It was a well-crafted message preaching unity—and mined with a “blood libel” that blew it all apart.
Sarah Palin’s video message Wednesday, her first substantial commentary since Saturday’s shooting in Tucson that critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and killed six others, at first appeared to succeed in reconciling two American precepts that have seemed irreconcilable in recent days: a common purpose and a rough-and-tumble political culture.
“Vigorous and spirited public debates during elections are among our most cherished traditions,” said the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate. “And after the election, we shake hands and get back to work, and often both sides find common ground back in D.C. and elsewhere.”
But barely a breath later, Palin painted herself the victim of a “blood libel”—a notorious term fraught with Jewish historical and emotional significance.
“Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn,” Palin said. “That is reprehensible.”
Palin’s casual reference to the ancient fiction that Jews killed children to drink their blood as part of a ritual – one that has inspired pogroms, massacres and attacks on Jews throughout the centuries and even today is referenced as fact in parts of the Arab world and the former Soviet Union—set off alarm bells.
Jewish reaction ranged from outraged to uncomfortable to defensive.
“Instead of dialing down the rhetoric at this difficult moment, Sarah Palin chose to accuse others trying to sort out the meaning of this tragedy of somehow engaging in a ‘blood libel’ against her and others,” National Jewish Democratic Council President David Harris said in a statement condemning her remark. “Perhaps Sarah Palin honestly does not know what a blood libel is, or does not know of their horrific history; that is perhaps the most charitable explanation we can arrive at in explaining her rhetoric today.”
Jews for Sarah, a pro-Palin group, defended Palin, a potential Republican presidential candidate for 2012.
“Gov. Palin got it right, and we Jews, of all people, should know a blood libel when we see one,” Jews for Sarah said. “Falsely accusing someone of shedding blood is a blood libel—whether it’s the medieval Church accusing Jews of baking blood in Passover matzahs, or contemporary Muslim extremists accusing Israel of slaughtering Arabs to harvest their organs, or political partisans blaming conservative political figures and talk show hosts for the Tucson massacre.”
Palin made the video to push back against claims by some liberal commentators that she played a role in the hyper-partisan rhetoric in Giffords’ district before the election in part by putting out a map with a gun-sight target over Giffords’ congressional district as one Palin wanted the Republicans to win in 2010.
Her video calling for “common ground” set a tone that would have jived perfectly with the unity message President Obama delivered in Tucson later Wednesday, if not for the blood libel remark.
By contrast, Obama’s speech earned widespread praise.
“What we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other,” Obama said in Tucson. “That we cannot do. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.”
The Anti-Defamation League said it was inappropriate to blame Palin after the Tucson shooting and said she had every right to defend herself.
But, the organization noted in a statement, “We wish that Palin had not invoked the phrase ‘blood libel’ in reference to the actions of journalists and pundits in placing blame for the shooting in Tucson on others. While the term ‘blood-libel’ has become part of the English parlance to refer to someone being falsely accused, we wish that Palin had used another phrase, instead of one so fraught with pain in Jewish history.”
The question, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications expert at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, was whether using a charged term like blood libel reinforced Palin’s legitimate argument at the unfair targeting of the right wing in the days after the shooting – or whether using the term undercuts the point.
“It distracts from her argument, which is thoughtful,” Jamieson told JTA. “If you are trying to get an audience to rethink, you don’t inject this particular historic analogy.”
The fallback defense for Palin’s acolytes was that while the use of the phrase might be overwrought, she is hardly the first to commit this sin. Jim Geraghty, a correspondent at the conservative National Review, cited an extensive list of its uses over the past 10 years, though practically no elected officials were on it.
Jamieson, who conducted a similar search, found that invoking the term in political argument is usually the province of bloggers and polemicists, not those who have held high political office or aspire to it.
Voices across the Jewish religious and political spectrums, from the Reform movement to the Orthodox Union, and from liberals to conservatives, echoed the ADL’s statement.
“The term ‘blood libel’ is so unique, and so tinged with the context of anti-Semitism, that its use in this case—even when Ms. Palin has a legitimate gripe—is either cynically calculated to stimulate media interest or historically illiterate,” Noam Neusner, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, wrote on Pundit Wire. “It is therefore distracting to Ms. Palin’s underlying message, which is one of sympathy for the victims and outrage that she and others are being accused of inspiring a mass murderer.”