Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

GetGetReligion: Kerry’s messianism

GetReligionSo Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya’alon characterized Secretary of State John Kerry as “acting out of misplaced obsession and messianic fervor.” Well, GetReligion’s Terry Mattingly almost lost his soft drink yesterday when the Los Angeles Times reported that the minister had said that Kerry’s “campaign for Mideast peace grows from his ‘messianism.’”

“Who took a colorful use of messianic language and turned it into the noun ‘messianism’?” inquired tmatt. “Also, since the status of Palestinian Christians in Israel and in the wider Middle East is such a hot-button issue, is there any chance that Yaalon deliberately used hot-button language that hinted at Messianism with a big ‘M,’ as opposed to with a tamer small ‘m’?

Final tmattitude:

Glancing through a variety of news reports on this controversy, I think it’s safe to question whether the term “messianism” was even used by Israel’s defense minister.

Was this term introduced — inside direct quotes, no less — by someone inside The Los Angeles Times? Did anyone there actually know what the word means, especially in a Middle Eastern context?

Just asking.

Just answering: How about we go to the original Hebrew, as reported in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth?

Aided and abetted by my religion department colleague Ron Kiener, I am happy to report that the term in question is תחושה משיחית (techushah meshichit), which is better translated as “messianic impulse” than “messianic fervor” (as the Yedioth translator put it). In English, “messianism” (or “Messianism”) is usually used to refer to belief in an imminent coming of the messiah (or The Messiah), rather than a conviction of one’s own messianic status, which is what Ya’alon intended to tag Kerry with. But understood that way, “messianism” is not an unreasonable rendering of “messianic impulse” — and thus the direct quote is justifiable.

What’s certain is that Ya’alon was not hinting at Christian messianism, among Palestinians or anyone else. In Judaism, the messiah (mashiach — “the anointed one”) refers not to a divine figure but to the political leader who will set human affairs aright (and be made king of Israel at the End of Days). Kerry, in Ya’alon’s dismissive remark, is guilty of such grandiose pretensions.

In fact (big h/t Ron), Ya’alon was quoting a now famous (in Israel) dismissal of his boss Binyamin Netanyahu and his predecessor Ehud Barak, by former Israeli intelligence chief Yuval Diskin in 2012. “I have no faith in the Prime Minister [Netanyahu] or in the Defense Minister [Barak],” said Diskin. “I have no faith in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic impulses [techushot meshichivot ].”

Diskin continued:

Do these two seem like messiahs [mashichim]to you? They aren’t messiahs and they aren’t men that I on a personal level would rely on to lead Israel into an event of such proportions [war with Iran] and then extricate [Israel] from it. These are not the men I would want holding the steering wheel throughout such a process.

Ya’alon was just saying that the false messiah is Kerry, not Bibi.


About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • I am reminded of Richard Feynman’s remark that he was made to feel like an amateur in a room full of experts.

  • I love these “getgetreligion” bits – I have been fascinated with the lengths they go to spin a story while claiming to be an objective media critic. When I first ran across it a few years ago, I knew something was a bit weird with their tone but I didn’t realize that they were a right wing front until I ran across this hilarious blog post about it on a gay site.