Thursday, January 13, 2011

Is "blood libel" a generic expression?

linked to at DovBear's blog

Sarah Palin's use of the phrase "blood libel" to describe claims that her actions contributed to the recent shootings sparked considerable controversy yesterday. Even conservatives like Jonah Goldberg and Jennifer Rubin who agreed with the substance of her remarks felt it wasn't the best choice of words. But it earned a defense from an unlikely source: Alan Dershowitz.
The term “blood libel” has taken on a broad metaphorical meaning in public discourse. Although its historical origins were in theologically based false accusations against the Jews and the Jewish People, its current usage is far broader. I myself have used it to describe false accusations against the State of Israel by the Goldstone Report. There is nothing improper and certainly nothing anti-Semitic in Sarah Palin using the term to characterize what she reasonably believes are false accusations that her words or images may have caused a mentally disturbed individual to kill and maim. The fact that two of the victims are Jewish is utterly irrelevant to the propriety of using this widely used term.
I myself am unfamiliar with the use of the term outside a Jewish context, and Dershowitz hardly proves his case by citing his own use of it to describe a report charging the Jewish state with war crimes. But I was curious about whether his larger point holds up to scrutiny. Certainly there are expressions that have acquired a generic quality even though they have the potential to cause offense because of their historical associations. I think of when President Bush dropped his use of the word "crusade" in 2001, fearing it would offend Muslims. It was a good idea, but his usage of the term was at least understandable. To most English speakers, "crusade" is a generic term for fighting for something. Is the phrase "blood libel," similarly, a generic term for being falsely accused of a terrible deed?

I checked Google News, with its mammoth historical archive of news articles. The phrase "blood libel" gets 1,280 hits for articles between 1950 and 2009. But when I search for articles in this range that don't contain the words "Jew," "Jewish," or "Israel," the hits shrink to 76. In other words, as I suspected, it's uncommon for the phrase "blood libel" to be used outside a Jewish (or Israeli) context.

Uncommon--but not unheard of. Jim Geraghty has dug up several examples, such as when Peter Deutsch in 2000 said Republicans made a "blood libel" against Al Gore when they accused him of disenfranchising soldiers. What is striking, though, is that most of the other examples Geraghty cites concern attacks on entire groups, such as blacks or homosexuals. Charging that all gay men are pedophiles may not constitute an exact historical parallel with the claim that Jews baked Christian children in their matzo, but it isn't all that different either.

Palin is not part of a persecuted minority. She hasn't been legally charged with anything. The criticism that she may have somehow provoked the shooting with violent rhetoric and imagery was directed at her as an individual, not as a member of a group. Her usage of the term "blood libel" in this context is unusual--and certainly inappropriate.