What’s a little (blood) libel among friends? 5

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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5 thoughts on “What’s a little (blood) libel among friends?

  • Loony

    Admittedly “Blood libel” wasn’t part of my daily vocabulary up until yesterday. Still isn’t.

    As a person with some Jewish ancestry (so I am told), I would note that a NAZI is anyone who stubbornly holds to an opinion that I don’t like, and a Pharisee is anyone who thinks that a person’s behavior should be adapted in some way or another to avoid the disfavor of God. Thus, I don’t see why terms like Holocaust or Blood Libel can’t also be given a slightly broader scope. And what about the Vandals and the Barbarians?

    But thankfully Jared Loughner wasn’t referred to as an “assassin”, because that would offend another group.

  • Gary Simmons

    Terms can almost always be broadened or used loosely, ironically, or creatively. Ingenuity is part of what keeps language alive. I have my doubts as to how much Palin has of that quality on her own, but I’ll try to be charitable on this topic.

    Just like people, words carry baggage. But they can also find a new way to overcome baggage. Note, for instance, the way “spirit” and “ghost” have flip-flopped meaning since the KJV days. Not sure exactly how that developed.

    • Chris Brady Post author

      I am fairly certain that Palin, or more likely, her speech writers, did not have a good sense of the original meaning and connotation of the term “blood libel.” And that is Dershowitz’s point. The term now is used far more broadly and folks on the left shouldn’t get worked up about this aspect of Palin and her rhetoric.

  • Aaron Fleishman

    Almost every major news article refers to the term as “anti-Semitic.” One interesting argument I’ve been hearing lately is that the term itself is not in any way anti-Semitic, and some have even suggested that it’s quite the opposite (the act itself being anti-Semitic).

    This might (perhaps) be true, but as my friend Ben pointed out, the term is “rhetorically connected to antisemitism as it describes historical instances of Jewish persecution. The word holocaust does not necessarily refer to the historical event, but if someone uses it in conversation, that connotation is going to be there and the speaker ought to be aware of that.”

    As it goes with words like “Nazi”, “Holocaust”, “terrorist”, “rape”, “retard”, and “socialist” being used more casually in rhetoric, there is obviously going to be some backlash from those who are offended by it’s liberal usage.

  • Rick Wright

    I don’t see how or why members of a group can lay claim to exclusive rights on how a term or expression gets used. Especially when different members of said group hold different opinions. People like Dershowitz says “it’s fine”. Some – especially oddly enough not terribly Jewish pundits on the left – are outraged claiming such usage by Palin was anti-Semitic. That’s the problem with ethnic-linguistic solipsism. Who decides what is or isn’t acceptable usage?

    So “broader metaphorical” gets my vote.

    I don’t think it was smart for Palin to invoke the expression. Not because it was wrong. But because it gave her critics something to latch on to. Which was what the whole brouhaha was really about. Seizing any excuse – any at all – to defame and discredit her. I’m not a fan of Palin but am consistently appalled at the efforts to destroy her.

    What almost no one seemed to note in this affair is where Palin might gotten that expression. It’s not in my repertoire. My best guess is she got it from a Wall Street Journal piece by James Taranto (if I recall) that used the expression to attack those blaming Palin for Tucson. Although that leaves the question, And where did Taranto get it from?!? So do we blame? Palin or Taranto?