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“Blood Libel” Claim Has Roots in GOP Fever Swamps

I’ve seen some back and forth on whether Sarah Palin knew what she was talking about when she used the phrase “blood libel” or not. I hope we don’t have to mention that politicians don’t write their own speeches. And to believe that the spechwriters just strung some words together for a formal, 8-minute statement, you’d have to believe that Nixon winged the Checkers speech.

In fact, the phrase blood libel was first brought up in reference to the Tucson shooting, and particularly the controversy surrounding conservative political rhetoric, by “Instapundit” Glenn Reynolds, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal two days ago. He entitled his column “The Arizona Tragedy and the Politics of Blood Libel.” That it didn’t raise much concern at the time perhaps shows how few people read the Wall Street Journal editorial page. But for the conservative base, throwing around the phrase “blood libel” to describe the left and the media “smear job” on them was pretty common. In fact, it was trotted out the day of the shooting.

Now that Palin’s speechwriters, who naturally get more attention, decided to appropriate the phrase, that has forced scrutiny. It’s telling that not even Abe Foxman, prone to excusing conservatives for anti-Semitic speech at times, couldn’t even get away with a total whitewash, though he predictably reserves blame for everyone. In this statement, Foxman gives away too much: “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.” I don’t think that’s true at all; if blood libel now gets used commonly, I certainly wasn’t aware of it.

J Street’s Amy Spitalnick has a better response:

J Street is saddened by Governor Palin’s use of the term “blood libel.”

The country’s attention is rightfully focused on the memorial service for the victims of Saturday’s shooting. Our prayers continue to be with those who are still fighting to recover and the families of the victims. The last thing the country needs now is for the rhetoric in the wake of this tragedy to return to where it was before.

We hope that Governor Palin will recognize, when it is brought to her attention, that the term “blood libel” brings back painful echoes of a very dark time in our communal history when Jews were falsely accused of committing heinous deeds. When Governor Palin learns that many Jews are pained by and take offense at the use of the term, we are sure that she will choose to retract her comment, apologize and make a less inflammatory choice of words.

We haven’t seen anything close to incendiary so far from the statements on the House floor prior to the resolution they will take up in honor of Rep. Giffords and the dead. Of course, Palin’s whole gambit here was to steal the spotlight from Congress and the President on a national day of remembrance for the victims. I doubt this event will play much into the President’s speech tonight. But it ought to be a reminder that the right has kept their rhetorical fire and victimhood at a high level throughout the past several days.

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David Dayen

David Dayen