Whoa! Was John Kerry being too messianic or Messianic?

Holy dictionary! Talk about leaving a crucial term in a story undefined, unexplained, unattributed or all of the above.

I almost spit my Diet Dr Pepper all over my iPad this morning (which is easier to clean than a computer keyboard, just sayin’) when I read the top of this Los Angeles Times report about Secretary of State John Kerry’s ongoing, some would say “relentless,” campaign to make headlines in the Middle East.

Spot the land-mine term in this opening:

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.”

In an incident that may deepen strains between the two governments, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon was quoted in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot as saying that Kerry is “inexplicably obsessive” and “messianic.” He added that “the only thing that may save us is if Kerry wins the Nobel Prize and leaves us,” the article said.

OK, hold it. It is one thing to say that Kerry has a bit of a “messiah complex” when it comes to engineering a breakthrough. It is also possible to say that he is hunting this white whale of foreign policy with “messianic fervor.”

But who took a colorful use of messianic language and turned it into the noun “messianism”? Was this someone in this particular newsroom?

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”?

Does that matter? Let’s look at a typical online dictionary for guidance on this question:

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. …

Meanwhile, I am seeing some interesting variations on the actual Yaalon quotation. Consider the top of this report in USA Today:

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.”

Again, there is a big difference between a colorful “messianic fervor” reference and an accusation, especially in Israel, of “messianism” or even “Messianism.”

Later on in it’s report, the USA Today team notes:

Yaalon dismissed the American security plan for the region as “not worth the paper it’s written on.”

“Secretary of State John Kerry — who has come to us determined and is acting out of an incomprehensible obsession and a messianic feeling — cannot teach me a single thing about the conflict with the Palestinians,” Yaalon was quoted as saying. “The only thing that can save us is if Kerry wins the Nobel Prize and leaves us alone.

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.

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.

  • Julia B

    This may be similar to somebody turning Francis’ words about a clique or bloc or interest group in the Roman Curia into “lobby”, which has a specific meaning in US politics that doesn’t fit in the Vatican situation.

    Was the comment by the Israeli defense minister originally made in Hebrew?

    • tmatt

      Great question. I would assume so, but I have not bumped into a clear reference on that, yet. You?

  • wlinden

    Only the true Messiah denies it!

  • Carlh

    Perhaps I’m missing something here. While I fully understand that the use of any “messianic” terminology in this context might raise some eyebrows (and involve some rather significant ambiguity, and thereby might best not be tried at all), but if the Israeli defense minister was using the term “messianic” in the sense of definition #2 from dictionary.com that you quote, he may well have used it very deliberately (and many might even agree that it quite accurately and pointedly describes the foreign policy outlook of Mr. Kerry and/or the current U.S. administration).

    • tmatt

      Well, you still have the question of whether he actually USED the noun at all.

      And if it is definition No. 2, you would need to say which creed or leader or whatever he is being messianic about.

  • adorationservants

    Did you write this article on your iPad? Or did you use a keyboard? (just sayin)

  • David Tiffany

    Since we know the Messiah came to do the will of the Father, and since we know the Father’s will is to not divide up the land of Israel, then John Kerry is disqualified from filling that position.
    http://483years.blogspot.com/


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