If Sarah Palin has learned anything in the past week, it has to be this: words matter.
First, she faced a storm of criticism for her use of hunting language and imagery after the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Then, in defending that use, she invoked the language of centuries of Jewish persecution, saying that the accusations against her amounted to a “blood libel.”
Yes. Palin equated the criticism she’s facing for her arguably questionable use of language to the completely fabricated accusations that resulted in the murder of thousands of innocent men, women an children over the ages. That provoked Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, to call an out-of-bounds.
“It is simply inappropriate to compare current American politics with term that was used by Christians to persecute Jews,” said Hier. “She has every right to criticize journalists without going over the top.”
From Europe in the Middle Ages to modern Syria today, Jews have been accused of killing Christian (and now Moslem) children for some nefarious purpose. The accusation often led to increased persecution of Jews. The origins of the blood libel likely have to do with the precarious existence of Jews as a minority.
Professor Israel Jacob Yuval of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published an article in 1993 that argues that blood libel may have originated in the 12th century from Christian views of Jewish behavior during the First Crusade. Some Jews committed suicide and killed their own children rather than be subjected to forced conversions. Yuval investigated Christian reports of these events and found that they were greatly distorted with claims that if Jews could kill their own children they could also kill Christian children. Yuval rejects the blood libel story as a Christian fantasy that was impossible due to the precarious nature of the Jewish minority’s existence in Christian Europe.
In any case, it has been an enduring and particularly oppressive myth that Jews have suffered under for centuries.
Why react so strongly to what is clearly just another case of Palin’s recalcitrantly sloppy use of English? After all, Hier is no Democrat partisan. He was a strong, visible supporter of former Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and has been close to Republican and Democratic leaders. He is not one to pile on to an political leader under attack, especially one like Palin who has clearly demonstrated her support for Israel.
But as Palin may someday learn, and Hier and other Jewish leaders know wel, words really do matter. Equating even harsh criticism with “blood libel” is like going to the ER for a boo boo. It grossly demeans the historic reality of the blood libel and the victims who suffered brutally and needlessly because of it.
Even if it turns out that the man who tried to kill Laughner was not motivated by Palin’s “crosshair” imagery, or by her use of the language of treason and revolution in describing her political opponents, she has to be thinking that there must be better words to use to characterize those who disagree with her over policy. And Palin must also find better words to describe what happens when the wrong words come back to haunt her.