Joseph Ernest Renan (d.1892) is most assuredly a controversial figure. A was a French philosophe in the tradition of Voltaire. His expertise spanned history, philology, philosophy, and political science. His Life of Jesus was one of the most popular and influential books in his day. But when it came to his views on Judaism, his writings are contentious. On the one hand, he disputed the rampant anti-Semitism of his day by claiming that Jews – at least the Ashkenazic Jews of Europe – were not Semites at all. Rather, they were the progeny of the Turkic Khazars of Caucasus who converted to Judaism and infiltrated into Europe after the fall of their kingdom. Yet on the other hand, he wrote that: “When all nations and all ages have persecuted you, there must be some motive behind it all. The Jew, up to our own time, insinuated himself everywhere, claiming the protection of the common law; but, in reality, remaining outside the common law. He retained his own status; he wished to have the same guarantees as everyone else…” To Renan Jews remained dangerous outsiders. And to Jews who affirm Semitic roots, Renan was no friend.
Given Renan’s controversial standing, it might seem unusual if not inappropriate to cite him as having anything worthy for Jews to note. Yet that is precisely the risk I take.