Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Cultural Currency of the Blood Libel

When Jeffrey Goldberg suggested that there might be educational benefits to Sarah Palin's misappropriation of the term "blood libel" to describe folks criticizing her overheated brand of political rhetoric in the wake of the Tuscon, Arizona massacre, I was dubious. The blood libel -- referring to the allegation that Jews use the blood of murdered non-Jewish children in various religious rites -- is (I thought) one of the more prominent elements in our collective history of anti-Semitism. Who didn't know about it already? Hell, we already had a prominent modern day iteration quite recently when a Swedish paper alleged that Jews were seizing Palestinian persons and harvesting their organs -- and then again as a putative explanation for why the bloodthirsty Zionist regime was bothering to help Haitians after the earthquake (since humanitarianism was obviously out of the question).

I should have known better. It isn't just Goldberg's readers who were unfamiliar with the term -- various friends of mine I chatted with today were also either unaware or only had a dim recognition of the concept prior to Palin's gaffe today. And now that I've had that recognition, I recall me asking a similar question of various non-Jewish friends of mine sometime as an undergraduate, as part of a broader poll of their views on Jews and Jewish issues. Specifically, I asked them something to the effect of "True or False: Though the practice has been discontinued, at one point Jews used the blood of non-Jewish children as part of important religious rites." I'd say about 20% of the respondents answered true, which, even granting a potential "fucking with the questioner" contingent, was still a disturbing figure.

Unfortunately, I think there are virtually no chances "that Sarah Palin will actually come out and apologize and learn something about the blood libel and try to raise consciousness about this." So an opportunity wasted, but an education that the problem still exists all the same.


joe said...

Empiricism fail.

There is an even larger confounding factor than "fucking with the questioner" when you design a true/false "poll" like that. The mere question implants the idea that it could be true and some people who have no idea will just guess. For example, I bet I could at least crack the double digits with something like "True or false: Harry Truman suffered from polio." Hell, make it AIDS just to remove the FDR confusion and add some medical impossibility.

The relevant question is whether anyone has heard the blood libel before.

Rebecca said...

I just had a conversation about this with a knowledgeable non-Jewish friend, and she had never heard the term. (When I explained what it referred to, she certainly knew that - but not the term).

N. Friedman said...

I have heard the term used in contexts other than events that have affected Jews. I am thus not sure an apology is really necessary. Be that as it may, the ignorance shown by large chunks of the public is astounding, as is the interest in some in playing politics over the matter.

chingona said...

Just in the last year or two, I've seen the term blood libel used in non-Jewish contexts several times, and it jumped out at me each time. Phrases like "pound of flesh" and "poison the well" have been in general, metaphorical use for a while now, but blood libel, until very recently, seemed reserved for use in Jewish/Israeli contexts.

I feel like it's important for people to know about the concept of blood libel and how it's been used against Jews, but I'm not sure that the term migrating into general usage (which it seems to be on the cusp of doing) would be entirely a bad thing. Has it harmed us or made much difference that well-poisoning is used without any knowledge of the old slander? Honest question, not snark. I have mixed feelings about this.

PG said...

"Pound of flesh" has a literary background that makes its use, detached from anything to do with Jews or any other minority group, a fairly reasonable one. When I say that the customs official demands his "pound of flesh" in exchange for letting me through, I'm both exaggerating and making a Shakespearean reference rather than a specifically historical one. In contrast, I'm not aware of a non-historical basis for "blood libel."

Indeed, if you search Google News for the phrase and have it go back as far as possible (like to the 1700s), there is practically no use of it except with regard to Jews until the late 1990s. (David Irving said in 1991, "The biggest lie of the lot, the blood libel on the German people, is the lie that the Germans had factories of death in which they liquidated millions of their opponents." But I don't think we can expect a Holocaust denier to be sensitive about using the phrase.) The biggest use of it for one specific Jew was Ariel Sharon's claim in the mid-1980s that Time magazine had made a "blood libel" against him -- and at least he was actually suing Time for libel.

chingona said...

This guy did searches for blood libel and then searched excluding Jews/Jewish/Israel, and came up with these results:

I checked Google News, with its mammoth historical archive of news articles. The phrase "blood libel" gets 1,280 hits for articles between 1950 and 2009. But when I search for articles in this range that don't contain the words "Jew," "Jewish," or "Israel," the hits shrink to 76. In other words, as I suspected, it's uncommon for the phrase "blood libel" to be used outside a Jewish (or Israeli) context.

As for David Irving, I suspect he was being deliberately provocative. I'd guess Sarah Palin was simply ignorant, though perhaps it's the sort of ignorance that has little excuse.

joe said...

As for David Irving, I suspect he was being deliberately provocative.

That is like the best understatement ever. No criticism, I mean it was very funny.

PG said...


I think such a search would miss the instances of people saying "X is like the blood libel against Jews," which is something that has been said with regard to slanders of many minority groups (black men, gays, illegal immigrants) who are have actually been victims of mob violence. Palin's phrasing was uncommon in that she failed to say what was happening with her was like the blood libel against Jews, which is why so many people have thought that Palin is just flat-out ignorant of the origin of the phrase and thinks "blood libel" merely means "extra bad kind of defamation."