Use of 'Blood Libel' Disturbing and Offensive, Unless We Do It

Times reporters and editors disapproved of Palin's use of "blood libel" to describe journalists who blamed political rhetoric for the shootings in Arizona. Here's columnist Frank Rich, October 2006: "Bush administration allies exploited the former Congressman's predatory history to spread the grotesque canard that homosexuality is a direct path to pedophilia. It's the kind of blood libel that in another era was spread about Jews."
Thursday's story by Jeff Zeleny and Michael Shear on Sarah Palin's video response to her critics over the shootings in Arizona predictably focused on her use of the term "blood libel" to describe her media critics ("Palin Joins Debate on Heated Speech With Words That Stir New Controversy.")

Sarah Palin broke her silence on Wednesday and delivered a forceful denunciation of her critics in a video message about the Arizona shootings, accusing commentators and journalists of "blood libel" in a frenzied rush to blame heated political speech for the violence.

As she sought to defend herself and seize control of a debate that has been boiling for days, Ms. Palin awakened a new controversy by invoking a phrase fraught with religious symbolism about the false accusation used by anti-Semites of Jews murdering Christian children. It was unclear whether Ms. Palin was aware of the historical meaning of the phrase.


In the midterm elections last year, Ms. Palin used a map with cross hairs over several swing Congressional districts, which Ms. Giffords highlighted in a television interview at the time as an example of overheated political speech. In the video statement, Ms. Palin rejected criticism of the map, and sought to cast that criticism as a broader indictment of the basic rights to free speech exercised by people of all political persuasions.

"We know violence isn't the answer," Ms. Palin said, sitting against a backdrop of a fireplace and an American flag. "When we take up our arms, we're talking about our votes."

The video stirred an emotional response from some Democratic lawmakers, Jewish groups and even some fellow Republicans, who said it was in poor taste for Ms. Palin to deliver her statement on a day that was devoted to remembering victims of last weekend's shooting. The video played throughout the day on cable television and on the Internet.

Matthew Dowd, a former political adviser to President George W. Bush who has become a frequent critic of Republicans, said that the tone of Ms. Palin's message was not appropriate for the moment of national grief and that she had missed an opportunity to be seen as a leader.

Reporter Laurie Goodstein's side-bar came with an imprecise headline that made the pro-Israel Palin look unsympathetic to Jews: "A Phrase With Roots in Anti-Semitism." Goodstein explained the apparent origins of the accusation - blaming Jews for the death of a boy in Norwich, England in 1144.

Despite its patent absurdity, the blood libel claim persisted like a virus for centuries and incited countless rounds of brutality against Jews in Europe. It is still invoked in anti-Semitic propaganda in Europe and the Arab world.

Given the origins of the term, many Jewish commentators on Wednesday were surprised to hear Ms. Palin claim to be a victim of "blood libel," especially given that the intended target of the mass shootings in Arizona last weekend was Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who is Jewish.

Thursday's lead editorial "As We Mourn" also criticized Palin, without mentioning the liberal commentators suggesting that she bore responsibility for the climate of violence surrounding the shooter.

The president's words were an important contrast to the ugliness that continues to swirl in some parts of the country. The accusation by Sarah Palin that "journalists and pundits" had committed a "blood libel" when they raised questions about overheated rhetoric was especially disturbing, given the grave meaning of that phrase in the history of the Jewish people.

Also absent from the editorial's call for civility: The death wishes against Palin posted on Twitter.

Notice that the Times was not especially disturbed when one of its own made the same claim: Sunday columnist and former theatre critic Frank Rich.

Rich's October 15, 2006 column dealt with former Republican Rep. Mark Foley, who resigned after being caught sending suggestive emails to Congressional pages. After trying to out Bush administration gays by proxy (he suggested "a little creative Googling), he dropped the "blood libel" accusation.

The moment [Mark] Foley's e-mails became known, we saw that brand of fearmongering and bigotry at full tilt: Bush administration allies exploited the former Congressman's predatory history to spread the grotesque canard that homosexuality is a direct path to pedophilia. It's the kind of blood libel that in another era was spread about Jews.

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