The BBC this week ran an article with the misleading headline "Israeli police bust 'messianic' prostitution ring."
It's a misleading headline because normally when the word "Messianic" is used in relation to Jews, it refers to adherents of Messianic Judaism -- but that is not the case with the cult described in the story. Unfortunately, the rest of the story does not make this clear.
Some background: Messianic Judaism is a form of Protestant Christianity that strongly identifies with Jewish ritual, prayers, and cultural identity. In other words, Messianic Jews believe the Jewish Messiah has already come, and his name is Yeshua -- Hebrew for "Jesus." (My own faith journey included brief involvement with the Messianic Jewish community.)
The BBC's story, although not identifying the cult as Christian, reinforces the implication that Messianic Jews were behind the prostitution ring when it refers to women being forced by a "messianic sect" to have sex with "non-Jews":
Details have emerged from Israel about a prostitution ring in which Jewish women were allegedly forced into having sex with non-Jews by a messianic sect.
Two men and two women are being detained on suspicion of exploitation.
Police say the victims were brainwashed into believing that having sex with non-Jews would "save the Jewish people and bring about redemption".
The reader is left wondering just what makes this cult "messianic." Do they consider their messiah to be Jesus, or a member of the cult, or some other person? Granted, the use of lower-case goes against BBC style for Messianic Jews, but even so, some clarity would be helpful.
Many other news outlets, covering the same story, used headlines similar to that used by the BBC and repeated the "messianic" claim in text, without adding any further qualification. From the Daily Mail :
Israeli police say they have broken a prostitution ring where Jewish women were brainwashed into having sex with non-Jewish men as a path to religious redemption.
Court documents seen by a news agency on Monday show the prime suspect was an eccentric 60-year-old man from Kiryat Arba, a hardline settlement in the southern West Bank.
Police say they arrested a group of eight 'messianic' men and women who targeted vulnerable women and 'prostituted them under the influence of drugs and alcohol.'
The story seems to have originated with Haaretz, but that outlet's first report on the story doesn't use the word "messianic"; it refers simply to a "cult":
Judea and Samaria District Police arrested eight people yesterday who are suspected of leading a cult that forced women into prostitution and took sexual advantage of them when they were under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
The suspects allegedly told the women they had to have sex with non-Jewish men “to save the Jewish people and expedite the redemption.”
A more recent Haaretz story likewise does not call the cult "messianic" and says its leader is of a Hasidic bent:
Among the eight people arrested in the case, the police identified the leader of the group as David Dvash, also known as David The Best, 60, from Bat Ayin, a community in the West Bank south of Jerusalem.
Dvash, well known in the settlements and environs, is the father of 15 children by two women; he's married to both of them. He's a musician who is deeply immersed in Hasidic spiritual matters.
My best guess is that the BBC, AFP, and others saw that the suspects wanted to "expedite the redemption" and thought the most apt way to describe them was "messianic." Given that Messianic Jews are by no means rare -- in 2008, the Jerusalem Post estimated their number as a quarter-million in the United States and 12,000 in Israel -- someone down the line really should have thought twice before applying the misleading adjective to a non-Christian cult.