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:

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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:

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News flash! AP ends the Great Schism of 1054!

Many moons ago — just under a quarter of a century — I covered a major ecumenical event in the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. I believe it was a festive Divine Eucharist marking the departure of Bishop William C. Frey, as he exited to serve as dean and president of the Trinity School for Ministry.

One of the honored participants in the service was Denver Archbishop J. Francis Stafford, who was a national level figure in Catholic ecumenical efforts (and today is a cardinal serving at the Vatican). It was natural for Stafford to be there, in large part because he had a positive working relationship with the charismatic Frey, who was a traditionalist on key doctrinal issues that affected ecumenical work in public life.

Stafford took part in the first half of the service, but did not formally vest to take part in the Holy Eucharist itself. As the rite moved into the sacramental prayers of the Mass, the Catholic archbishop moved to the side of the auditorium — where a prie dieu had been placed, allowing him to respectfully kneel in solitary prayer.

The symbolism was important: Stafford was there in prayer, but because the Catholic and Anglican churches are not in Communion, with a large “C,” he could not take part in the celebration of the Mass (with female priests, for example) or receive Communion. Stafford was there as a show of unity, to the degree allowed by the doctrines of the two churches.

I thought of this scene in the past while reading the current Associated Press report about the Vatican announcement that Pope Francis would visit the Holy Land this coming May. Of course, AP interpreted this move in terms of politics, as well as in ecumenical terms:

(VATICAN CITY) – Pope Francis says his upcoming trip to the Holy Land aims to boost relations with Orthodox Christians. But the three-day visit in May also underscores Francis’ close ties to the Jewish community, his outreach to Muslims and the Vatican’s longstanding call for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The announcement was made Sunday just as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up three days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a new U.S. bid for peace.

Frankly, I will be shocked if the pope does not use this trip as an opportunity to spotlight the waves of persecution affecting Christians, and the faithful in other religious minorities, throughout the wider region — especially from Egypt to Pakistan.

But the mention of the Eastern Orthodox in the lede was significant. Then, later in the piece, there is this:

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Happy (religious) New Year, all year long, age after age

THE GUY EXPLAINS:

Lacking a specific question from a reader, The Guy takes on his own chosen topic — aspects of time’s passage in world religion.

The commonly observed times have notably religious origins. Years (e.g. 2014) are counted from an ancient and inaccurate guess on when Jesus Christ was born. Non-Christians often designate years as C.E. (“Common Era”) instead of A.D. (“Anno Domini” meaning “Year of the Lord”). Our Gregorian Calendar is a reform ordered by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, which skipped past 10 days and devised the leap year system. Because of that Roman Catholic origin, Anglican Britain and its Protestant American colonies didn’t switch from the ancient Julian Calendar until 1752, and Greece, where the Orthodox Church dominates, held out until 1922!

CHRISTIANITY – As with most faiths, January 1 has no religious significance whatever, though some congregations do hold New Year’s Eve services. For many, the “church year” begins on the first of four Sundays in the Advent season that prepares for Christmas. Celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25 (or January 7 for “old calendar” Orthodox) is an arbitrary choice that took hold in the 3rd Century.

JUDAISM – Rosh Hashanah (“head of the year”) begins a 10-day period of spiritual and moral reflection, the Days of Awe, culminating in Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). The new year occurs in September or early October and, oddly enough, on the religious calendar’s 7th month, not the first month, determined by complex calculations. The years (5775 begins next September 24) are counted from the traditional time for God’s creation of Adam and Eve.

ISLAM – Years are counted from the founding Prophet Muhammad’s flight (“hijra”) from Mecca to Medina in 622 C.E. The religious calendar follows lunar months with a shortened year of 354.37 days instead of the conventional solar year of 365.26 days. So new year’s day (not a major festival) and all religious dates gradually float backward through all four seasons of the solar calendar (the next year begins around October 25 in 2014). Because a month’s start is reckoned by authorized naked-eye sightings of the new moon, two consecutive days are often built into calendars for advance planning.

HINDUISM – Some 30 days for the new year occur in various parts of India, many around the spring equinox. The national calendar puts new year’s day on March 22. One tradition says the season marks when Brahma began creation.

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Haaretz and Jewish resistance to the Holocaust

Do you remember Tom Lehrer, the composer/comedian/mathematician? I have long loved his music, which I discovered as a young boy when exploring my parent’s record collection.

A recent article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz set spinning in my head one of Lehrer’s LPs this Christmas and to the embarrassment of my children I broke into song, serenading them with the refrain from Lehrer’s satiric gem National Brotherhood Week (1965).

