Thursday, January 20, 2011

Blood Libels

I wouldn’t have thought anything anyone could say in the wake of the shooting in Tucson would have drawn attention away from Gabrielle Giffords and the others who were killed or wounded on January 8. But Sarah Palin somehow managed to do just that by using the phrase “blood libel” to refer to the vendetta she perceives the media to have launched against her in the wake of that massacre over the fact that the website maintained by SarahPac, the federally registered political action committee that exists to promote her as the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, included until just recently a map of the United States with Gabrielle Giffords’ district (and the districts of nineteen other Democrats) depicted in what appeared to be the crosshairs of a rifle’s scope.

The map was controversial even before Tucson, but it was after the assassination attempt against Congresswoman Giffords that the rhetoric really heated up. In a sense, it was a lot of talk about nothing. Even if Jared Lee Loughner, the man arrested and accused of the shooting, turns out to be guilty of the crime with which he has been charged and if it can be proven that he saw the map on the SarahPac website and that he naively or insanely misinterpreted it to mean that Governor Palin was calling upon her admirers to murder twenty sitting members of the House of Representatives, that would still hardly make Governor Palin personally responsible for his actions. But the map nevertheless quickly became symbolic in the minds of many of the overheated rhetoric that seems to have become the common coin of political discourse in our country. And thus too did it become symbolic of the degree to which people who engage in vituperative, borderline-violent, over-the-top language with respect to their political foes must share the responsibility for what happens when people of limited intelligence or virtue, or mentally unbalanced people, act on what they perceive to constitute their wishes.

Governor Palin did not respond well to the intimation that she bore any responsibility for the shooting at all, noting that “acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own” and that such acts “begin and end with the criminals who commit them." Later, though, possibly realizing that crimes rarely begin and end with their perpetrators with no one else at all ever being even indirectly responsible, she took a different tack, explaining that the SarahPac website designers never intended for the graphic to look like gun sights at all, but merely and innocently to resemble “crosshairs like you'd see on maps.” And it was in the context of her effort to respond directly to those whom she felt had impugned her reputation that she used the term “blood libel” to refer to what she perceived as their malicious efforts at calumny.

The Jewish world did not respond well to Sarah Palin’s specific mode of not responding well. Although there were those prominent Jewish figures who defended Governor Palin’s comments, most notably Alan Dershowitz and the well-known Chabad rabbi Shmuley Boteach (who published his thoughts on the matter on the Wall Street Journal website), most Jewish responses were negative, interpreting Sarah Palin’s comment as yet another attempt to devalue a monstrous horror that led to unimaginable Jewish suffering over the centuries and recast it as a mere turn of phrase. And it is that specific aspect of the issue that I would like to write about today.

I was first exposed to the concept of the blood libel as a teenager when I read André Schwarz-Bart’s great novel, The Last of the Just, which was one of the very first and remains in my opinion one of the greatest works of Holocaust-based fiction. (Published in French in 1959, it won the Prix de Goncourt, France’s highest literary prize, and almost all by itself established the genre of the Shoah novel. To this day when people occasionally ask me where to get started in reading about the Shoah, I almost invariably suggest they begin by reading Schwarz-Bart’s book.) Other books followed, notably R. Po-chia Hsia’s harrowing The Myth of Ritual Murder, published by Yale University Press in 1988, which I can also recommend very highly. The concept itself, though, does not require any complicated research to understand: the name “blood libel” is generally applied specifically to the malicious fantasy that Jews regularly, or at least occasionally, murder non-Jewish children to use their blood in the baking of matza or to perform some other religious ritual. Over the years, there have been thousands of such accusations, of which about 150 (so Walter Laqueur in his 2006 Oxford University Press book, The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism) have resulted in the arrest, torture, and murder of innocent Jewish people, sometimes by an enraged mob and sometimes following a phony trial. Alan Dundes’ 1991 book, The Blood Libel Legend, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, details and provides eye-witness testimony regarding an array of such incidents that is as amazing as it is deeply distressing. Nor is this exclusively a medieval phenomenon. The Kishinev Pogrom of 1903 took place against a blood libel accusation, as did the pogrom in Kielce, Poland, in 1946 in the course of which forty Jews were killed in the worst instance of anti-Jewish violence on Polish soil in the years following the Shoah. Nor even can Americans consider themselves exempt from all of this: there was a blood libel leveled against the Jews of Massena, New York, a remote town on the Canadian border, in 1928. (No one was tried or killed in Massena, but the very thought that such an event even could occur here on our shores should give us all pause for thought. Interested readers can consult Saul Friedman’s The Incident at Massena, published in 1978 by Stein & Day.) And so was it with all of these details in mind that the American Jewish community tried to unpack Governor Palin’s remark that she too was the victim of a blood libel.

