Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why is "Blood Libel" an Offensive Accusation?

I have been trying to figure out why it seems excessive and inappropriate that Sarah Palin used the term "Blood Libel" to categorize the recent discussion of her rhetoric and campaign materials. I think it's because that term has not become a common metaphor, and therefore it really evokes a strong comparison to Jewish history and especially evokes the thought of murdered Jews or Jews driven from their homes with nowhere to go. This is an offensive thing to do. It shames Jews to remember the pain of their ancestors.

If Palin had said her critics were trying to crucify her, it wouldn't have been as strong, because that's a pretty over-used metaphor. The term "Blood Libel" is so unfamiliar that many newspapers have included long explanations in articles about it, consulted with specialists in Medieval Jewish history, or even dedicated entire articles to explaining it. Maybe it's occasionally been used in an extended sense from its historic one, but not commonly, agree the experts.

(Need I elaborate that the term refers to an ancient accusation from around the 12th century? That the specific blood libel accusation was that Jews kill Christian children and use their blood in unspeakable rituals? Or in some cases, the accusation that Jews stole consecrated communion wafers which were equivalent to Christ's body, and tortured them? And that these accusations almost always triggered large and violent public action against them? And that the accusers were often cynical? And that the official position of the church was that Jews didn't do that? And that the church's official position was often ignored by firebrand priests? And that goal was often to create antisemitic violence? And so on? No, I don't need to explain that.)

Quite a few of the newspapers explained that Palin's choice of words was offensive to Jews. My first thought was that the writers were underestimating most Christians, who would surely be offended too, if they understood what she said. Then I rethought. Being a vulnerable minority leaves even the best-treated people in the best democracy in the world a bit on edge, so maybe it is only offensive to Jews. I don't think this is an issue of being oversensitive, just over-informed about history. And as I say, Palin chose an accusation that must evoke historical consciousness, because it hasn't become just another thing that everyone says when you accuse them and they think it's a bad rap.

What about the fact that Palin put a target on the map to show her dislike of Gabrielle Giffords, a Jewish representative, who called her out for it during the campaign? A coincidence. Note to self: it's a coincidence.

I think this is why it's so painful for Jews to be reminded by Sarah Palin of how vulnerable they used to be. I give her credit here: I think she's only thinking of herself and didn't actually intend to create an implicit threat to Jews. In fact, I think she really was just engaging in a self-centered effort to deflect attention from criticism of her choices and turn the discussion to what a martyr she is, and how any criticism of her speech is equivalent to threatening her freedom of same. So any fleeting sense that the Tea Party and the extreme conservative Republicans are a threat to Jews must be an overreaction. Right? Right.

P.S. The Jewish community I'm really worried about is in Tunisia, not Tucson.

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