What’s a little (blood) libel among friends?

By now you have no doubt heard about Sarah Palin’s comments in the wake of the Arizona shootings. A little background is that Ms. Palin’s political action committee website had a map of the use with sniper scope images over certain districts, including Arizona, that they were “targeting” in the election. Many, on both sides of the aisle, have pointed to such militaristic images as fostering the kind of violence that broke forth this past weekend. Palin responded in a video saying,

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.

The term “blood libel” has very specific meaning, referring to the medieval accusation against Jews that they used Gentile blood (particularly of children) in mixing matzah for Passover. This libel was used to generate rage and anger against the Jews resulting in violent and deadly attacks. Many have thus criticized Palin for using this term that is “so fraught with pain in Jewish history.”

So why this post? Because Alan Dershowitz, not known as a defender of the Second Amendment (but of the First) nor of Palin, has come out defending Palin’s use of “blood libel” in sociolinguistic terms. Yes, it has an historical meaning, but that meaning has changed, particularly in the US.

The term “blood libel” has taken on a broad metaphorical meaning in public discourse. Although its historical origins were in theologically based false accusations against the Jews and the Jewish People, its current usage is far broader. I myself have used it to describe false accusations against the State of Israel by the Goldstone Report. There is nothing improper and certainly nothing anti-Semitic in Sarah Palin using the term to characterize what she reasonably believes are false accusations that her words or images may have caused a mentally disturbed individual to kill and maim. The fact that two of the victims are Jewish is utterly irrelevant to the propriety of using this widely used term.

I still find Palin’s use of the term problematic and I think the rhetoric on both sides abominable (I’m looking at you too Mr. Olbermann). That is why I read news now (thank you iPad for making that so much more convenient on the road) so that I do not have to listen to the invective and mindless spin that comes incessantly from all sides.

In that vein, you should definitely listen/read this excellent two-part piece on “objectivity” in the media by David Folkenflik at NPR.

So my linguistically inclined friends, judgment on actual political views aside, is “blood libel” a specific, historic term or does it now have a “broader metaphorical” meaning?

UPDATE: WashPo has a fairly good summary in their “Fact Checker” of the issue and links to those running down how often the term is used in political discourse across the political divide.

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