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Moslems,
And everybody hates the Jews.

My fertile mind however, added an additional line — “And Haaretz does too!”

Hates the Jews that is.

How else can one explain this article, “The Myth of the Warsaw Ghetto” published last week in the leftist Israeli daily? Writing on the website of Commentary magazine, Eugene Kontorovich summarized the article’s thesis, stating that Haaretz believed that if:

the fighters had not been so uppity, if they had not made a fuss–then the Nazis, who had already murdered 500,000 Jews of Warsaw, might have let the remaining 50,000 live. Maybe! It is not a new argument. Rather, the author amazingly resurrects and endorses the arguments of the Judernat, the Jewish collaboration government of the Ghetto. With every new deportation, they urged restrain with increasing urgency–maybe they will let the rest of us live, and if you fight, all the past deportations would be a sacrifice in vain.

Haaretz’ story discusses the controversy over the number of Jews who fought and the number of Nazis killed, and also offers its view of the political and national symbolism of the Warsaw uprising for modern-day Israel. The article concludes:

The 50,000 or so Jews who remained in the Warsaw Ghetto after the transports of 1942 had survived, as in other ghettos in occupied Poland, largely because they worked in factories for Germany. Many of these factories were owned and managed by Germans, who negotiated with the German authorities and the SS to hold on to their workers.

In light of all this, the Jews’ belief grew that somehow they could survive. They had two bad options: Flee the ghetto to the hostile Polish side or continue working in the German factories. Both options meant living day to day in the hope the war would end quickly.

At the end of the war, hundreds of thousands of Jews survived in Poland and Germany. In Warsaw alone the number of survivors is estimated at about 25,000. Death in battle, as the ghetto fighters planned, did not keep with the intentions of the vast majority of Jews remaining. … Thus the question has never been raised: What right did a small group of young people have to decide the fate of the 50,000 Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto?

Commentary was scathing in its response. Haaretz had:

shown that it exists in a world entirely divorced from any Jewish consensus, and cannot claim the title of loyal opposition. It has crossed all prior bounds of decency and published a criticism of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, calling it a “myth,” and accusing its heroes of being responsible for the ultimate liquidation of the Ghetto. Despite disagreements on diplomatic, territorial, and religious issues, the memory of the Holocaust–its heroes and victims–had been the great unifying porch in post-War Jewish consciousness. Now the Holocaust is fair game too.

It concluded:

There can be no more terrible case of “blaming the victim” than laying any responsibility for the liquidation of the Ghetto at the feet of the fighters. It is true, the Jewish “communal leadership”–and the rabbis–opposed the uprising. That is what made it brave. The Judenrat had no right to decide if residents of the Ghetto died in gas chambers or fighting for their freedom.

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UK’s Telegraph finds atheists in Florida — film at 11

Here’s a shocker: America is becoming more secular, atheism is on the rise and — get this! — for now there are more observant Muslims than Jews in Florida. Of course, it depends on whether you define a Jew as one who practices the Jewish faith or simply identifies culturally.

That’s the somewhat-breathless reporting of The Telegraph‘s blogs editor Damian Thompson — a journalist once labeled by The Church Times “as a ‘blood-crazed ferret,’” according to his online biography.

Over to you, Damian:

Did you know there are — possibly — now more religious Muslims than religious Jews in Florida? I know, it seems incredible. Miami Beach has had 15 Jewish mayors, there are getting on for 200 synagogues in South Florida – and, of course, it was the hunting ground of the despicable Bernie Madoff.

It also seems incredible because the journalistic evidence is thin. I realize that this is a blog post and, thus, a form of commentary? But facts on the ground matter, even in blogging.

Thompson cites figures from the BestPlaces.net website, which is geared more towards the real estate industry, as evidence, albeit scanty, that Muslims outnumber Jews in the Sunshine State:

There are still more Jews than Muslims in Florida, loosely defined; these figures measure Judaism as a religion. That said, even to compare the two 20 years ago would have seemed ridiculous. Florida has a small but vibrant, growing Muslim community, half of it from India, followed by Pakistanis – only 150,000 registered voters to date. As you’d expect, 80 per cent voted for Obama in the last two elections; but in other elections they’re swing voters, and in Florida you ignore those at your peril. As for the Jewish community, the retirement communities are reflecting the national picture.

