‘Blood libel’ a tricky term to use right

Published 7:48 am Monday, January 24, 2011

When Sarah Palin referred to “blood libel,” I was confused, because my uncertain recollection of the term didn’t seem to fit her context. She used this obscure term in a video made for her Facebook page. Not having been “friended” by Palin (no complaint made), I saw part on television news. Some of her more hostile opponents had accused her of inciting the Tucson shopping center violence.

I could reasonably take the media’s word that she had used the term, but it would have been irresponsibly foolish to take their word for its specific meaning. So, I wanted to know not what the media said she said but what she did say.

I located the full video of her statement and listened to Sarah Palin speaking. After a strong and eloquent condemnation of the Tucson assault, she called for blaming the perpetrator rather than society. People who do this — and here we have it — “manufacture a ‘blood libel’…”

Email newsletter signup

I recalled the term has something to do with Jewish people or Jews as a race or religion. What came to mind is quite different from her usage, and this is what confused me.

So, just what is the meaning of “blood libel?” It surprised me that Sarah Palin would use it, because I have never been impressed that her spotty education would have informed her of its etymology (origin). I suspect some staff writer with more knowledge of history and language came up with it and she simply accepted it with the explanation given by the speech writer. What this person would have explained is that it’s a metaphor for “false accusation.” Whether a writer’s or her word, this is precisely what she meant, and it fits her context perfectly, e.g., They accuse me of inciting violence; this is a false accusation or, as it were, a “blood libel.”

When I google the term, I am categorically informed it refers to a medieval practice of some gentiles falsely accusing Jews of murdering gentile children to use their blood in making matzo. This false accusation was, in fact, sometimes made, and the term did mean a false accusation against Jews—hundred of years ago. When I consult published references printed any time prior to Tucson I find, more broadly: “a false accusation, originating as…”

The current political statements on the internet, then, are themselves false accusations as if Palin were accusing Jews of killing people in Tucson. There is no way she could have had Jewish people in mind, and it is utterly irrational to claim so.

The charges against Palin are actually counterproductive and themselves occasion accusations against Jews. They do so by drawing attention to another historic practice Jewish people have labored to forget and hope gentiles have. Now they are reminded by the very people who accuse Palin of anti-Semitism.

The thing that came immediately to mind when I heard “blood libel” is the effort Jews made during the first century to discredit Christians (including fellow Jews who had become Christian believers) before the imperial government. Roman provincial officials wrote to Rome (these documents being extant) that Jewish leaders had come to them and reported that Christians “eat the body of their dead leader and drink his blood.” They do so every Sunday in what the Christians call an “agape” (“love”) feast, itself suggesting sexual immorality. This, of course, was a dishonestly distorted description of Eucharist or communion. The reason they made official reports was to disassociate Christians from the “legal religion” status allowed Judaism so as to provoke Rome into declaring Christianity as illegal and executing Christians. Because the blood of Jesus and the blood of Christian martyrs were involved in these Jewish false accusations, I understandably thought first of them.

Jews did in fact commit blood libel against Christians. That was in the first century, but this is now. I do not hold today’s Jewish people or even Jews in general accountable for what was done then. Nor do I know of any Christian who does. I did not raise the issue of the first-century “blood libel”—those who tried to pin this on Sarah Palin did this.

Palin’s critics did themselves a disservice and committed the very sin of which they accuse her. “Blood libel” means a false accusation, the sort they made against her.

Tuesday on the Insight page: Columnist Al Batt