Analyzing Sarah Palin's 'Blood Libel' Accusation

The term refers to a centuries-old strain of anti-Semitic propaganda

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There's one part of Sarah Palin's new video that's causing everyone's ears to perk up. It's the part where she says, "Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn."

Palin recorded the video in response to Saturday's shooting tragedy in Tucson, and also, evidently, in response to the criticism she's received for using gunsights on a map of congressional districts. But people are scratching their heads over her use of the phrase "blood libel," since this is a term that has existed for centuries to describe a specific accusation--namely, that Jews kill children in order to use their blood in religious rituals.

What does it mean that Palin said this? And how will it affect her political fortunes, which some see as already in jeopardy? Here are some of the initial responses to Palin's provocative word choice.

  • Yup, Right and Left Are Both Guilty Here  National Review's Jim Geraghty rounds up some more examples of people using the phrase, going back as far as 2000, in discussions of everything from John Kerry to Carl Paladino. Geraghty calls out commentators of various ideologies, then adds that "in the grand scheme of things, the idea that Palin used a phrase associated with one particular, egregious and historically recurring false accusation... seems like little reason for outrage. For perspective on what really is worth outrage, the services for 9-year-old victim Christina Taylor Green are tomorrow."

  • Words' Meanings Change Over Time  In a Politico roundtable, linguistics professor Deborah Tannen notes that "over time, words and phrases can lose their literal meaning, as they are used in more and more tangentially related ways"--a phenomenon that linguists call "semantic bleaching." Tannen adds: "It seems that 'blood libel' is being used to mean 'an outrageously unfounded accusation,' borrowing an element of the phrase's original meaning while losing its literal context and content. This doesn't mean that it isn't useful to remind people of the phrase's original meaning, but I suspect that won't stop some from continuing to use it in new ways, because the emotional overtones of the phrase feel right to them."

  • Maybe Palin Meant 'Blood Guilt'?  Steve Murphy, a Democratic consultant also writing at Politico, suggests that "those using the term 'blood libel' surely are referring to blood guilt or blood laws -- holding an entire family responsible for the actions of one. Of course, a quick use of a search engine would have allowed [Palin] to use the correct term but that is not how she operates."

  • Not the Best Possible Phrasing  Jonah Goldberg, writing at National Review, says that "the use of this particular term in this context isn't ideal." He adds, "I agree entirely with Glenn's, and now Palin's, larger point. But I'm not sure either of them intended to redefine the phrase, or that they should have."

  • Most Generous Reading: Palin's Just Ignorant  "I’m trying to give the benefit of a doubt," writes Jack Grant at The Moderate Voice. Grant suggests that "Palin and her advisors suffer from the Inigo Montoya problem"--a reference to the character in The Princess Bride who once said, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." But, says Grant, "the fact that Governor Palin... could not stay away from a phrase like 'blood libel' with its imagery of offense towards the self-appointed victim Palin (libel) and the imagery of violence (blood) indicates a fundamental problem of understanding on the part of the right-wing."

  • But It Couldn't Have Been Inadvertent, says Politico's Ben Smith: "Palin's aides, including [Michael Goldfarb], get the context--so this is a pot being stirred, not an accident..."

  • Palin Knows What She's Doing, agrees David Dayen at Firedoglake. "I have to figure whoever wrote this for Palin knew precisely what that metaphor was all about. It's not an accident that Palin likens herself to a persecuted religious sect. She has the victimization thing down pat."

  • It's an Alaska Thing, guesses Matt Lewis at Politics Daily. Lewis writes that "the fact that Sarah Palin resides in Alaska is more significant than most people realize. The state's culture and history is quite different from that of the 'lower 48.' My guess is that she was oblivious to the sensitivities and 'political correctness' that many Americans recognize."

  • If Anything, This Should Get People Talking  "Sarah Palin is such an important political and cultural figure that her use of the term 'blood libel' should introduce this very important historical phenomenon to a wide audience," writes The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg. "The ensuing discussion--about how Fox News is not actually Mendel Beilis--will serve to enlighten and inform." Goldberg adds that he hopes "Palin, who regularly expresses love for Jews and Israel, takes the time to learn about the history of the blood libel, and shares what she has learned with her many admirers."

  • P.S. Presidents Can't Get Away With This Stuff  Conservative writer Jennifer Rubin notes on Twitter that the "blood libel" line suggests that Palin may not be presidential material. "More G. Beck than Reagan," Rubin writes.

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