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Is 'Blood Libel' the Jewish 'N-Word'?

Sarah Palin's invocation of an old phrase rooted in anti-Semitism has rankled many. But are there grounds for anger?

By now you've probably heard that Sarah Palin used the phrase "blood libel" while attempting to deflect criticism that she and other conservative pundits precipitated Saturday's massacre in Tucson, Arizona. Chances are you've probably also heard that people are upset she said "blood libel." But why? And are there grounds to get so mad?

In case you don't know—and many don't—"blood libel" has its roots in anti-Semitism, as it was originally a charge in the Middle Ages that Jews used the blood of Christian babies in order to make matzo for Passover. Despite being a ridiculous lie, blood libels often resulted in violent pogroms, and they were a well-worn talking point during the Nazi regime.


Given that history, invoking the phrase blood libel can be a tricky business, especially if one is not Jewish or is using the phrase in a way that trivializes it.

For her part, Palin is not Jewish, but she was referring to a very serious issue: Charges that she somehow precipitated an attack that left six people dead and several more hospitalized. Is the term blood libel accurate in that situation? As it goes with these sorts of things, some people say no, but some people say yes.

It should be noted that many other people have described things as being "like blood libel." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done it. So have the media heavyweights Andrew Sullivan, Alex Beam, and Frank Rich. And yet none of those men has taken the sort of heat Palin is taking for her reference. The difference, it would seem, is that Palin is far more polarizing, and thereby far more scrutinized in the media.

As to whether there is grounds to get angry with Palin, the answer is probably yes. Cultural references like these are sensitive subjects, and you can't fault people for being hurt by perceived reckless attacks on their heritage. That being said, perhaps what we have here is sort of a "Jewish n-word." In the same way some people are confused by the abandon with which African-American rappers toss around "nigger" while simultaneously getting up in arms when a white person says the same thing, the discussion swirling around "blood libel" doesn't seem to be about whether it should be said at all, but who should do the saying.

Can Netanyahu and Rich, who are both intrinsically connected to the suffering of Jews, call something a blood libel? Absolutely. Can Palin, a rich white Christian woman? She can, of course, but that doesn't mean she should.

Still, it's important to recognize that, in context, what Palin did was not that unique or shocking. And with so much to criticize that woman about on a near daily basis, why focus on this?