothing but silence in others. A careful examination of the sources shows that some are falsely attributed to their alleged authors, and others are of questionable reliability and not convincing. Many of the most reliable contemporary texts, such as the detailed report of Sallam the Interpreter, who was sent by Caliph al-Wathiq in 842 to search for the mythical Alexander’s wall; and a letter of the patriarch of Constantinople, Nicholas, written around 914 that mentions the Khazars, say nothing about their conversion.
Citing the lack of any reliable source for the conversion story, and the lack of credible explanations for sources that suggest otherwise or are inexplicably silent, Stampfer concludes that the simplest and most convincing answer is that the Khazar conversion is a legend with no factual basis. There never was a conversion of a Khazar king or of the Khazar elite, he says.
Years of research went into this paper, and Stampfer ruefully noted that “Most of my research until now has been to discover and clarify what happened in the past. I had no idea how difficult and challenging it would be to prove that something did not happen.”
In terms of its historical implications, Stampfer says the lack of a credible basis for the conversion story means that many pages of Jewish, Russian and Khazar history have to be rewritten. If there never was a conversion, issues such as Jewish influence on early Russia and ethnic contact must be reconsidered.
Stampfer describes the persistence of the Khazar conversion legend as a fascinating application of Thomas Kuhn’s thesis on scientific revolution to historical research. Kuhn points out the reluctance of researchers to abandon familiar paradigms even in the face of anomalies, instead coming up with explanations that, though contrived, do not require abandoning familiar thought structures. It is only when “too many” anomalies accumulate that it is possible to develop a totally different paradigm—such as a claim that the Khazar conversion never took place.
Stampfer concludes, “We must admit that sober studies by historians do not always make for great reading, and that the story of a Khazar king who became a pious and believing Jew was a splendid story.” However, in his opinion, “There are many reasons why it is useful and necessary to distinguish between fact and fiction – and this is one more such case.”
I just signed up to join a unique tour to Israel with my friend and teacher Dr. James Tabor. I have been to Israel with him three times previously and each time I go, I come away with a better understanding of the Bible and history. This tour is a special tour, organized to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the publication of his book, The Jesus Dynasty. The book was published by Simon & Schuster in April of 2006, became a New York Times best-seller, and has been translated into 20 languages. The book seeks to present a historically realistic view of the life of Jesus, and a bold, new interpretation of the origins of Christianity using the New Testament as well as other ancient sources.
The tour promises to emphasize “newly discovered archaeological sites that shed light on our understanding of the historical Jesus and allow us to read our gospel sources in refreshingly new ways.” While the tour is clearly a “Jesus tour,” the focus will be historical rather than theological, and therefore will appeal to a wider audience.
The dates are March 4-13, 2016. For those who are interested in the historical Jesus, you will not want to miss this one. The tour has many exciting features, not the least of which is a private evening conversation with Emmy-award winning Israeli filmmaker, Simcha Jacobovici. For information about this tour, go to James’ website and read about it and then follow the links to the itinerary and the registration form, where you can pay a deposit to secure your spot. When you pay your deposit, tell them that Ross sent you. It will make them feel better about bringing me along.
Excited about the tour, I made the following video.