January 12th, 2011
04:34 PM ET
Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
Just when you thought American political rhetoric couldn't get any more toxic, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin is taking us to a new low, casting herself on her Facebook page not just as a victim of the liberal media elite but as a victim of "blood libel."
For those who do not know - and I can only pray that Palin is among them - "blood libel” refers to the anti-semitic myth that Jews were in the business of murdering Christians (often children) and then ritually drinking their blood - a myth that led over the years to the death of tens of thousands of innocent Jews.
So it should not be surprising that Jewish leaders (Alan Dershowitz notwithstanding) are uniting to denounce Palin's foolish and inflammatory remarks. The Anti-Defamation League’s response was measured—timid, even—defending Palin against accusations that she was somehow to blame for the tragedy yet wishing that she “had not invoked the phrase ‘blood-libel’” because that term is “so fraught with pain in Jewish history.”
The dovish Jewish group J-Street did more than wish, however. Its president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, assuming that she was innocent of the history of the term, called for her to retract her statement and apologize:
You don’t have to be Jewish, of course, to be offended by Palin’s latest remarks, or by Glenn Harlan Reynolds' Wall Street Journal opinion piece on “The Arizona Tragedy and the Politics of Blood Libel.” But you do need to know something about religious history. And unfortunately, most U.S. citizens, and many American politicians, exhibit a shocking degree of religious illiteracy.
Governor Palin describes herself as a Christian. Part of being a Christian is confessing your sins, or, to put it in less pious terms, admitting your mistakes. And it is almost always a mistake for Christians to liken their supposed persecution to the persecution of Jews.
But trumped-up victimization is popular nowadays, as anyone who subscribes to Palin's tweets or visits her Facebook page can attest. And apparently in this moment of national tragedy we are supposed to be paying attention not to the real victims of this tragedy–including a Jewish congresswoman now lying in a hospital bed in Tucson–but to a pretend victim standing comfortably in front of a videocam in Alaska.
I know moments like this one are supposed to be apolitical. As any politician knows, however, they are not. And the tragedy in Tucson presented a palpable political opportunity to Governor Palin.
In the aftermath of the shootings,she could have taken a step back, drawn a deep breath, and admitted that her decision to use crosshairs on her now infamous map targeting 20 Democrats was not particularly wise. Without admitting any responsibility for the shootings, she could have shown some regret, expressed some remorse.
She could have repented of whatever she had done to make our political rhetoric so poisonous, and vowed to stick to the issues going forward rather than to personal attacks.
But Sarah Palin is now as much an icon as she is a human being, a Tea Party darling trapped inside a political brand not entirely of her own making. She is the Mama Grizzly who said, "Don't retreat, instead - reload." So instead of retreating she reloaded, casting herself as a persecuted Jew.
Back in March, speaking of Palin’s decision to put her district on her crosshairs map, Rep. Giffords said, “when people do that, they’ve gotta realize there’s consequences to that action.” The same goes for Palin's latest decision. There are consequences to that action too.
For future historians who want to find the moment when Sarah Palin chose life as a culture warrior over life as a legitimate contender for White House, this moment is likely to be it.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.
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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.