Huffpost Religion

Blood Libel: Sarah Palin's Claim Recalls Anti-Semitic Legacy

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In trying to bat away criticism for violent rhetoric, Sarah Palin accused critics of "blood libel," and with it, referenced a legacy of hate -- a reference used by Adolf Hitler.

Palin released a statement and gave extended remarks about the weekend shooting in Arizona, first sending her condolences to the families of the victims and then fiercely responding to those blaming her campaign map -- which contained a bullseye over Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' congressional district -- for inspiring Jared Lee Loughner's shooting.

Palin shot back at "journalists and pundits" for "manufacturing a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn," remarks that immediately raised eyebrows in the Jewish community.

Blood libel refers to a rumor that has fueled anti-semitism and the persecution of Jews for nearly 900 years. According to ReligiousTolerance.org, blood libel began as "an unfounded rumor began in eastern England, that Jews had kidnapped a Christian child, tied him to a cross, stabbed his head to simulate Jesus' crown of thorns, killed him, drained his body completely of blood, and mixed the blood into matzos (unleavened bread) at time of Passover."

HuffPost blogger Rabbi Hirschfield put it more succinctly, writing, "First, let's be clear about what a blood libel is. In the briefest terms, it is the charge that Jews use the blood of non-Jews, typically that of children, for ritual purposes, especially the making of Passover matzah."

Jewish leaders were quick to criticize Palin's choice of words, with a flurry of statements.

Leader of Jewish advocacy group J Street Jeremy Ben-Ami said:

J Street is saddened by Governor Palin's use of the term "blood libel."

The country's attention is rightfully focused on the memorial service for the victims of Saturday's shooting. Our prayers continue to be with those who are still fighting to recover and the families of the victims. The last thing the country needs now is for the rhetoric in the wake of this tragedy to return to where it was before.

We hope that Governor Palin will recognize, when it is brought to her attention, that the term "blood libel" brings back painful echoes of a very dark time in our communal history when Jews were falsely accused of committing heinous deeds. When Governor Palin learns that many Jews are pained by and take offense at the use of the term, we are sure that she will choose to retract her comment, apologize and make a less inflammatory choice of words.

National Jewish Democratic Council President David A. Harris said:

Following this weekend's tragedy, we -- and many others -- simply did two things: we prayed for our friend Gabby while keeping all of the murdered and wounded in our thoughts and prayers, and we talked in broad terms about our increasingly charged level of political debate -- asserting that now is as good a time as any to look inward and assess how all of us need to dial back the level of vitriol and anger in our public square. Nobody can disagree with the need for both. 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. 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. 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. All we had asked following this weekend's tragedy was for prayers for the dead and wounded, and for all of us to take a step back and look inward to see how we can improve the tenor of our coarsening public debate. Sarah Palin's invocation of a "blood libel" charge against her perceived enemies is hardly a step in the right direction.

At the National Review, conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg took issue with the use of the term, which had been going around in conservative circles:

I should have said this a few days ago, when my friend Glenn Reynolds introduced the term to this debate. But 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 agree entirely with Glenn's, and now Palin's, larger point. But I'm not sure either of them intended to redefine the phrase, or that they should have.

Glenn Reynolds wrote the term in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, the introduction Goldberg references.

The Hill reports that they reached out to the office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who is Jewish, but received only a vague comment that did not reference Palin's blood libel remark.

False accusations of blood libel have long been used as justification for Jewish persecution, with startling cases continuing throughout the last 200 years. According to JewishVirtualLibrary.org and substantiated by 'The Blood libel legend: a casebook in anti-Semitic folklore,' a 1991 book by Alan Dundes, an influential Roman Catholic magazine titled 'Civilta Cattolica' in 1881 revived the blood libel accusation, going on to write a series of articles forwarding the fraudulent allegation.

Those articles included an 1883 statement that asserted "the reality of the use of Christian blood in many rituals of the modern synagogue."

Blood libel was a favorite of Nazi Germany-era and Hitler-approved newspaper Der Stürmer, according to HolocaustResearchProject.org.