He then goes on to quote a Newsmax article about the October 2013 Pew Research study showing a decline in Jewish population. Thompson then spells it all out for you:

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Santa Claus is coming … to Texas schools

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No more winter parties in Wichita Falls, nor holiday trees in Houston: Schoolchildren in the Lone Star State can now legally wish each other “Merry Christmas” without fear of legal prosecution.

(Actually, the law passed this past summer. But it would have been silly for Santa to Ho-Ho-Ho his way into the state Legislature then for a news conference, not to mention quite hot in that suit of his.)

From Texas lawmakers this week comes much ado about the Merry Christmas law, which in spite of the Christmas reference also protects Hanukkah. Schools may legally display nativity scenes, Christmas trees, menorahs and other “scenes and symbols associated with traditional winter celebrations” as long as more than one religion is referenced, or one religion and one secular symbol (snowman, Santa Claus, candy cane) are present. Students, teachers and guests also may say “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Holidays” to one another legally.

Like a large, prettily wrapped box decked out in shiny paper and a big bow, this story could have held all the promise of a nice gift. I was shaking the computer screen, hoping inside the text would emerge a good read that thoughtfully addressed the complexities of the issue, seen as recently as this month in the Dallas suburb of Frisco when a politically correct memo on an elementary school’s winter parties was distributed.

The Associated Press story reads more like a quick-hit piece written on deadline, though, with just the press conference referenced. No background for newcomers, no new updates on  the Frisco fracas, nothing but a repackaging of the facts of the day.

Bah humbug.

“I’m proud to stand in defense of Christmas and I urge other states to stop a needless, stilted overreaction to Christmas and Hanukkah,” the law’s sponsor, Houston Republican Dwayne Bohac, said at a news conference Monday.

Bohac, who has a sign at home that proclaims: “Be Merry and Stay That Way,” said the law was meant to codify the religious freedoms of the First Amendment and keep “censorship of Christmas out of public schools.” He said it will stop “ridiculous” past lawsuits against some Texas schools in the name of excessive political correctness.

“This is a real issue in our country,” said Bohac, who said similar bills have been filed in state Legislatures in Alabama, Mississippi, Indiana and New Jersey, and that one is coming in Oklahoma.

Texas is the only state to so far approve such a law, which some civil libertarians have criticized as unnecessary given the First Amendment.

And now we’ll hear from the civil libertarians. Or someone in Frisco who thought the party planning letter was a good idea, maybe the author? Or anyone else.

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WSJ gets the tone right on Holocaust survivor story

There’s so much bad reporting about religion and religion-related stories these days — the continual surprise evidenced by The New York Times that the leaders of Roman Catholic institutions may choose to act, well, in a Catholic manner, for example — that it’s not a bad thing, I believe to highlight instances where a given reporter (and publication) get it right.

Such a refreshing, if deeply sobering, example comes from reporter Naftali Bendavid of The Wall Street Journal. A Congressional correspondent for the paper, he ventured somewhat far afield to extensively report on “A Race to Preserve the Voices of Holocaust’s Last Survivors.” The opening sets the tone, of course:

JEMEPPE-SUR-SAMBRE, Belgium – Simon Gronowski, an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor, mesmerized schoolchildren in this small town recently with a detailed account of jumping off a train to Auschwitz and hiding from the Nazis for three years.

The students lobbed close to 50 questions at him, ranging from the unsophisticated — “Did you meet Hitler?” — to the sensitive, like his feelings about losing the mother and sister who stayed on the train.

But the talk exhausted Mr. Gronowski. His knees bother him, he doesn’t hear that well, and it isn’t clear how much longer he can deliver such talks, though he has no plans to stop. “My children and my grandchildren will talk about it,” he said. “I can’t do any more than I’m doing.”

Although there are believed to be 160,000 survivors of the Shoah, or “destruction,” as Jews often refer to the Holocaust, still alive, their numbers are dwindling. As each one passes, a voice, a recollection and even the physical evidence of having survived — the numbered tattoo on a forearm — is lost:

A survivor who was 20 when Auschwitz was liberated would be 88 today, and already few are left who were adults during the war. “Nothing has as much impact as seeing the person in real life,” said Regina Sluszny, 74, who was hidden from the Nazis as a child. “But we have no choice. We can’t live forever.”

The need for living witness, ironically, grows as generations are more and more removed from the actual events of World War II.

I was born during Eisenhower’s second presidential term, and as a child and teen there were plenty of documentaries, interviews, films and mini-series focusing on the National Socialists and their reign of terror. Now, such documentaries are fewer and farther between, it seems, even if some notable ones are still appearing.

Examined in closer detail, the numbers are even more dire:

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