Blood libel, in context

    Sarah Palin was blessedly silent for four successive days in the wake of the Arizona shootings, but, alas, all good things must come to an end. Yesterday, she predictably stormed into the national debate with all the subtlety of a Hummer slamming into a brick wall, inadvertently insulting Jews in the process.I can only assume that the insult was inadvertent. If true, that would mean – and I know this will come as a shock – that the former half-term governor is seriously knowledge-challenged about repeated acts of injustice that date back 900 years.During an eight-minute video, she said that “journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn.”Blood libel…Isn’t it a tad over the top to appropriate such a phrase, to yank it from its heinous historical context? Since the Middle Ages, anti-Semites in Europe and Russia have often accused the Jews of “blood libel” – specifically, the (fictional) Passover season tradition by which Jews murder Christian kids and drain their blood for the purpose of making matzo. Bottom line? Anti-Semites have long invoked “blood libel” as an excuse to kill Jews. It seems like a stretch to swipe the term for use in domestic debate, as a thumbnail synonym for “false accusations.”Granted, Palin didn’t dream up this hyperbole all by herself. The Fox commentator was merely parroting the phrase, which first surfaced Sunday and Monday in a few conservative blogs and columns, and was predictably repeated by some of the like-minded parrots who post comments online. But as a potential contender for the White House, someone who supposedly aspires to bring us together, it might have behooved Palin to do some cursory historical spadework before she ran her mouth.To cite one random example, she might have learned that the great author Bernard Malamud wrote a fact-based historical novel about blood libel. (The Fixer, a ’60s bestseller, and subsequent movie.) In czarist Russia, a Jewish handyman named Yakov Bok is falsely accused of draining a child’s blood; while in prison, his lawyer tells him that “these libels have been revived within the last generation to provoke pogroms for political purposes.” But Yakov is denounced by a local priest who insists, “The murder of Christian children and the distribution of their blood against Jews are a token of their eternal enmity against Christendom.”

    The “blood libel” accusation is contemporary as well. Last year, there were global-conspiracy theories about Israeli soldiers harvesting the organs of Palestian, Algerian, and Ukranian children. Palin could easily have retrieved that faux story with one click of the mouse. Supposedly she’s a big supporter of Israel; maybe the information would have helped enlighten her about the true meaning of the phrase. Or maybe she’s just spending way too much time dwelling within her bubble.

    Even Jonah Goldberg, the conservative commentator at The National Review, was suitably disgusted with Palin yesterday, although he labored to be diplomatic: “I think that the use of this particular term in this context isn’t ideal. Historically, the term is almost invariably used to describe anti-Semitic myths about how Jews use blood — usually from children — in their rituals….I’m not sure (she) intended to redefine the phrase, or that (she) should have.”Roughly 12 hours after Palin offered her inimitable contribution to the national dialogue, President Obama, speaking at the Arizona memorial service, urged everyone to lower their voices and reject “point scoring and pettiness.” He said, “It’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” He said, “Let us expand our moral imaginations.”It’s no susprise that, at a crucial defining moment when Obama was calling on all Americans to think big, Palin came off small. She might well get to the White House one day, but only with a visitor’s pass.

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