By Elizabeth Tenety
Sarah Palin released a nearly eight-minute video Wednesday morning that says that those who imply she bears some responsibility for the tragic shootings in Arizona are guilty of “blood libel,” a loaded phrase that dates to the Middle Ages and has deep and painful connotations for Jews.
“Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn,” Palin said in the statement.
The term refers to the false claim made by Christians starting in the Middle Ages that Jews murder non-Jews and use their blood for ritual or medicinal purposes. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the words are connected to anti-Semitism and have a long and painful history for Jews:
“The allegation that Jews murder non-Jews to use their blood for ritual or medicinal purposes dates back to the Middle Ages and has spawned many variants over time. Jewish law expressly prohibits the consumption of any blood. Nevertheless it was alleged that Jews drank Christian blood on Passover and mixed it into matzah, the unleavened bread eaten on that holiday. During medieval times two popes expressly declared such claims to have been fabricated. Nevertheless, instances of what has come to be known as the “blood libel” have persisted into modern times. Blood libels have frequently led to mob violence and pogroms, and have occasionally led to the decimation of entire Jewish communities.”
Blood libel wasn’t the only religious reference in Palin’s statement.
Paraphrasing a verse from the Book of Isaiah, Palin said America would not be deterred by “those who embrace evil and call it good.”
Palin also used the video to point to the need for personal responsibility for sin over collective guilt or social sin. Many have suggested that while not directly responsible for the shooting, politicians and pundits who use incendiary language to describe their opponents have created a hostile public square which may embolden the deranged. Palin rejected the notion that she or society at large is responsible for the actions of a “single evil man.” Her concern for the individual is a rejection of the notion of social sin, a somewhat controversial theological concept promoted by religious progressives, among others. (“Bashing the social gospel is common among old school evangelicals,” Paul Raushenbush wrote for Beliefnet on the blog Progressive Revival).
“President Reagan said, ‘We must reject the idea that every time a law is broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.’ Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle, not with law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies, not with those who proudly voted in the last election.”
Palin also talked about America’s divine roots and exceptionalism, and called the Constitution, from which Rep. Gabrielle Gifford (D-Ariz.) recently read, a “sacred charter of liberty.”
“Just days before she was shot, congresswoman Giffords read the First Amendment on the floor of the House. It was a beautiful moment and more than simply ‘symbolic,’ as some claim, to have the Constitution read by our Congress. I am confident she knew that reading our sacred charter of liberty was more than just “symbolic.” But less than a week after congresswoman Giffords reaffirmed our protected freedoms, another member of Congress announced that he would propose a law that would criminalize speech he found offensive.”
UPDATE: By William Wan, 3:12 p.m.: Among Washington’s political Jewish camps, the reaction was swift on the Democratic side. National Jewish Democratic Council quickly issued a condemnation of Palin statement. “This is of course a particularly heinous term for American Jews,” said the group’s president, David A. Harris, “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.”
Although Harris added this caveat:
“Perhaps Sarah Palin honestly does not know what a blood libel is, or does not know of their horrific history; that is perhaps the most charitable explanation we can arrive at in explaining her rhetoric today,”
Reaction was noticeably more muted on conservative side. Staffers for Rep. Eric Cantor’s – the only Jewish Republican in Congress — declined to talk directly about Palin’s comments, but spokeswoman Laena Fallon said their hope is that people remain focused on the victims of the shooting and their tragedy.
Reached in New York, former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer said he watched the video in its entirety and had no objections on religious or historical grounds to her use of “blood libel.”
“But from a political point of view, she could have done better,” Fleischer said. “It would have been much more effective to devote her speech 100 percent to rising above the acrimonoy and debate and focus it entirely on healing, the suffering, hope and inspiration.”
“I will add this caveat. You have to put yourself in her shoes, having been accused of being accomplice to mass murder. This is coming from someone who is not necessarily a strong supporter of Sarah Palin, but all this back and forth kind of misses the point of how maligned she’s been in a very public way. Especially in light of things that have been said about her and her family. I can understand her natural reaction and desire to push back strongly.”
Many Jewish groups came out against Palin using the term, including the Anti-Defamation League. Simon Greer, president of Jewish Funds for Justice, had this interesting take:
“The term ‘blood libel’ is not a synonym for ‘false accusation.’ 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.”
Also of note, Jim Geraghty at National Review has published an interesting collection of other political types who have used “blood libel” themselves.
What do you think? Did Palin strike the right tone? Is her assessment of the atmosphere surrounding this tragedy accurate? And what of “blood libel”?
More On Faith:
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite: Collective guilt not just for Muslims, Sarah
Rabbi Hirschfield: Blood libel: Palin agrees with her detractors that words can inspire violence
Nathan Diament: Palin’s response keeps civic discourse in the gutter