What do Jews, blacks, an advertising reviewer, New Yorkers in general, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Denny Hastert, John Kerry, opponents of the Iraq War, and conservatives all have in common with Sarah Palin?   They have all been victims of blood libel.

Some Jewish groups and leaders lambasted Sarah Palin when she accused of “blood libel” the political opponents who blamed her and other conservatives for the shootings by Jared Lee Loughner of Gabrielle Giffords, a federal judge and othersin Tucson.   Have any of these reporters and experts bothered to look for the actual usage of the term in recent years?

Lexis-Nexis Symbol

A search of the Lexis-Nexis archive service shows that the phrase has been used at least 1000 times in the last 30 years in major newspapers.  This does not include books, journals, smaller newspapers and web blogs, or TV News broadcasts either, to name a few.   Most of these stories do refer to libel against Jews, but not all.

The oldest story in the L-N database was from 1970 when Jewish organizations were protesting Soviet death sentences of Jews.  Golda Meir said the “trial shows Soviet leaders are continuing Czarist traditions of blood libel.”

Another story from an April 1982 Washington Post article referenced Menachim Begin comments about the then recent killings by a member of the Israeli Army.   Begin’s claim was that the Jewish people as a whole were being blamed for the actions of a “deranged man.”

Sometimes invocation of the term “blood libel” comes into criticism even when it is referring to accusations against Jews. Anthony Lewis criticized Begin’s use of the term when the Israeli Army was accused of standing by and doing nothing during the Sabra and Shatila Massacre.  Lewis thought the term inappropriate because it wasn’t a libel.

Time Magazine two years later had an article entitled “SHARON ACCUSES TIME OF ‘BLOOD LIBEL”. Ariel Sharon, in a lawsuit won against the magazine, used a wider definition than this one Time had used:

Blood libel is an ancient phrase used to describe accusations that Jews once killed gentiles to use their blood for Passover rituals.[1]

Sharon defined it this way:

“Being a Jew and one of a people who knew the meaning of blood libel – as a people, as a nation – I knew this could not be put aside,” he responded.  ”What,” he said, ”could be more of a libel than being blamed for encouraging murder?” (The New York Times, September 6, 1984).

Fast forward to December 5th, 1989.  In a New York Times review of the fiction work Fever: Twelve Stories by John Edgar Wideman, reviewer Herbert Mitgang  said that during a 1793 yellow fever plague in Philadelphia  “a form of blood libel is imposed on the blacks in Philadelphia; they are said to be both responsible for and immune to sickness because of the color of their skin.”

By 1991, the term was used by a heroic New Yorker who helped capture a child rapist and was incensed that early reports suggested a crowd of 20 New Yorkers just stood by and watched:  “It’s a blood libel against New York,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing that feeds on everyone’s wicked view of the city.”

That same year the term was even used playfully in an Advertising Age article about criticism of commercials starring Wendy’s founder, Dave Thomas.  Thomas had called the ad reviewer, Bob Garfield, “a slick Madison Avenue type”.  Garfield responded “but at least we stayed away from blood libel….Couldn’t you just have said something nasty about our mother and let it go at that?

In 1995, Oliver Stone spoke with the press about his movie JFK and “a newspaper editor in the audience asked Mr. Stone whether he had any regrets about his “blood libel” of President Lyndon Johnson. Many students who saw JFK came away believing that Mr. Johnson was involved in an assassination plot, the editor said.”    That a newspaper editor would use the term shows that it had already begun to be accepted as a term for any unfounded accusation of murder or complicity thereto.

Another “blood libel” would be perpetrated against LBJ in real life, the claim that he was part of the assassination of Martin Luther King (The Washington Times, May 13, 1998).

Occasionally the term is used of a serious libel in the religious arena, but having nothing to do with shedding blood.  In 2001, Tony Blankely accused Dick Gephart of blood libel for accusing Dennis Hastert of bigotry for passing up a Catholic chaplain to lead the U.S. House.  (The Washington Times, March 01, 2000)

Peter Oborne, a Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph columnist even suggests calling someone a racist (I assume he means falsely) is a blood libel (Sunday Express, April 22, 2001). George Spitz, from the New York Amsterdam News leveled the charge in 1998 of blood libel against a Jewish Organization(!), The Anti-Defamation League accusing it of racism against blacks by calling them anti-Semitic.

Other conservatives have used the term before in less volatile situations than the massacre in Arizona. After Trent Lott resigned during a scandal about his support for former segregationist Strom Thurmond in 2002, the Washington Times editorialized that “Trent Lott has inadvertently provided ammunition to those who would perpetuate the blood libel against conservatism in general and the Republican Party’s Southern-based expansion in particular – that it is tainted by bigotry.”  I find no story castigating the WT for the editorial.

The web has some interesting usage as well.  Isolationist opponents of the Iraq war were supposedly blood libeled by Karl Rove in 2006. Arlen Specter blood libeled conservatives in 2009, according to a David Horowitz website author.  John Kerry was blood libeled by the Swift Boat Veterans.   Judicial candidates have been blood libeled by John McCain, according to CBS News and Andrew Cohen.

Update: Mike Huckabee was accused of blood libel by George Will during the 2007-2008 campaign for pointing out a doctrine that Mitt Romney’s Mormon church believes: that Jesus and the Devil are brothers.


