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

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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.