This essay will require a bit of explanation of the term “messiah”.
Living in a predominantly Christian nation, many of us have a particular notion of the “Messiah”. That messiah, hammered into us in Sunday school and Mass, was Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son, coequal with God, coeternal, of the same substance, incarnating in human flesh to offer the perfect sacrifice to atone for Adam’s sin. In the Christian conception, the Messiah was the willing sacrifice to reconcile sinful mankind with God.
However, it may surprise you to know, that Jesus was a Jew. He lived in a Jewish culture, believed in a Jewish eschatology, did not want to change a “jot of the Law”. And Judaism has a very different view of the Messiah.
A quick and dirty precis of Jewish views of the Messiah follows.
He is not “the suffering Servant”. He is not “the Lamb of God”. He was not to be hung on a cross, crucified by Roman occupiers as a seditious rebel.
The word “messiah” literally means “the anointed one”. And it was a term applied to the kings of Israel and Judah, as God’s “anointed one”, the chosen one to lead the people.
A king does not die on the cross. A king is not executed as a common criminal. And when the kings no longer existed, Jews lived in expectation of a new Messiah, a new anointed one, who would shake off the yoke of foreign oppression and restore God’s people to independence and power.
The Jewish messiah is not a humble carpenter. The Jewish messiah is not a condemned criminal. The Jewish messiah is a Son of Man, sent by the God of Abraham and Isaac to redeem His people, and prepare for the coming of God’s kingdom.
Which brings us to where we are now.
I’ve been trying to figure out what Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s end game in the current Gaza crisis is. His actions make no sense. He has done everything to assure that his stated goals are not achieved.
Avenge the three dead Israeli teens? Well, Israel’s own investigative services have determined that Hamas had nothing to do with their deaths.
Stop rocket attacks from northern Gaza? Well, those rockets didn’t start up again until Mr. Netanyahu ordered strikes in the wake of the teens’ deaths.
Collapse Hamas tunnels into southern Israel? Does that goal require over a thousand Palestinian deaths, mostly of civilians? Cannot Israel, with its first world technology, detect where the tunnels terminate in Israel proper without slaughtering innocents?
The stated aims of this siege do not jibe with the actions carried out.
I’ve observed Mr. Netanyahu for three decades, from when he was Israel’s UN ambassador in the 1980s to his various stints in government.
At any hint of peace with Arabs, especially Palestinians, he always recoiled. He may on the surface have grudgingly acquiesced to the idea of peace, but loaded its achievement with so many conditions that it was a dead letter. He was the most dangerous of demagogues: able to present a moderate face, but barely concealing a hard line radicalism.
Now, over the past few weeks, the moderate face has vanished. It hasn’t much existed during his latest stint as prime minister; the mask barely stayed on as he actively supported Mitt Romney in the 2012 US presidential election. But, gifted with the murder of the teenagers, the mask fell off completely, as he was given his casus belli for a final showdown with Hamas.
The question which has niggled at me in all the time I’ve observed Mr. Netanyahu has been this: does he see himself in Messianic terms? He certainly has no truck with peace, and neither does the Jewish messiah, come from God to cow God’s enemies. At no point in his career has he genuinely pursued peace, such moves as he did make towards peace being mere tactical feints.
Does he see himself in messianic terms, as the only man who can secure the Jewish people’s habitation of the Promised Land?
If he does, he makes a poor messiah. The Jewish messiah is not merely to secure the Jewish homeland, but to bring about a complete upending of the world order, with God’s chosen people at the pinnacle of power. That’s something Mr. Netanyahu will never be able to achieve. And with every bomb dropped, with every Palestinian child killed or orphaned, he creates another soldier against Israel, another soldier who will carry the fight unto the next generation.
Forget about whether or not he sees himself in messianic terms—although my observation of him does make me wonder. At the job to which he was elected, he is betraying his people. He is making them far less secure. He is bringing the world’s ire down upon a nation which needs the world’s goodwill to survive. Unless a course correction is effected, he may be the man who destroys the Zionist project. In the Jewish conception of the messiah, he will be as failed as was that carpenter from Nazareth.
Messiahs make awful political leaders. Being on a mission from God ensures no one wins. Mr. Netanyahu may or may not see himself in an especially exalted status. But his actions are not guaranteeing Israel’s survival, sending it instead on a path to destruction. And surely, that’s not what Israelis voted for.