Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sarah Palin's use of "blood libel"

SARAH PALIN is widely being taken to task for her use of the phrase "blood libel" to describe accusations from the left that incendiary political rhetoric from the right influenced the man accused of the horrific shootings in Arizona. Video here and transcript here. The relevant paragraph:
Vigorous and spirited public debates during elections are among our most cherished traditions. And after the election, we shake hands and get back to work, and often both sides find common ground back in D.C. and elsewhere. If you don’t like a person’s vision for the country, you’re free to debate that vision. If you don’t like their ideas, you’re free to propose better ideas. But, 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.
My emphasis. The concept of "blood libel" comes from accusations against Jews of the ritual murder of non-Jews, mostly Christians and especially Christian children, and such accusations go back to antiquity. Time Magazine has a summary of some of the historical evidence. One of the earliest examples is cited by Josephus in Against Apion II 92-96 (or II 8 in the old citation system). One of Apion's claims:
Antiochus found in our temple a bed, and a man lying upon it, with a small table before him, full of dainties, from the [fishes of the] sea, and the fowls of the dry land; that this man was amazed at these dainties thus set before him; that he immediately adored the king, upon his coming in, as hoping that he would afford him all possible assistance; that he fell down upon his knees, and stretched out to him his right hand, and begged to be released; and that when the king bid him sit down, and tell him who he was, and why he dwelt there, and what was the meaning of those various sorts of food that were set before him the man made a lamentable complaint, and with sighs, and tears in his eyes, gave him this account of the distress he was in; and said that he was a Greek and that as he went over this province, in order to get his living, he was seized upon by foreigners, on a sudden, and brought to this temple, and shut up therein, and was seen by nobody, but was fattened by these curious provisions thus set before him; and that truly at the first such unexpected advantages seemed to him matter of great joy; that after a while, they brought a suspicion him, and at length astonishment, what their meaning should be; that at last he inquired of the servants that came to him and was by them informed that it was in order to the fulfilling a law of the Jews, which they must not tell him, that he was thus fed; and that they did the same at a set time every year: that they used to catch a Greek foreigner, and fat him thus up every year, and then lead him to a certain wood, and kill him, and sacrifice with their accustomed solemnities, and taste of his entrails, and take an oath upon this sacrificing a Greek, that they would ever be at enmity with the Greeks; and that then they threw the remaining parts of the miserable wretch into a certain pit." Apion adds further, that" the man said there were but a few days to come ere he was to be slain, and implored of Antiochus that, out of the reverence he bore to the Grecian gods, he would disappoint the snares the Jews laid for his blood, and would deliver him from the miseries with which he was encompassed.
Ms. Palin's use of "blood libel" has generated objections, exemplified by the statement of Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League:
It is unfortunate that the tragedy in Tucson continues to stimulate a political blame game. Rather than step back and reflect on the lessons to be learned from this tragedy, both parties have reverted to political partisanship and finger-pointing at a time when the American people are looking for leadership, not more vitriol. In response to this tragedy we need to rise above partisanship, incivility, heated rhetoric, and the business-as-usual approaches that are corroding our political system and tainting the atmosphere in Washington and across the country.

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.

Still, we wish that Palin had not invoked the phrase "blood-libel" in reference to the actions of journalists and pundits in placing blame for the shooting in Tucson on others. While the term "blood-libel" has become part of the English parlance to refer to someone being falsely accused, we wish that Palin had used another phrase, instead of one so fraught with pain in Jewish history.
Well, I imagine she wishes that too now, if for no other reason than that the commentary on her use of the phrase is swiftly overshadowing the larger point she was making.

That said, Alan Dershowitz and others quickly took her side, pointing out that the phrase has long been applied to baseless accusations that any group of people (or more rarely, an individual) has committed serious crimes:
The term “blood libel” has taken on a broad metaphorical meaning in public discourse. Although its historical origins were in theologically based false accusations against the Jews and the Jewish People,its current usage is far broader. I myself have used it to describe false accusations against the State of Israel by the Goldstone Report. There is nothing improper and certainly nothing anti-Semitic in Sarah Palin using the term to characterize what she reasonably believes are false accusations that her words or images may have caused a mentally disturbed individual to kill and maim. The fact that two of the victims are Jewish is utterly irrelevant to the propriety of using this widely used term.
Numerous uses of the phrase in this "broad metaphorical" way in the last decade or so by people holding a wide range of political positions are collected by Jim Geraghty at National Review Online.

Where does that leave us? It would have saved trouble and discomfort if Ms. Palin had said something like "false accusations" in that paragraph instead of "blood libel." But at the same time, as Mr. Foxman says, she was well within her rights to defend herself against the inappropriate attacks against her and others, attacks that shamefully sought to score political points off a tragedy. And however discomfiting her use of "blood libel" is, that use is entirely within the norm for political discourse in the twenty-first century.

As for the broader issues around this story, I would like to see political discourse in America become less incendiary, more irenic, and more thoughtful. At the same time, both sides of the aisle use martial imagery and provocative language, and that's just politics. I don't see any reason to get too upset by it. And in this case the accused attacker seems to have been dangerously mentally imbalanced. It is a work of futility to try to censor everything that has a remote chance of setting such a person off, and there is no evidence so far that anyone's political rhetoric had that effect on him.

My heart goes out to the victims of this senseless crime and to their families.

UPDATE (14 January): Haaretz: U.S. Jewish leaders slam Sarah Palin's blood libel accusation. Excerpt:
President of Jewish Funds for Justice Simon Greer said in a statement that "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."
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in the Wall Street Journal: Sarah Palin Is Right About 'Blood Libel'. Excerpt:
Despite the strong association of the term with collective Jewish guilt and concomitant slaughter, Sarah Palin has every right to use it. The expression may be used whenever an amorphous mass is collectively accused of being murderers or accessories to murder.

The abominable element of the blood libel is not that it was used to accuse Jews, but that it was used to accuse innocent Jews—their innocence, rather than their Jewishness, being the operative point. Had the Jews been guilty of any of these heinous acts, the charge would not have been a libel.