[1] Sometimes the phrase is even used for Scripture references saying Jesus was killed by Jews, and the cry by some that his blood would be on their heads.  These Biblical statements have been used to justify the Holocaust and other atrocities against the Jewish race for centuries.

3 comments
  1. I did not look at every instance cited, but the ones I did look at were ALL spoken by people easily identified with the right. What it suggests is that over several years, the Washington Times, Mike Barnicle, and others have used to term to mean all sorts of things.

    For that list of people to REALLY have something in common with Palin, they would have had to claim they were a victim of a “blood libel”. They haven’t. New Yorkers, as a group, would be highly unlikely to ever misuse that phrase. Kerry, said the liars were liars, he never called it “blood libel” – in the link Barnicle did. There was not one quote of a federal judge claiming they were a victim of “blood libel”. (Blakely using the term when Gephardt questioned Hastert’s unwillingness to have a Catholic chaplain is beyond disgusting as it was not only the wrong phrase to use, but far out of proportion with anything Gephardt said.)

    Ariel Sharon DID use the term, and did so intentionally – and the claim was rejected by many Israelis, horrified by what the Israeli Army actually did – which was to stand by and let one Lebanese faction massacre people in the refugee camp. His intention was to use the historical slur to repel any criticism.

    What this article does prove is that there has been a long time effort, almost entirely on the far right, to generalize a term that for centuries had a specific meaning. This does put her jarring (to me a NJ Jew) use of the word in context. To a lesser degree, it was jarring to hear many politicians on the left or right (including Guiliani) speak of “being swiftboated” when they were attacked. It was soon clear is that they used the word because of the connotation that the charges were lies and that the attack itself was unsavory. It was a shorthand way to try to make the charges backfire on the person making them.

    Here, I suspect that is analogous to what Palin did. She had a right to say that she thought the claims that rhetoric – specifically in many cases, her rhetoric, caused the shooting – which is untrue. Had she just said that and stopped or better yet spoken of the real victims, there would have been no outrage. It seems clear that she used the word hoping it would make her more sympathetic.

    In fact, the bigger risk for Palin before her speech was not that people would blame her – it was already becoming very obvious that it was not the case. The danger was that the shooting was one of those moments when almost all people step back and look clearly at how we see each other. It shines a spotlight on how the hyperventilated demonization of the other side is neither true nor helpful. Palin, unfortunately for her, is one of the people who had the hottest, most negative rhetoric. If, as I hope it will, the country rejects that, Palin will be one of those who might be rejected because of it. At minimum, she needs to retool her image and message if that is the case.

    1. Thanks for your very thoughtful post. Lord Willing, I will reply in more detail tonight or tomorrow. I just want to say now that while Palin’s rhetoric may be the most animated on the right, you surely don’t deny that for every Palin on the right there are 10 on the left and most of those go far beyond Palin in “demonizing” the opposition.

  2. I did not look at every instance cited, but the ones I did look at were ALL spoken by people easily identified with the right. What it suggests is that over several years, the Washington Times, Mike Barnicle, and others have used to term to mean all sorts of things.

    For that list of people to REALLY have something in common with Palin, they would have had to claim they were a victim of a “blood libel”. They haven’t. New Yorkers, as a group, would be highly unlikely to ever misuse that phrase. Kerry, said the liars were liars, he never called it “blood libel” – in the link Barnicle did. There was not one quote of a federal judge claiming they were a victim of “blood libel”. (Blakely using the term when Gephardt questioned Hastert’s unwillingness to have a Catholic chaplain is beyond disgusting as it was not only the wrong phrase to use, but far out of proportion with anything Gephardt said.)

    Ariel Sharon DID use the term, and did so intentionally – and the claim was rejected by many Israelis, horrified by what the Israeli Army actually did – which was to stand by and let one Lebanese faction massacre people in the refugee camp. His intention was to use the historical slur to repel any criticism.

    What this article does prove is that there has been a long time effort, almost entirely on the far right, to generalize a term that for centuries had a specific meaning. This does put her jarring (to me a NJ Jew) use of the word in context. To a lesser degree, it was jarring to hear many politicians on the left or right (including Guiliani) speak of “being swiftboated” when they were attacked. It was soon clear is that they used the word because of the connotation that the charges were lies and that the attack itself was unsavory. It was a shorthand way to try to make the charges backfire on the person making them.

    Here, I suspect that is analogous to what Palin did. She had a right to say that she thought the claims that rhetoric – specifically in many cases, her rhetoric, caused the shooting – which is untrue. Had she just said that and stopped or better yet spoken of the real victims, there would have been no outrage. It seems clear that she used the word hoping it would make her more sympathetic.

    In fact, the bigger risk for Palin before her speech was not that people would blame her – it was already becoming very obvious that it was not the case. The danger was that the shooting was one of those moments when almost all people step back and look clearly at how we see each other. It shines a spotlight on how the hyperventilated demonization of the other side is neither true nor helpful. Palin, unfortunately for her, is one of the people who had the hottest, most negative rhetoric. If, as I hope it will, the country rejects that, Palin will be one of those who might be rejected because of it. At minimum, she needs to retool her image and message if that is the case.

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