On the cautious use of loaded terms such as ‘messianism’

So let’s try this again.

The other day I wrote about a news report that ran in The Los Angeles Times that used a very interesting and, in the context of Israel and the Middle East, very loaded term. Here is the lede on that piece, once again:

WASHINGTON – The White House on Tuesday condemned as “offensive” the reported comment of Israel’s defense minister that Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s campaign for Mideast peace grows from his “messianism.”

My question was quite simple. I suspected, based on the coverage offered by other mainstream outlets, that Moshe Yaalon had not actually used a specific noun best translated as “messianism,” but had used words that would best be translated, as my post noted, either as “messianic fervor” or words to that effect. Perhaps the goal was to say that Kerry suffers from some kind of “messiah complex.” Yes, I also wondered if — because of a variety of controversies linked to Christians in the Middle East — any use of a term similar to “Messianism” would have been considered especially cutting.

Thus, I thought that a reference to the noun “messianism” would have needed some explaining, no matter which definition was selected from a typical dictionary online:

mes·si·a·nism … noun

1. (often initial capital letter) the belief in the coming of the Messiah, or a movement based on this belief.

2. the belief in a leader, cause, or ideology as a savior or deliverer. …

The crucial question, once again: Did Yaalon used a term best translated as “messianism”?

As it turns out, Prof. Mark Silk at Trinity College has offered a post that offered some helpful information on this question, working from the Hebrew text at the heart of the story.

Aided and abetted by my religion department colleague Ron Kiener, I am happy to report that the term in question is … 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.

Quite interesting and, as I said, helpful.

In other words, the point was — using that second definition — to imply that, in his quest for peace in the Middle East, the U.S. secretary of state seems to think that he is acting in some kind of messianic role or that he is being driven by a messianic impulse. Did I get that right?

The only issue, apparently, on which Silk and I disagree is in his next statement:

But understood that way, “messianism” is not an unreasonable rendering of “messianic impulse” — and thus the direct quote is justifiable.

Writing in an ordinary daily newspaper (as opposed to a journal), I would have preferred a more cautious approach to vocabulary when using such a complex and loaded term. At the very least, I would have preferred a few more words of context to make the term clear. Thus, I cited the USA Today report that said:

WASHINGTON – The Israeli government apologized on Tuesday after the White House took offense to a news report in which the country’s defense minister was quoted describing Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to win an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as driven by “misplaced obsession and messianic fervor.”

The question, I guess, is how the typical newspaper reader would understand the term “messianism” when encountering it in a news context, with little or no explanation. Perhaps the best option was to simply write “messianic impulse” and be done with it. Once again, my impulse is toward caution and clarity.

So here is my question for any GetReligion readers who do read Hebrew. In English, as my post noted, “messianism” has those two different definitions. In Hebrew, is there one word or term for “Messianism” (with a big “M”) and then another for the noun “messianism” and is that term, in fact, “techushah meshichit”? I honestly would like to know.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.