Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Speaking with my mother on the phone last week, I learned something surprising. Until the recent figurative firestorm over Sarah Palin's use of the term "blood libel" in her online video response to the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., my mother, Jewish since birth and only two generations removed from the varied hardships of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, did not know what the blood libel was. So if you are unfamiliar with the term, there is no need for embarrassment.
"Blood libel" usually refers to a myth alleging that Jews commit ritual murder or human sacrifice, according to Raymond P. Scheindlin's "A Short History of the Jewish People." Such beliefs predate Christianity, but blood libel took on its most widespread form in medieval Europe.
During and after the Crusades, much of Christian Europe regarded Jews as infidels, and the claim that Jews commonly kill non-Jews expressed the dominant culture's discomfort with non-believers among them. They believed Jews killed Jesus Christ, and the blood libel, which often specified that Jews murder Christian children as a religious rite in preparation for Passover, took root in the communal imagination as a bizarre and demonic counterpoint to communion in the Catholic mass.
From the 12th century to the 15th in England, France, Germany, Austria and Spain, Jewish families and entire communities were murdered as a direct result of accusations based on these myths. Even the Jews' expulsion during the Spanish Inquisition was partially rooted in a case of blood libel. The blood libel reappeared in Eastern Europe and the Middle East in the 19th century, and Jewish ritual murder—overtly or by way of allusion—remains a potent bogeyman in anti-Semitic rhetoric around the world.
Here is how Palin used it: "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 they purport to condemn."
This statement, largely detached from the rest of Palin's speech, has become the focus of ticky-tack arguments across the country, a chance for pundits and partisans to score points against each other while ignoring depressing but significant and complex topics like wars (we're fighting two) or crunching the numbers for the cost of repealing health-care reform. And here I am, trying to add something useful to a conversation that never needed to be national news.
Palin was not responsible for the violence of Jan. 10, and she has a right to defend herself. Invoking the blood libel—a pernicious lie spread over hundreds of years, provoking the destruction of entire communities—to describe premature smears against her political rhetoric and campaign tactics is more than a little dramatic, but hardly out of character, just as the current atmosphere of fear-mongering is far from unprecedented in American politics. I do not see much point, however, in agonizing over her appropriation of the term and whether it cheapens historic instances of anti-Semitic violence.
We would be better served to see this instance of political rhetoric not as a grave and inappropriate misstep but as a commonplace attempt to deflect criticism and avoid introspection by claiming victimhood.
This is not to say that we should ignore past misdeeds—genocide, human rights abuses, large-scale thievery, discrimination and segregation, or the enslavement of human beings—in our conversations about history, public policy or current events. Such events are still occurring all around us (I'm looking at you, mass incarceration), and past incidents continue to shape our world.
We have to be careful, though. When our sense of victimhood, individually or collectively, interferes with the ability to take responsibility for our own actions, we run a greater risk of victimizing others. When our own suffering, past or present, becomes a shield against accountability rather than a resource for greater compassion, we miss opportunities to connect with others and to take stock of our own words and actions. When multiple parties, whether siblings or nations, adopt these tactics, important conversations devolve into mere victimhood pissing contests.
As Ezra Klein, the Rev. Al Sharpton and others have noted, the violent attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her constituents, while not a result of anything we could identify as mainstream (or even rational) political discourse, presents all of us with a chance to reflect on how we affect the world through word and deed. It would be a shame to miss that opportunity.
Hailing from Columbia, Mo., Josh Parshall is an oral historian who has lived in Jackson since May 2009. He holds a master's degree in folklore from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where his research focused on Jewish American culture and music.
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