Who's afraid of the Messiah?

To what degree do theological beliefs influence Binyamin Netanyahu's decisions?

Netanyahu at brothers grave 370 (photo credit: GPO)
Netanyahu at brothers grave 370
(photo credit: GPO)
Though he has yet to appear, Israel’s long-awaited Redeemer is very much in the news these days. From the Sydney Morning Herald down under to the Vancouver Sun up yonder, headlines around the world trumpeted former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) director Yuval Diskin’s charge last month that Israel’s “messianic” leadership is misleading the public on Iran.
Speaking at a public forum in Kfar Saba, Diskin insisted that an Israeli strike against the ayatollahs’ nuclear installations would not halt Iran’s drive to obtain atomic weapons. He lambasted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, attacking them personally and declaring in no uncertain terms that, “I don’t believe in the prime minister or the defense minister. I really don’t believe in a leadership that makes decisions out of messianic feelings.”
Referring to them dismissively as “our two messiahs,” Diskin added, “I’m telling you, I’ve seen them from up close, and they’re not messiahs.”
The press, of course, had a field day, lapping up the fact that one of Israel’s most senior security establishment figures had taken a swing at his former bosses on such a sensitive issue. But while much of the attention was focused on the Iranian angle as well as the political ramifications of Diskin’s remarks, there is one question that was completely overlooked: When did having a messianic impulse become a bad thing? Or, to put it more succinctly: who’s afraid of the Messiah?
To be sure, in our modern political context, many people are uneasy with the idea that leaders might be influenced by religious or theological beliefs. We like to think that they make cold calculations based purely on an assessment of the overall situation while taking into account nothing other than the national interest. Clearly, however, that is a naive oversimplification, if only because every leader is also a human being whose decision-making is shaped and influenced by the values, principles and beliefs that he holds.
Furthermore, whether Diskin realizes it or not, it was a messianic worldview that laid the foundation for the birth of this country. Indeed, as Barak noted when he responded to Diskin’s broadside, it was none other than David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, who said that Zionism is a messianic movement.
Theodor Herzl, too, though avowedly secular, was also inspired by messianic hopes.
As the Hebrew University’s Prof. Robert S. Wistrich noted in an article titled “Theodore Herzl: Between Messianism and Politics,” the founder of modernday political Zionism “was attracted to the Messiah legends of the Jews from early adolescence.”
A year before his death, Herzl confided to the Hebrew writer Reuven Brainin that he had dreamed as a child of 12 that he would play a leading role in Israel’s redemption. Herzl described the dream as follows: “The King Messiah came, a glorious and majestic old man, took me in his arms and swept off with me on the wings of the wind. On one of the shining clouds we encountered the figure of Moses... the Messiah called to Moses: ‘It is for this child that I have prayed!’ And to me he said: ‘Go and declare to the Jews that I shall come soon and perform great wonders and great deeds for my people and for the whole world!’” In light of this, would Diskin now express a lack of confidence in Herzl and Ben-Gurion and their achievements? The fact is that since the dawn of time Jews have believed in the coming of the Messiah, anxiously awaiting his arrival and hoping for the better world that he will usher in. As the late scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem noted in his groundbreaking work, The Messianic Idea in Judaism, “Judaism, in all of its forms and manifestations, has always maintained a concept of redemption as an event which takes place publicly, on the stage of history and within the community.”
Three times daily, Jews appeal to the Creator to send the Messiah. In the Amida prayer, we say, “May the offshoot of your servant David soon flower... for we await Your salvation all day.”
And every Shabbat, a special prayer for the State of Israel authorized by the Chief Rabbinate is recited, which states, “Our Father in Heaven, Israel’s Rock and Redeemer, bless the State of Israel, the first flowering of our redemption.”
The messianic urge, and the hope inherent to it, is in part what kept the Jewish people alive throughout the ages. Staring long and hard at the horrors of exile, it was the dream of a brighter future that sustained our ancestors through their darkest hours and gave them a reason to carry on. As Jews, we are expected to believe with complete faith that even if he tarries, the Messiah will yet come.
For Diskin to deride this creed is appalling and he should be ashamed of himself for mocking one of the fundamental doctrines of Judaism. But let him say whatever he wishes. I, along with countless other Jews, will continue to long for the day when, as the prophet Isaiah (51:11) put it, “those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing and everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” May it happen soon.