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'Blood Libel' and Sarah Palin: Christian Conservatives' Infatuation with Judaism

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When Sarah Palin invoked the "blood libel" charge in lashing out against critics, she was destined to spark controversy given the long, fraught history of that myth, which for centuries has been used by Christians to justify anti-Semitism and the brutal persecution of Jews.

But the phrase also recalls one side of the double-edged affinity that American conservatives, especially evangelical Christians, have for Judaism and modern Jews. It is an embrace the Jewish community often appreciates, especially when it comes to supporting Israel. On other issues, however, Jewish leaders might prefer that evangelicals maintain a safer distance.

Palin's use of the "blood libel" accusation was an example of overreach. The analogy is certainly in keeping with a growing trend among many conservatives to see themselves as an oppressed minority -- just as the Jews have been throughout much of the last 2,000 years. But it can strike Jews as a kind of expropriation of their own painful history, and an attempt to make a false historical equivalency -- Christian conservatives in 21st century America are not Jews in 12th century England.

"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," Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of the left-leaning Jewish group J Street, said Wednesday.

In her remarks posted on the website Vimeo, Palin said violent acts, such as the shootings in Arizona, "stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them." She said the media "should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn."

Hank Sheinkopf, a Jewish New York-based Democratic political consultant, told Politico use of the term was "absolutely inappropriate."

Even some conservatives were taken aback. Jennifer Rubin, who penned a lengthy critique of American Jewish antipathy to Palin in Commentary magazine a year ago, tweeted Wednesday morning that the "blood libel" usage shows she is "inflam[matory]" and "not serious."

The "blood libel" phrase arose in the Middle Ages when European anti-Semitism was on the rise. It refers to rumors circulated among Christians that Jews were sacrificing Christian babies and children to use their blood to make matzo bread at Passover. The charges were patently absurd but they grew out of the longstanding charge of "deicide" against the Jews, that is, that the Jews were responsible for killing Christ. And they were enough to spark brutal pogroms and create policies targeting Jews.

That model of persecution is appealing for many contemporary conservatives in that it reinforces their self-image as the underdog in America's political wars and as the victims of an overbearing secular and liberal culture. In fact, the popular conservative blogger and professor Glenn Reynolds used the "blood libel" analogy in a Wall Street Journal article on Monday from which Palin may have drawn inspiration.

Much the same dynamic has also been at work with the rising use of Nazi metaphors by the right, notably since the 2008 campaign and the election of Barack Obama. In that view, Obama is Hitler, Democrats and liberals are "fascists," and any disagreeable new policy or op-ed column augurs a coming "Holocaust" or pogrom.

Of course when Jews see those examples deployed so casually in the contemporary context it can cause a visceral counterreaction born of the trauma of personal experience of the actual Holocaust.

A more ambiguous trend is the enthusiastic new strain of "philo-Semitism" that many American Christians are displaying.

Conservative believers in particular have gone from rejecting all things Jewish to celebrating "Christianized" Passover seder meals or wearing tallit, the traditional Jewish prayer shawl. There are Christian bar mitzvahs, and there is even a growing trend toward appropriating Yom Kippur, the most sacred day on the Jewish calendar, for a Christian day of atonement. And Sarah Palin and other evangelical women increasingly like to compare themselves to Queen Esther, the Jewish beauty from the Book of Esther who saves her people from destruction.

At the same time, Jews have also watched as Christian conservatives, such as Texas pastor John Hagee, have become Israel's greatest supporters. That backing -- financial as well as spiritual -- is often born out of a belief that Israel's refounding is a sign of the imminent Second Coming of Jesus in an apocalypse that will center on Jerusalem and will convert some Jews to Christianity while eliminating the rest.

Still, any reservations about so-called Christian Zionism are usually subsumed by the geopolitical reality that Israelis live in a dangerous neighborhood and need all the friends they can get.

Moreover, American Jews have good reason to kvell about America's openness to all things Jewish. President Obama likes to quote the Hebrew bible as much as he does the Gospels, and Moses is enjoying a renaissance as "America's prophet," as author Bruce Feiler calls him.

Research shows that Americans look more favorably on Judaism than on any other religion (Mormons and Muslims are at the bottom of the scale) and the evidence is everywhere.

There are now three Jewish justices on the United States Supreme Court, for example (and six Roman Catholics, and no Protestants for the first time ever), prompting liberal blogger Philip Weiss to argue that "Jews are the new WASPs." Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, whose shooting last Saturday led to criticism of Palin and her counterattack, was the first Jew elected to Congress from Arizona. And the new star forward of the NBA's New York Knicks, Amar'e Stoudemire, said after making a pilgrimage to Israel last summer that he is a practicing Jew "spiritually and culturally" and he keeps kosher. Stoudemire, an African-American, undertook the pilgrimage after learning his mother was Jewish.

