Most of us do not believe that our words are tools of magic that can transform the natural order, resurrect the dead, or murder the innocent. Instead, we have a more sophisticated understanding of language as the very basis of civilized society. We choose our words carefully and we’re grateful that the English language, with its rich vocabulary, allows us to express ourselves with care and nuance because we’re well-aware that our words both express and shape our thinking and our behavior.
It’s curious then that in a video posted to her Facebook page, Sarah Palin would so vociferously insist that language played no role in the Tucson shootings. The angry, sometimes violent, rhetoric and imagery could not have influenced Jared Lee Loughner, claimed Palin in a preemptive ploy for innocence. Toward the end of the video, to emphasize her argument that language plays no role in influencing action, she threw in the phrase “blood libel”:
Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.
Do words have consequences or not? For Palin, it seems, acts of criminality stand alone; yet in the very next sentence she goes on to assert the opposite: that the “journalists and pundits” who want our political rhetoric toned down, and who’ve criticized her image of Rep. Giffords and others caught in the “crosshairs,” are themselves manufacturing a “blood libel” that may well “incite…violence.” So language can manufacture a “blood libel” and incite violence yet she can be so sure that it played no role in motivating a gunman?
As is often the case, we’re never quite clear what Ms. Palin is arguing, and we’re left to wonder whether even she knows. Indeed, I would join other Jewish leaders who hope that, despite having the benefit of Jewish advisers, Palin was simply unaware of the history of “blood libels,” and used it out of ignorance. If she did use the term deliberately, with full knowledge of its connotations, I tremble at the political fabric she is manufacturing. Either way, Ms. Palin may have just garnered a spot in the Jewish history textbooks. Invoking “blood libel” in an utterly inappropriate context, she will be remembered for her manipulative use of one of the ugliest yet most persistent anti-Semitic canards Jews have faced.
The Blood of Christian Children
Jews are not the only religious community accused of cannibalism for ritual purposes; early Christian theologians, such as Tertullian, protested false and outrageous charges by pagans that Christians were killing and eating babies. Needless to say, the charge is utterly without validity; Christians drink wine and bread that are sacramentally transformed into the blood and body of Christ, they do not murder children and they do not drink their blood.
Neither do Jews, of course, yet Jews have been similarly accused and with far more dire consequences.
In England in 1144, Jews were accused by Christians of murdering a Christian boy shortly before Passover, which coincided with the eve of Good Friday, which commemorates the day that Jesus was crucified. The stories that circulated as the accusations spread to France, Spain, Germanic territories, and beyond, claimed that the Jews “crucified” the child (almost always a young, pre-adolescent boy), torturing and cursing him, and eventually either drinking his blood or using it to bake the matzoh they ate on Passover. Groups of Jews were subsequently arrested, tortured, and put to death.
The difference, of course is clear: the false charges against Christians disappeared, while the same false charges against Jews did not. Why?
The accusations of ritual murder and cannibalism tell us nothing true about Christian or Jewish religious worship, but they are windows into the minds of the accusers. The tale these Christians fabricated, about Jews engaging in a ritual murder of a young Christian boy and then drinking his blood, re-created the scenario of the crucifixion of Jesus. When Jesus was crucified by the Romans, of course, Christians could neither rescue him nor vent their rage at the Roman Empire. That dilemma is made plain by the Gospels, which largely blame the Jews rather than the Romans for the death of Jesus; after all, only a fool would risk the wrath of the Roman Empire by holding Rome responsible for the death of Christ.
In the medieval accusations against Jews, however, the outcome was different: once the outcry of ritual murder was brought against a local Jewish community, its men were put to death as retaliation—not simply for the alleged death of a local Christian boy, but for the Jews’ collective guilt for the death of Jesus. After all, does not Matthew’s Gospel claim that the Jews themselves declared, “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children,” thus inviting collective guilt and punishment?
