Crimean Karaim — who are they?

Feb 1, 2011 by

When you find a group with a surprising combination of linguistic and religious affiliation, you know an interesting story is coming. One example is the Crimean Karaim. They are a Jewish group speaking a Turkic language.

But first, a note on the terminology. The term “Karaim” or “Karaites” refers to adherents of a branch of Judaism, which recognizes the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible or the Torah) as the sole source of legal authority. In this respect, Karaite Judaism is distinct from the more widely spread Rabbinic Judaism, which considers the Oral law, the legal decisions codified in the Talmud and subsequent works to be authoritative interpretations of the Torah. There are other groups following the Karaite Judaism, besides Crimean Karaim. However, this term is problematic in another respect as well: a small group of Crimean Karaim have settled in Vilnius (Vilna) and Trakai (Troki), as well as other smaller towns in Lithuania. These Lithuanian Karaim are descendants of the original group of Crimean Karaim, speaking the same language. Today, there are more Crimean Karaim in Lithuania and elsewhere in Europe than in Crimea itself. But we will continue calling them “Crimean Karaim”.

So who are these mysterious adherents of a distinct form of Judaism but speaking a Turkic language? Whenever you have a group whose religion and language “don’t match”, two possible explanations come to mind: either the group in question kept the religion and switched the language, or vice versa — they kept the language but switched the religion. Both whole-sale massive language shift and religious conversion are not unheard of in the history of different peoples.

In the case of Crimean Karaim, one theory will have them as descendants of Middle Eastern Karaite Jews who settled in Crimea and adopted a form of the Kipchak tongue. (Kipchak is a branch of Turkic languages that includes Kazakh, Karakalpak and Kyrgyz in Central Asia, Tatar in the central Volga region and Balkar in the northern Caucasus region). Another theory is that Crimean Karaim are descendants of the ethnic Kipchak who converted to Karaite Judaism. And there is a third theory which holds them to be descendants of the mythical Khazars, a group that converted to Judaism but most likely spoke a Turkic language (whether it was a Kipchak language or a language from a different branch of the Turkic family, we cannot quite say). There are however some scholars who believe that the Khazar state was polyethnic, with a population of not only Turkic-speakers, but also of speakers of Iranian, Finno-Ugric, Slavic and Caucasian languages. Another reason to doubt the Khazar theory on the origins of Crimean Karaim is that Khazars are most widely believed to be adherents of Rabbinical (or Talmudic) Judaism rather than Karaite Judaism.

Kevin Alan Brook, the author of The Jews of Khazaria concluded based on genetic testing that Crimean Karaim are indeed of Middle Eastern origin and hence related to other Jews. But Crimean Karaim themselves are divided as to whether they identify themselves as Jewish first and Turkic-speaking second or vice versa. In fact, some modern Crimean Karaim seek to distance themselves from being identified as Jews, emphasizing what they view as their Turkic heritage and claiming that they are Turkic practitioners of a “Mosaic religion” separate and distinct from Judaism. On the other hand, many scholars state that the phenomenon of claiming a distinct identity apart from the Jewish people appears to be a recent phenomenon, mostly in response to anti-Semitic threats.

However, nineteenth-century leaders of Crimean Karaim who identify as “a Turkic people of a Mosaic religion” pushed to be recongized as non-Jews. And indeed, the Russian Tsarist government officially recognized the Karaims as being of Turkic, not Jewish, origin. This legal status saved Crimean Karaim from being persecuted by the Nazis. The Reich Agency for the Investigation of Families determined that from the standpoint of German law, the Karaites were not to be considered Jews. Despite the reservations many Nazis had about Crimean Karaim, the official ruling on the matter stated:

The Karaite sect should not be considered a Jewish religious community within the meaning of paragraph 2, point 2 of the First Regulation to the Reich Citizenship Law. However, it cannot be established that Karaites in their entirety are of blood-related stock, for the racial categorization of an individual cannot be determined without … his personal ancestry and racial biological characteristics

After the Soviets recaptured Crimea from Nazi forces in 1944, the Soviet authorities counted just over 6,000 remaining Karaim. And like so many groups who survived under Nazi occupations, Crimean Karaim found themselves under the shadow of official suspicion. While they were not subject to mass deportation as a group, unlike the Crimean Tatars, Greeks, Armenians and others, the Soviet authorities alleged that Crimean Karaim had collaborated under the Nazi German occupation, and some individual Crimean Karaim were deported.

Whether Crimean Karaim are Jewish or not also determines whether they are eligible to immigrate to Israel and their status there. This problem is further compounded by the fact that among the Karaite Jews, a person’s Jewishness is passed on along the paternal line, whereas in mainstream Judaism whether one is or isn’t a Jew is determined based on his maternal descent. Only the Cohen/Levite status and the belonging to the Ashkenazic/Sephardiс group is passed on through paternal line.

Today, the Crimean Karaim communities are shrinking, with assimilation and emigration greatly reducing their ranks. A few thousand Crimean Karaim remain in Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Poland, and other communities exist in Israel, Turkey, the United States and Great Britain.

It will be interesting to see if any additional genetic studies will shed new light on this group’s identity and their past.

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