Did Sarah Palin have justification for calling the accusations that she was responsible, by dint of her rhetoric, for the attempted murder of Gabrielle Giffords and for the deaths of six other people a “blood libel”?
Not, of course, if you think Palin can’t say anything right. Nor, it would seem, if you are defending Jewish sensibilities. “Palin’s comments show either a complete ignorance of history, or blatant anti-Semitism,” Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz declared through a spokesman. “Either way, it shows an appalling lack of sensitivity given Representative Giffords’s faith.” Palin, said Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of the political organization J Street, will surely “retract her comment [and] apologize,” once she “learns that many Jews are pained by and take offense at the use of the term.” Even the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, who supported Palin’s right to defend herself, wished that Palin had not called the attacks on her a blood libel— words that, he stated, are “fraught with pain in Jewish history.”
And yet the history of “blood libel” tells us something different.
Although the blood libel itself — that is, the accusation that Jews murdered Christians and used their blood for ritual purposes, especially for the baking of Passover matzos — is an old one going back at least to the Middle Ages, “blood libel” as an English expression is quite recent. The 1905 Jewish Encyclopedia covered the subject under “Blood Accusation”; and in Volume IV of his monumental “Social and Religious History of the Jews,” published in 1957, renowned historian Salo Baron wrote, too, of “the fateful popular invention which was permanently to envenom the relations between Jews and Christians in many lands: the so-called ‘blood accusation.’” In the pages that followed, Baron did not once use the term “blood libel.” The Catholic scholar Edward Flannery, for his part, in his 1965 history of anti-Semitism, “The Anguish of the Jews,” referred to “the ritual murder libel,” also calling it “the ritual murder charge” and “the ritual murder calumny.” “Blood libel” is nowhere to be found in Flannery’s book, either.
The 1971 Encyclopedia Judaica, on the other hand, has a lengthy entry under “Blood Libel,” written by the Hebrew University professor of Jewish history Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson. It would appear, in fact, to have been this article that introduced the term in English, into which it was translated from the Hebrew expression alilat dam, dam meaning “blood” and alila “libel” or “slander.” Traceable to the 17th-century Egyptian-Jewish chronicler Yosef ben Yitzhak Sambari, who first used it in his history of medieval Jewry, “Sefer Divrei Yosef,” alilat dam has been for hundreds of years the standard Hebrew way of saying “blood accusation” or “ritual murder charge.” Presumably, the editors of the Encyclopedia Judaica preferred it in English because a libel is by definition false whereas an accusation or charge may be true, and presumably, too, this was the reason that “blood libel” quickly caught on among historians writing in English and soon displaced its rivals completely.
So far, this may seem to have nothing to do with Sarah Palin. But it does, because in 20th-century Palestinian and Israeli Hebrew, alilat dam took on a wider meaning than just an accusation of ritual murder, and came to apply to any false or unsubstantiated accusation of murder, and especially to such an accusation made for political purposes. The earliest case that I have been able to find of it used in this way dates to the 1933 murder of the Labor Zionist politician Chaim Arlosoroff, which the Zionist left accused the Zionist right of having perpetrated. Two members of the right-wing Revisionist Party were arrested and tried for the crime by the British and subsequently acquitted, and some time after their acquittal, the party’s leader, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, wrote, “The charges [made against the two accused men] have by now disappeared from both the front and back pages of the Jewish press, as has the blood libel [alilat dam] against the Revisionists….”
Subsequently, the term alilat dam was frequently used in similar contexts. Following, for example, the 1995 murder of Yitzhak Rabin, for which, too, the Israeli right was blamed for setting the stage by means of its unbridled attacks on the assassinated prime minister, the right’s defenders claimed that it was the victim of a “blood libel” designed to defame and delegitimize it. One could hardly open a Hebrew newspaper in those days without encountering the words.
Although it may be impossible to prove that, even if Palin herself was unaware of it, her use of the term “blood libel” ultimately derives from Israeli discourse, I would suspect that it does. Whether it does or doesn’t, however, it certainly isn’t fair to accuse Palin of insensitivity to Jewish feelings for using an expression that Israeli Jews have been resorting to for decades in the exact same sense. If anyone should apologize, it’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Jeremy Ben-Ami.
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