‘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 that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.’
What is one to make of this latest utterance from Sarah Palin? After the highly politicized circumstances leading to the shooting of representative Gabrielle Giffords, Ms Palin hit back at the tide of accusations against her – that the gun-slinging tone of her campaign literature and rhetoric led, in one way or another, to words transforming into bullets.
But the phrase that’s drawn particular anxiety is blood libel. This phrase has a particular meaning – it refers – mostly, but not always, to the ancient calumny in which Jews were (and are) accused of kidnapping and killing Christian children and using their blood in the manufacture of matzo.
The reaction has been predictable – what we in the journalism trade refer to technically as a ‘shitstorm’. A blog over at Scientopia goes into the history of the blood libel and, like many, finds it ‘reprehensible’ (to use Ms Palin’s words) that a Christian is using the term in the context of the shooting of a Jew (Ms Giffords is Jewish).
Antisemitism is, as the man said, is a beast that sleeps but lightly. I’m Jewish, and like many, had relatives that perished in the Holocaust. My mother, a refugee from the Nazis aged just three, was called ‘Christ Killer’ in the playground. My father, the only Jew in a tough school, learned to fight early and often. When I was a graduate student at Cambridge, a fellow graduate student said that it had been a ‘jolly good thing’ that my grandparents had been gassed in Auschwitz. Crox Minor, a student at a rather rough school here in Cromer, endures antisemitic jibes that the well-intentioned teachers seem powerless to quell entirely.
Antisemitism is ingrained in British academia in ways that US academics might find hard to credit (just dig a little way into this site); Richard Dawkins, for example, made a perhaps careless reference to Jewry that served to entrench ancient stereotypes. When I corresponded privately with Prof Pat Bateson, a senior figure in UK academia, on his support of an anti-Israel boycott, he aired my correspondence in public in the Guardian without he or the reporter having been polite enough to have consulted me first (the Guardian‘s Reader Ombudsman upheld my complaint and printed a very tiny correction).
Of course, the standard line is that criticism of Israel is a separate issue from antisemitism, and so it is – or ought to be. But when I was at a pro-Israel demo a few years ago, the counter-demonstrators seemed insensitive to such niceties – the screams of ‘Kill the Jews’ could clearly be heard. Yes, antisemitism is alive and well.
One is entitled to ask whether Ms Palin knew what she was saying – perhaps, to her, the phrase ‘blood libel’ was simply a pair of words that went emotively together, the usage very much in tune with her previous rhetoric rather than having any connection with antisemitism. An article that’s just popped up on Wikipedia (look now before it’s deleted) seems to be an attempt at damage limitation, defining ‘blood libel’ as a term used in US politics as a counter to those accusing one of an accessory to bloodshed, rather than having any specific connection with antisemitism. Certainly, I’ve been surprised, reading comments here and on Facebook, educated people in the US and elsewhere, even Jews, hadn’t heard of the term ‘blood libel’ in its antisemitic context. (As an aside, one could, perhaps, forgive Dawkins for a careless use of words rather than any antisemitic intent, but he presumably cannot use an excuse of lack of information or intelligence).
So I, for one, am prepared to think that Ms Palin, true to her record of general ignorance about the world in general, and her general and habitually martial rhetoric, didn’t know what she was talking about, and that perhaps her speechwriters are similarly ignorant; that Ms Palin sprays words around as were they so many bullets, heedless of where they might fall.
What choice to I have? The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.