Palin’s Use of Term Blood Libel Spurs Controversy Among Jewish Leaders, Others

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Last night Sarah Palin appeared on FOX News’s “Hannity’s America” to defend herself and her use of the term “blood libel” in reference to suggestions that she bore some partial responsibility for inciting the massacre that left Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords fighting for her life, killed six and left another 13 wounded on January 8.

After some, including New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, suggested Palin and other conservative pols and media were to blame for inciting the massacre, Palin released an 8-minute video criticizing the mainstream media for manufacturing “a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence it purports to condemn.”

In her video, Palin says, “Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them. Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.”

Tonight she defended her use of the term, responding specifically to the suggestion by some pundits that she might not be aware of its historical meaning – a slander against Jews accusing them of killing Christian children that often historically resulted in violence against entire communities.

“Blood libel obviously means being falsely accused of having blood on your hands,” Palin said tonight. “In this case, that’s exactly what was going on.”

Many Jewish Democratic leaders, including National Democratic Jewish Council’s David Harris, last week objected to Palin’s use of the term in defending herself against suggestions that she had incited Jared Loughner, the gunman, to mass murder.

“Instead of dialing down the rhetoric at this difficult moment, Sarah Palin chose to accuse others trying to sort out the meaning of this tragedy of somehow engaging in a ‘blood libel’ against her and others,” said Harris in a statement. “This is of course a particularly heinous term for American Jews, given that the repeated fiction of blood libels are directly responsible for the murder of so many Jews across centuries — and given that blood libels are so directly intertwined with deeply ingrained anti-Semitism around the globe, even today.”

“The term ‘blood libel’ is not a synonym for ‘false accusation,’ ” said Simon Greer, president of Jewish Funds for Justice. “It refers to a specific falsehood perpetuated by Christians about Jews for centuries, a falsehood that motivated a good deal of anti-Jewish violence and discrimination. Unless someone has been accusing Ms. Palin of killing Christian babies and making matzoh from their blood, her use of the term is totally out of line.”

However, other Jewish leaders and luminaries including  author Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and eminent defense attorney and Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz defended Palin’s use of the term.

“The term,” according to Dershowitz, “has taken on a broad metaphorical meaning in public discourse.”

No question, Democrats and others in politics and media have made frequent use of the term in recent years and encountered no protest. So wherefore the outrage now on the part of Jewish Democratic leaders?

Even granting that the term, weighted as it is with heavy and morbid historical associations, may deserve to be used with sensitivity, the selectivity of Jewish leaders’ outrage strikes this commentator as odd. At most, one would expect a response like that of Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, U.S. Jewry’s top organization dedicated to combating anti-Semitism. While Foxman expressed dismay at Palin’s choice of a term “so fraught with pain in Jewish history,” he noted “the term ‘blood libel’ has become part of the English parlance to refer to someone being falsely accused” and registered that “it was inappropriate at the outset to blame Sarah Palin and others for causing this tragedy or for being an accessory to murder. Palin has every right to defend herself against these kinds of attacks, and we agree with her that the best tradition in America is one of finding common ground despite our differences.”

Even though he disapproves of her use of the term, Foxman makes the effort to see this controversy through Palin’s eyes and acknowledges how wrong it is to accuse an innocent person of having even an indirect responsibility in something so heinous.

A few thoughts on this: is it possible that the vehemence of some critics’ reactions to Palin’s use of the term blood libel owes not just to the pain conjured by the term, but to the possibility Palin, in using it, held up a mirror to her critics – and they were disturbed by what they saw in that mirror?

After all, many of Palin’s most vehement critics on this front are not reported to have objected to the use of the term by any other high profile commentator or politician, and many in recent years have used it. And while I am not accusing either of the specific Palin-critics quoted above of harboring hatred for Sarah Palin, it is true that a kind of self-righteous rage permeates the discourse of some on the left regarding Sarah Palin. This animus – which my co-author Jennifer Ginsberg and I chronicled last year in articles for several outlets – on the part of some who consider themselves “liberal” and “progressive” even extends to Palin’s children.

To echo Dershowitz, “blood libel”  has taken on a broader meaning in public discourse than the invidious fiction that Jews were killing Christian babies and making matzoh from their blood. Let’s get real: when people use the phrase today, they mean a false accusation. But sometimes they mean a specific type of false accusation, one tinged with viciousness borne of self-righteous cruelty. The term’s weighty and morbid historical associations give it that connotation.

Of course, people have every right to criticize Palin. But when critics start invoking rape, ridiculing a disabled child for what his mother believes, and using the words “murderous rage” to describe their feelings, what would any neutral observer call it?

There’s a big difference between attacking someone with a gun/pitchfork/knife and attacking someone – and even her underage children – online.

But the latter is still hatred.

This entry was written by and posted on January 18, 2011 at 2:26 am and filed under Blog.