A footnote to president’s use of word ‘zealot’ in Vox interview

Masada in Israel

Path leading to Masada where Jewish ‘Zealots’ chose suicide rather than surrender in their rebellion against ancient Rome. (Photo Dept., American Colony of Jerusalem 1900-1920; US Library of Congress)

Commentary by Kay B. Day

President Barack Obama’s interview with Vox.com landed him in a dustup over his choice of words. While most media focused on one aspect of his remarks, I found a curiosity in the use of a single word. 

Criticism for remarks is nothing new for a president, as George W. Bush would attest after he told his Federal Emergency Management chief post-Katrina he was doing a “heck of a job.”

Obama was expounding on the attacks in Paris at the hands of Islamists who are attempting to impose their own ideology on the whole of their faith and ultimately, on the world. Obama’s choice of words was curious—the characterization of shootings at the kosher deli in Paris amid the Charlie Hebdo attacks:

“In an interview with Matthew Yglesias of Vox.com, President Obama called the Islamic radicals responsible for the deli shooting in Paris following the Charlie Hebdo massacre a bunch of ‘vicious zealots’ who ‘randomly’ shot ‘a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.’”

Predictably, backlash ensued. The president’s comfort with Vox, a  media outlet founded by a blogger who established the infamous Journolist network on an Internet listserv is to be expected—Obama was speaking colloquially as he often does with friendly media. Journolist significantly influenced the 2008 presidential election, and quite possibly is one of many reasons Hillary Clinton lost the Democrats’ nomination. I explain this in an effort to remind that we all let our guard down when we are on friendly turf.

I’d also remind that lack of a viable Republican candidate basically handed the presidency to Democrats,  a reminder anyone in full control of her faculties probably doesn’t even need.

At any rate, I noticed something curious about our president’s choice of words, the term “vicious zealots.”

Perhaps most Americans aren’t familiar with the history of that word. I like history and my upbringing included Jewish history because I experienced a classical education, and that history was a pillar in the history of my own Protestant faith. At any rate, the word Zealot in ancient times referred to a Jewish rebel group who opposed rule by the Romans who worshiped multiple gods. The Zealots also had issues with their own faith leaders presumed to capitulate to Roman rule.

The Zealots are recorded in ancient accounts, and many Americans may be familiar with an event in their history when they chose suicide rather than surrender at Masada in 73 A.D. The rebels didn’t all die at Masada, however. Throughout the first century, the Zealots continued to challenge the status quo. A TV series was made about the rebellion-suicide. The Jews were outnumbered by about 5-1.

I understand that the president chose a word that has, in modern times, come to mean someone who is a fanatic, but I also believe that term is not the best way to communicate to everyday Americans the various Islamist groups not only defying their own governments but also intent on global domination.

The Jewish Zealots were concerned with a particular geographic region and a specific government. In contrast, the Islamist radicals of today target any Muslim majority nation whose beliefs differ from their own. Muslims are among frequent targets of radical Islamist groups whose focus is politics rather than spirituality.

As I have written before, the intent of Islamist radicals doesn’t stop with subverting Muslim nations—it extends to the world.

While Iran, a Shia majority country, is actually a target for hostility from Sunni radical terrorist groups like ISIL, present-day Iran is no poster child for tolerance. As Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) pointed out in a much-ignored statement, Iran’s constitution codifies religious imperialism: “In particular, in the development of international relations, the Constitution will strive with other Islamic and popular movements to prepare the way for the formation of a single world community.”

That notion doesn’t just frighten the West. Shia are a minority in the body of Islam.

You can see what a challenge these conflicts, coming from both sides of the Sunni and Shia divide, pose for U.S. foreign policy.

Did the president choose the word zealot intentionally to reiterate his position that all faiths have used violence as means to an end? I have no idea of motive, but found it curious enough to footnote it. Upending the motive-guessing is the fact few Americans would probably make the connection between the ancient connotation and the word’s application today.

Finally,  U.S. media have given little attention to the individuals in the kosher deli shootings. They were all Jewish:

“According to witnesses, Yohan Cohen (22), Philippe Braham (40), François-Michel Saada (believed to be in his 60s) and Yoav Hattab (21) were shot in the early stages of the seven-hour standoff, which ended when police stormed the shop and killed the hostage taker…”

I am deliberately not naming the shooter. His name deserves to be forgotten eternally. For my pagan ancestors who ultimately converted to Christianity, the stamping out of your name was a favorite punishment for deeds deemed unforgivable.

Featured Image: Path leading to Masada where Jewish ‘Zealots’ chose suicide rather than surrender in their rebellion against ancient Rome. (Photo Dept., American Colony of Jerusalem 1900-1920; US Library of Congress)

(Feb. 10, 2015)

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About Kay Day

Kay B. Day is a freelance writer who has published in national and international magazines and websites. The author of 3 books, her work is anthologized in textbooks and collections. She has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. Day is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Authors Guild.
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