But even as American Christians discover their Jewish side (and the Jewishness of Jesus, which is a welcome development) they can still trip over age-old sensibilities by rummaging around in an ancient tradition while looking to take home something cool that suits their own needs.

"Perhaps Sarah Palin honestly does not know what a blood libel is, or does not know of their horrific history," said David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council. "[T]hat is perhaps the most charitable explanation we can arrive at in explaining her rhetoric today."

On the other hand, whether Palin understands the history of blood libel, she may have made the case for her critics by invoking that example.

"It's not just inappropriate, it's profoundly ironic," Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, tells USA Today. "By making this comparison and playing Jew in the picture, the person endangered by a blood libel, she admits that the words people use can have deadly impact."

"I'm not giving her a free pass. It was a poor and hurtful analogy," Hirschfield said. "But clearly, she's affirming exactly what her critics charge."

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I strongly suggest you check Sarah Palin 10 minute U-tube speech for yourself before you attack her, and see Schmuely Boteach's column in the Wall Street Journal. It is extraordinarily clear.

January 16 2011 at 12:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Palin was right: there was a gross libel characterizing her as at fault for the acts of an evil mad man. Unfair blame of the right and Palin for the deaths in Tucson was a blood libel. Once she defended herself she was then attacked for inserting herself in the story. In a manner of gross sexism, she is a accused of being too stupid to understand what the phrase meant. That's crazy... check out what Schmuley Boteach had to say in the Wall Street Opinion Journal.


The term "blood libel"—which Sarah Palin invoked this week to describe the suggestions by journalists and politicians that conservative figures like herself are responsible for last weekend's shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz.—is fraught with perilous meaning in Jewish history.

The term connotes the earliest accusations that Jews killed Jesus and enthusiastically embraced responsibility for his murder, telling Pontius Pilate, "His blood be upon us and our children" (Matthew 27:25). Thus was born the legend of Jewish bloodlust and of Hebrew ritual use of Christian blood for sacramental purposes. The term was later used more specifically to describe accusations against Jews—primarily in Europe—of sacrificing kidnapped Christian children to use their blood in the baking of Passover matzos.

The Benedictine monk Thomas of Monmouth is generally credited with having popularized the blood libel in his "Life of the Martyr William from Norwich," written in 1173 about a young boy who was found stabbed to death. Thomas quoted a servant woman who said she witnessed Jews lacerating the boy's head with thorns, crucifying him, and piercing his side. While William was canonized, the Jews of Norwich fared less well. On Feb. 6, 1190, they were all found slaughtered in their homes, save those who escaped to the local tower and committed mass suicide.

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.

Jews did not kill Jesus. As the Roman historian Tacitus makes clear, he was murdered by Pontius Pilate, whose reign of terror in ancient Judea was so excessive, even by Roman standards, that (according to the Roman-Jewish chronicler Josephus) Rome recalled him in the year 36 due to his sadistic practices. King Herod Agrippa I, writing to the Emperor Caligula, noted Pilate's "acts of violence, plunderings . . . and continual murder of persons untried and uncondemned, and his never-ending, endless, and unbelievable cruelties, gratuitous and most grievous inhumanity."

Murder is humanity's most severe sin, and it is trivialized when an innocent party is accused of the crime—especially when that party is a collective too numerous to be defended individually. If Jews have learned anything in their long history, it is that a false indictment of murder against any group threatens every group. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Indeed, the belief that the concept of blood libel applies only to Jews is itself a form of reverse discrimination that should be dismissed.

Judaism rejects the idea of collective responsibility for murder, as the Hebrew Bible condemns accusations of collective guilt against Jew and non-Jew alike. "The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him" (Ezekiel 18).

How unfortunate that some have chosen to compound a national tragedy by politicizing the murder of six innocent lives and the attempted assassination of a congresswoman.

To be sure, America should embrace civil political discourse for its own sake, and no political faction should engage in demonizing rhetoric. But promoting this high principle by simultaneously violating it and engaging in a blood libel against innocent parties is both irresponsible and immoral.

Rabbi Boteach is the author of "Honoring the Child Spirit: Inspiration and Learning from Our Children" (Vanguard, 2011). He will shortly publish a book on the Jewishness of Jesus and his murder at Roman hands.

January 16 2011 at 12:14 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

what a crock, blood libel should be applied to the ship Liberty....check it out on google...that is blood libel where Ireal planes attacked an American warship reapetedly with a hube American Flag on it's sides killing 42 American sailors...where is the disgust and inidnancy in the news over that. Sara is an All Americdan woman, I have heard her speak and would vote for her today.

