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January 12th, 2011
02:42 PM ET

Palin's use of 'blood libel' invokes ancient myth about Jews

By Dan Gilgoff and Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editors

When Sarah Palin said that efforts to connect statements by her or others to last weekend's Arizona shootings amount to a "blood libel," the controversial political figure set off yet another firestorm, invoking a powerful term with deep and terrifying reverberations in Jewish history.

There are many variations on blood libel, but the myth almost always involves accusing Jews of murdering non-Jews and then drinking their blood for ritual purposes, according to Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero.

Blood libel has been invoked throughout Jewish history as a pretext for violence against Jews.

The myth has historically been associated with the Jewish holiday of Passover, which coincides with the Easter season commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Mary C. Boys, a Union Theological Seminary professor who has studied the history of blood libel, said the myth is "related to blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus and the vilification of Jews. A lot of this is peasant ignorance, but it just never died out."

Blood libels often allege that Jews used the blood of gentiles to make Passover matzoh, or unleavened bread, and wine.

Scholars say the term blood libel originated in medieval Europe. "From the 11th century onward, there was an increased virulence of Christian vilification of Jews," said Boys.

The myth appears to have crystallized in 12th century England, when a work called the Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich alleged that a boy had been ritually tortured and killed by Jews, according to a website run by Fordham University's Center for Medieval Studies.

The popular Jewish website My Jewish Learning says that after the allegations surrounding William of Norwich, "the Jews of Norwich were attacked by mobs seeking vengeance and were forced to flee."

"There were hundreds of blood libels throughout history, resulting in the deaths of thousands," the site says. "By the 14th century, ritual murder charges became common at Passover time."

According to Prothero, the blood libel provoked a turning point in Jewish history in 1840, after Jews in Damascus were accused of ritually murdering a Catholic monk. For the first time, Jewish leaders from across Europe and the United States organized against anti-Semitism, Prothero said, citing Joseph Telushkin's book Jewish Literacy.

Some commentators on Wednesday tied blood libel to a verse in the Gospel of Matthew in which those assembled for Jesus' crucifixion say, according to the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, that "His blood be on us and on our children."

But the Union Theological Seminary's Boys said that the verse - Matthew 27:25 - is known as the "blood curse," and that it is different from blood libel, though both have been used to justify anti-Semitism.

"In the final analysis, it's all related to the fact that so much of the Christian telling, Jews had been made responsible for the death of Jesus," she said.

The Anti-Defamation League, which works to combat anti-Semitism, criticized Palin's reference to blood libel, made in a video posted to her Facebook page Wednesday.

"We wish that Palin had not invoked the phrase 'blood-libel' in reference to the actions of journalists and pundits in placing blame for the shooting in Tucson on others," said the group's national director, Abraham Foxman.

"While the term 'blood-libel' has become part of the English parlance to refer to someone being falsely accused," Foxman said in a statement, "we wish that Palin had used another phrase, instead of one so fraught with pain in Jewish history."

Other Jewish groups also criticized Palin's choice of words.

"It is simply inappropriate to compare current American politics with a term that was used by Christians to persecute Jews," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights group. "She has every right to criticize journalists without going over the top."

Some religious scholars also chafed at Palin's use of the term.

"This is not language that we Christians should use when we're victims," said Boys, who is also a Catholic nun. "This is what we charged Jews with... It's improper for us as Christians, who invented it and used it against Jews with horrific consequence, to use this terminology."

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Judaism • Politics • Sarah Palin

soundoff (920 Responses)
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  3. Alec

    I thought I was reading The Onion.

    February 5, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
  4. chuck

    Instead of complaining over Palin's possible misuse of a phrase, perhaps the Jewish community should focus on how Obama is selling Israel down the river. There can be no doubt that Palin would be a much greater ally and friend to Israel than Obama.

    January 25, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  5. Chaigrrl

    I would like to take this opportunity to REFUDIATE everything that everyone has said!

    January 22, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  6. Robert Fisher

    the Blood Libel is a historic fact that the Jews wish would go away. taking this out of the History books is no different than taking the Word Slave our of Mark Twains Book. changing the facts will not change history.

    January 17, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • RightTurnClyde

      "Blood Libel" is not a historical fact. Not ever having heard it before (and I am pretty well read in history) I began to look for it (how could I have missed something that important?). Well first of all there is a lot of confusion about whether the sinister words are "blood libel" or something else with "blood." Well definitely the word "blood" has not innuendo to it .. so what is the modifier that makes it an offense? Well .. all of the postings describing "blood libel" were made on or after January 18th 2011 - how about that. Wikipedia and all of the "fact" engines only report "Blood Liberal" on or AFTER January 18, 2011. It's not mentioned in any history books in Barnes & Noble and you have to do a lot of searching about it. Wekk the >January 18th postings are confuse .. some say the two offending words were used on Good Friday 1144 AD and some say on Holy Saturday 1144 AD .. it is not consistent or clear that the term "Blood" and "Libel" were actually used on one of those two days BUT they never used after wards. So since they were only used once it is hard for anyone in 2011 to say exactly WHAT words were said (even history professors can conger up things they do not know for a fact). But gullible leftists will accept as fact because to verify requires study (and research) and that is not a leftist attribute. Well in any case a one-time usage does not a wide-spread insult make. LOL. I never heard it used in my years. I have heard many cuss words (I was in the Navy) and plenty of nasty labels. "Blood Libel" is not a historical fact.

      January 18, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  7. Christopher Bochniak

    Civility will prevail if people are prepared to prevail. Divisive rhetoric's by people similar to Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and the Rush Limbaugh Show or Fox News that going after high ratings and money, those people must be held more accountable for dangerous and irresponsible speeches that don't serve the public or our nation at all. If you look closely enough you'll see that their after personal prosperity (money) then after average hard working citizen or our nation.
    Anderson thanks you for the good work, and please Keep Them Honest so that the nation can see their true faces.

    January 15, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
    • RightTurnClyde

      So .. you are defining "civility" as passively going along with whatever you believe .. and not objecting to anything you or your favorite people say or do? Acquiescence; blind, stupid, herd-like acquiescence. Big Brother is the messiah - how dare anyone speak in contrary. What's amazing is how the lefties understand psycho's act nuts - and so they love to got to movies like Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, Amity ville, Blair ...but now they universally believe Palin had something to do with a psycho in Tucson. Or that guns caused him to to it. (would axes fall in to the same class of things? Chain saws? Do those THINGS cause behaviors?) Why can those psycho's be civil?

      January 18, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  8. Wow

    Her political positon should just be taken away from her so that we can all be at peace -_-

    January 14, 2011 at 10:08 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.