We knew what she meant. The essence of the blood libel is the false accusation of murder and she too felt that she was being blamed, circuitously but meaningfully, for the murder of six people and the attempted murder of a member of Congress. Obviously, no one really considered her legally responsible. No grand jury would ever return an indictment of murder against someone merely for publishing a map on a website that no sane person would actually understand to constitute a suggestion that members of our government be shot to death. But her sense that she was nonetheless being tarred with the same brush, albeit one with considerably less tar on it, than the actual shooter is at the heart of her decision to use blood libel terminology to respond to the suggestion that she bears some responsibility for Tucson. On the other hand, there are some profound distinctions to make. The belief that Jews murder non-Jewish children because their blood is an essential ingredient of matza is totally false.But the graphic on Governor Palin’s SarahPac website could certainly be taken to mean that the ideal way to see members of Congress who supported President Obama’s health care bill would be through the crosshairs of a rifle’s telescopic sight. Clearly, that does not make her a party to murder. But it also seems beyond exaggerated to equate the feeling that former Governor Palin erred grievously by permitting her SarahPac website to introduce into the rhetoric of American politics the image of an enraged populace aiming guns at members of Congress with crimes committed against innocent Jewish people that include torture, exile, and murder.

In a sense, Governor Palin touched a raw nerve because her comment was only one of so many over these last years that appear to devalue the suffering of Jewish people by making too casual use of the vocabulary of anti-Semitism to make wholly unrelated points. I am not referring to using Holocaust-based terminology to refer to actual instances of genocide either, but rather to extended uses that appear to cheapen the memory of the dead, for example when the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) refer to the meat that comes from American abattoirs as a “holocaust on your plate” or when Representative Alan Grayson of Florida referred to the absence of national health care in America as a holocaust in its own right or when people refer to questioning the reality of global warming as the ecological version of denying that the Holocaust occurred. But even here our feelings are naturally mixed: on the one hand, we are the ones who want the Shoah never to be forgotten and for the memory of the martyrs to be an indelible part of the heritage of all humanity. Yet when people take that thought and run with it by applying it to unrelated events we find the effect jarring and unsettling.

In its own way, the issue is foreshadowed in the Torah itself at the very end of Parshat Ki Tetzei, where the Torah almost in the very same breath commands us eternally to remember the dastardly way the nation of Amalek attacked the Israelites in the desert and also to erase any recollection of that nation “from beneath the heavens.” The obvious incompatibility of the two commands—to preserve but also to eradicate the memory of Amalek—suggests the conflict we are experiencing in the wake of Sarah Palin’s remarks. We want the world to forget about blood libels, to consign the concept to the waste-bin of outrageously defamatory ideas leveled by a hostile world against innocent Jewish people. But we also want the opposite—for the world to know what it has traditionally meant to be a Jew in a hostile world, for the world never to forget the misery our co-religionists have had to endure in the lands of their dispersion, for the libelous lies leveled against us specifically never to be forgotten or treated as mere footnotes in the history of bigotry. We want it both ways! And Sarah Palin’s remark stung not so much because of what she actually said, I think, but because it exacerbated our frustration at not being able to have it both ways, at not being able to talk endlessly about the Shoah and to devote ourselves to keeping the memory of the kedoshim alive…and also to guarantee that no one will ever appropriate the vocabulary we ourselves taught them to say something unrelated to us and to our history.

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