January 15 2011 at 9:06 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

I find it rather strange since Alan Dershowitz a Professor of Law, Harvard University has a very different interpretation of "Blood Libel" Atty. Dershowitz is known nation wide for his knowledge...Yet attacks are lingering against Palin...
It is also very odd Mr Dershowitz comments have gone ignored by those casting a
different slant...Dershowitz is also Jewish, and a Lawyer...strange!

January 14 2011 at 10:23 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Israel is the homeland of all born again christians and all should emigrate to become citizens of Israel.

January 14 2011 at 8:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

what amazes me is how the media jumps on Sarah palin and blames her for just about everything. When she defended herself, she was again jumped on for her comments. I don't get it, Obama is so incompetent and gets a free ride and Palin is very competent and gets bullied constantly. I admire her grit.

January 14 2011 at 12:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to reybasura's comment

Sarah Palin gets criticized because she says mean and shocking things. It is odd that you don't see that.

January 15 2011 at 11:56 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

Ms. Palin comments that the crime "stands on it's own." But no act of this type does. One commentator likened the toxic atmosphere in America to a flu epidemic. It has an effect on everyone, but some people have stronger immune systems than others. People with very strong "antibodies" can resist being infected, others will feel an unexplained malaise, some will sicken and some will die.

The tenor of recent debate and dialogue on a number of subjects has filled our environment with viral antipathy. Can we be at all surprised that some among us are unable to withstand the effects?

I echo President Obama's call to inoculate ourselves and each other with as potent a dose of empathy as we can. He's right: only we can ultimately control how we treat each other. "A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love. ...If you desire with all your heart, friendship with every race on earth, your thought, spiritual and positive, will spread; it will become the desire of others, growing stronger and stronger, until it reaches the minds of all men." — Abdu'l-Baha Abbas

January 13 2011 at 1:28 PM Report abuse +19 rate up rate down Reply

I was very disappointed in Palin, not just over her anti-Jewish quote. The shooter was obviously mentally ill. The way she said "evil" suggested he was possessed by the devil or some supernatural force. Suggesting that the mentally ill are "evil" does nothing to help prevent future tragedies like this, nor does absolving everyone but the "evil one" do anything to prevent re-occurrences of the tragedy. It is the preaching of helplessness--we can't do anything to prevent things like this, the people, the society, had nothing to do with it--rather than the empowering view that we can change things to make the world a safer place and prevent these tragedies--and these tragedies ARE preventable. The problem is the focus on "blame" and finger pointing--I'm not to blame, they're not to blame, only he's to blame, only the mysterious forces of evil are to blame--and NOT focusing, as we should, on exactly what transpired and what could have been done to prevent it. While ultimate responsibility may lie with the shooter, ultimate responsibility also lies with us to try to determine what lead to this tragedy, how we can identify mental illness, and, yes, how can we tone down the rhetoric so that the mentally ill aren't motivated into actions like this. And, no, her superstitious belief that there's a mysterious force of "evil" that inhabit people's bodies and causes them to take wrongful actions, is not going to help prevent such actions.

January 13 2011 at 8:32 AM Report abuse +16 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Charlie's comment

Sometimes its not that they are mentally ill or insane. Sometimes, more often than not actually it seems, they are just EVIL. There are people who are mentally ill and need help. They cut people because someone wanted them too, told them too, or needed to get out. They target specific things or people. This was a random act of EVIL by an EVIL person who had EVIL designs. Please do not lump those who need help and actually are mentally ill with those who are just bad people.

January 13 2011 at 4:06 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

If you feel so compeled to change things let move to Oust Obama out of office. Thats the best thing we can do for this Country USA

January 15 2011 at 11:13 AM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply

Take a look around, not just at Sarah. Republicans everywhere have played with fird and encouraged violence in the political realm, where it doesn't belong. Giffords asked Sarah to take down the sniper targets and she flat out refused. Gifford's political opponant, the Republican who ran against her and lost, actually held events for voters to fire rounds from an M16 at a "target." Is that normal politics? No, it's thuggery.

January 13 2011 at 5:13 AM Report abuse +17 rate up rate down Reply

Remember when the media laughed when Ann Coulter said a politican should be "fragged?" (killed). A lot of other Republicans said similar things various times. The Republican Party has been feeding their flock little cues like this for a few years now, even before the Republican Tea Party. They don't know how to win elections, they only know how to destroy their enemies. And now they've destroyed a few Arizona families, inadvertently.

January 13 2011 at 5:07 AM Report abuse +18 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to shescookie's comment

if the republicians don't know how to win elections.
then what happened in november?

January 14 2011 at 5:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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