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."