In particular, stories of Jews drinking Christian blood gathered credence during the Middle Ages, appearing in texts like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (“The Prioress’s Tale”) acquiring new motifs along the way; Jews were said to use the blood of Christian children to help heal the wound of circumcision, for example, or as an aphrodisiac. The dead children, meanwhile, were venerated and efforts were made to beatify or canonize them. Simon of Trent, who died in 1475, was canonized by the Pope in 1588, and it was only in 1965, with the Second Vatican Council, that veneration of him was abolished.
Over the centuries, Jews railed against the blood libel, frequently receiving support from bishops, popes, and emperors. Yet the official declarations exonerating Jews from blood libel were often ignored and ritual murder accusations were brought against Jews by priests or laypeople seeking to stir up Christian passions against their Jewish neighbors. Blood libel cases spread eastward into Poland and Lithuania in the early modern period, and into the Middle East, Greece, Russia, Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire by the nineteenth century. The famous so-called Damascus Affair of 1840, which saw Jewish leaders from Western Europe defend Syrian Jews from the blood libel, stimulated treatises by anti-Semitic agitators, along with scholars who defended Jews and pseudo-scholars who falsely claimed that Jewish texts support ritual murder.
The blood libel was even transformed into the Dracula figure, a “blood sucker” who isn’t explicitly identified as a Jew in Bram Stoker’s novel, but who wore a Star of David in an early film production. Who else sucks the blood of innocent Christians, according to the cultural assumptions of Europe, but a Jew.
Indeed, one of the most disturbing elements of the blood libel is its appearance in a scholarly context. University of Heidelberg professor of theology, Georg Beer’s critical edition of the Mishnah Pesachim asserts, without any basis in reality, that each year before Passover Jews murder a Christian out of a longing for Christian blood. As might be expected, the Nazis took quick advantage of blood libel myths in their anti-Semitic propaganda, which found a primed European audience.
By the end of WWII, the blood libel left Europe and was resurrected in the Middle East. The alleged Jewish longing for blood, no longer Christian, was now often represented as money or land. The Arabic translation of The Merchant of Venice, for example, presents Shylock seeking not a pound of flesh from Antonio, but, as a Zionist, appropriating land from Arabs. The Middle East blood libel has evolved to include charges of Jews drinking Arab blood, serialized television programs about ritual murder, newspaper columns, and cartoons—frequently published with official government approval.
Some are Guilty, but All are Responsible
Sarah Palin accused her critics of practicing a “blood libel” and closed by stating that “we need God’s guidance and the peace He provides.” What an odd juxtaposition. We do indeed need God’s guidance, but the God I know from the Bible doesn’t simply provide us peace, but also challenges us, afflicts our conscience, and demands our moral behavior—not simply our pieties.
Palin also quoted a portion of then-Governor Ronald Reagan’s 1968 speech to the Republican National Convention, in which he asserted that:
We must reject the idea that every time a law is broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.
His words, too, run counter to the fundamental precept of the prophets, whose message, according to my father, theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, is clear: “in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Yes, the gunman who pulled the trigger is the one put on trial, but almost instantly we all began a profound and very moving period of collective soul-searching. How might we have contributed to an atmosphere in which such a heinous act could take place? What can we do to change the ugliness of our language? Do our words and tone indicate a bitterness of heart and an anger in our spirits that is damaging to ourselves and our entire society?
“Our society.” The phrase reveals the gulf between a civilized society and the world advocated by Palin. Civilized people strive for ways to coexist and seek moral principles that achieve peace and prosperity for all, not just for ourselves. Palin’s insistence on freedom seems to suggest freedom for oneself, without assuming any responsibility for others; a perspective that would create a wild realm in which each person looks out for herself, not for the collective. Yet again, that is not the message of the Bible. When God points out immoral behavior, it is of the collective people, not individuals. The prophet Amos condemns the crimes and injustices committed by an entire society, be it Israel or Edom, and the prophet Jonah calls on all citizens of Nineveh to repent, not just those who have acted in sin.
The dream of the prophets is not for conquest, power, or wealth. The dream of the prophets is of peace. A civilized society does not live by the sword, but by principles of justice, and those principles require a clear and careful articulation. Words do create worlds.