The Fact Checker

The Fact Checker: Sarah Palin's 'blood libel' statement on the Tucson shootings

Colleagues pay tribute to wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords during the president's State of the Union address as the Arizona lawmaker begins the next phase of her recovery at a rehab facility in Houston.
THE truth behind the rhetoric, BY GLENN KESSLER
Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sarah Palin's video statement on the Tucson shootings is an interesting example of how meanings can change over time and can be ripped from their original context. This was obviously a well-crafted statement, not something said off the cuff, so Palin and her advisers certainly thought carefully about whether to include these elements.In the new Fact Checker, from time to time we will provide context for the terms that politicians use without awarding any Pinocchios.

Blood libel

Sarah Palin: "If you don't like their ideas, you're free to propose better ideas. But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible."

The Fact Checker: The term "blood libel" has a very distinct history. It refers to the false accusation, dating back centuries, that Jews sacrificed Christian children for various nefarious or even religious purposes - such as using their blood as an ingredient in the unleavened bread in Passover ceremonies. It was a core tenet of anti-Semitism, widely believed in medieval times and beyond, and it often resulted in persecution, murders and other actions against Jews. A pro-Israel Web site lists more than two dozen examples of blood libel against Jews over the centuries, including as recently as 2005 in Russia.

Palin's use of the term has sparked controversy, in part because she is not Jewish and has often spoken of the United States as a Christian nation, and in part because the target of the shooter, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), is Jewish. The liberal pro-Israel group J Street tweeted, "We hope @SarahPalinUSA will recog that Jews are pained by, take offense at use of 'blood libel.' "

But the "blood libel" phrase had already been used in the context of the Tucson tragedy. Conservative commentator Glenn Reynolds first raised it in an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal on Monday, asking, "Where is the decency in blood libel?" Others on the right picked up the phrase as well, leading conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg to wonder if this was appropriate.

"Historically, the term is almost invariably used to describe anti-Semitic myths about how Jews use blood - usually from children - in their rituals. I agree entirely with Glenn's, and now Palin's, larger point. But I'm not sure either of them intended to redefine the phrase, or that they should have," he wrote.

But Jim Geraghty, another commentator for the National Review, quickly collected many other examples of commentators and politicians using the phrase "blood libel" out of context. These include references to Sen. John F. Kerry's testimony to the Senate as Vietnam War veteran and the recount battle in Florida after the 2000 election.

None of those examples, of course, involved such a high-profile individual as Palin. Now that she has used the phrase, the attention surrounding it might yank it back to its origins - or turn it into a new political talking point increasingly divorced from its original meaning.

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