WASHINGTON (JTA) — The post-shooting debate over political civility is cooling down, but passions are still raging over Sarah Palin’s claim that critics were guilty of perpetuating a “blood libel” against her.
Palin’s initial use of the term, in a Jan. 12 video message, drew sharp rebukes from liberal, Jewish groups and even some conservatives. Since then, however, several Jewish notables, including Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and former New York Mayor Ed Koch have defended Palin’s use of the term.
Palin weighed in again on Jan. 17 during an interview on Fox News — her first since the Jan. 8 shooting in Tucson of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) that also left six dead and another 12 wounded. Palin defended her use of the term “blood libel” and said she understands its meaning.
“Blood libel obviously means being falsely accused of having blood on your hands and in this case that’s exactly what was going on,” Palin told Sean Hannity in the interview.
Palin, a Fox guest contributor, also used the interview to condemn the shooting and other acts of political violence, and to offer prayers for the victims.
The most recent Palin-related controversy echoes previous scrums revolving around the potential GOP presidential candidate, with critics arguing that she lacks the judgment, demeanor and smarts of a commander in chief, and her defenders seeing such slams as validation that she is just the right person to put the liberal elites in their place.
Palin shows no signs of ceding the spotlight, but it was liberal politicians and commentators who were quick to put her in the center of the story following the shooting. Critics held Palin up as a prime example of violent political rhetoric that could have contributed to the gunman’s rampage, pointing to a map on her website that used images of gun crosshairs to indicate districts targeted in last year’s midterm elections.
Giffords, who was shot and critically injured in the shooting attack, was the incumbent in one of the marked districts.
During her Jan. 12 video message, Palin defended herself, insisting that “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.”
Palin seemed to be conflating generic calls to tone down the rhetoric — including one from Clarence Dupnik, the Pima County sheriff who was leading the investigation — with a number of attacks directly accusing her of responsibility. In fact, the debate about rhetoric subsequent to the shooting did not hew to party lines, and liberal pundits were among those vigorously defending Palin’s right to use strong rhetoric, while conservatives were among those who suggested she needed to dial it down.
Palin’s 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.”
The Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League refused to endorse the notion that her actions may have contributed to the shooting, but they criticized Palin’s use of the term “blood libel,” saying it was offensive to Jewish sensibilities.
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.”
Within days, Dershowitz, Boteach and Koch also defended Palin, supplying her allies with grounds to argue that Jewish opinion was divided on her use of the term.
Whether Palin was justified in using the term, even some conservatives objected to her releasing the video on the same day of the nationally televised service in Tucson to mourn the victims, pray for the wounded and cheer the bystanders who tackled the gunman and aided the injured.
Palin’s video did call for “common ground,” setting a tone that would have jived perfectly with the unity message President Obama delivered at the event — if not for the blood libel remark.
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. “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 that 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 undercut 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 and others who defended her 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.”
On the other hand, Koch and Dershowitz — two Jewish Democrats — defended her.
In a column this week, Koch declared that Palin had “defeated her harsh and unfair critics,” and argued that these days the “blood libel” term can “be used to describe any monstrous defamation against any person, Jew or non-Jew.”
Koch framed the controversy as part of the wider debate over Palin, writing that “the fools in politics today in both parties are those who think she is dumb,” though he quickly added that she is “not knowledgeable in many areas and politically uninformed.”
“Many women understand what she has done for their cause,” wrote Koch, who has endorsed Republicans for president, but says he is “scared” of Palin.
“She will not be silenced, nor will she leave the heavy lifts to the men in her party. She will not be falsely charged, remain silent and look for others — men — to defend her. She is plucky and unafraid.”