'Blood libel': The two words that spelled trouble for Sarah Palin

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Politicians often reach for hyperbolic phrases to make a point – Sarah Palin is the latest. But 'blood libel' has an appalling religious significance that should see it banished for ever, argues Peter Stanford

Sarah Palin was straining to look presidential. With the Stars and Stripes at her side, the former Governor of Alaska read a scripted address in an effort to rebut persistent claims that she was guilty by association over the deaths of six people and the wounding of a further 13, including the Democratic Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, at an Arizona supermarket. The charges against her – which arose because the unashamedly gun-toting Palin had placed a rifle target over Arizona during the 2010 election to designate that Giffords was a politician she wanted out of the way – were not only unjust and reprehensible, she intoned soberly, but were "a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they [journalists and pundits] purport to condemn".

Her use of the two words "blood libel" made my jaw drop. Perhaps she meant "bloody libel", one charitable commentator suggested, and had simply misread the autocue. But this was not just another of Palin's trademark foot-in-mouth broadcast moments, mixing up North and South Korea, failing to name any of the "many" papers she reads daily, or "refudiating" her opponents' taunts. No, Palin intended to say "blood libel". The real question is, did she have any idea what the phrase actually meant and therefore of the offence it might – and has – caused?

The generous view is that she was desperately seeking a way to make "false accusation" seem more dramatic and herself a bit more wounded by the scapegoating slurs of her opponents.

Palin's grasp of history isn't any more celebrated than her geography. She once suggested Russia shared a land border with the USA and described Africa as a country. Indeed her ignorance is seen as part of her charm by her supporters. So why would she know that "blood libel" has a very specific and ugly meaning that, even in 2011, remains odious and to be avoided at all costs?

The blood libel myth, widely practised in the Middle Ages, held that Jews kidnapped Christian children, sacrificed them, and then used their blood in unleavened bread at Passover. If it sounds like the sick fantasy of an internet-only horror flick, then many in medieval Europe took it as gospel and, as a consequence, thousands of Jews were killed or driven out of their homes in pogroms. In 1144, for example, the Jews of Norwich, then Britain's third city, were accused of just such a ritual slaughter of a 12-year-old apprentice boy called William. Though a court dismissed the charges, the popular verdict of guilty had already been reached. There were violent attacks on Jews in the city and the riots eventually spread to York and London.

But surely that was almost nine centuries ago, and there are plenty of historical episodes, popular in their time and shameful in retrospect, that have now jettisoned their original context to become part of modern discourse. The word "crusader", for instance, is now regularly used to brand bicycles, bands, cars and even a holiday company. No one would seriously suggest that those booking tickets on Crusader Coaches are intent on visiting the Holy Land to kill Jews and Muslims in imitation of the original Crusaders sent out by the Pope in 1095 to murder infidels. (Note to Sarah: it's on Wikipedia.)

And the phrase blood libel itself has occasionally been used in recent times by politicians without causing any great outrage. Jed Babbin, a senior official in George Bush Senior's White House, in 2004 publicly accused the Democratic presidential hopeful, John Kerry, of a blood libel by questioning US military tactics in the Vietnam War.

When political tempers get frayed, blood libel may not be in the top drawer of easy-to-access emotive remarks, designed to win sympathy and damn your opponents, but it is there in the filing cabinet, albeit marked for those with eyes to see "use with care". But Palin's use of the emotive words stands out from the usual rough-and-tumble of political posturing for other reasons, not least that the anti-Semitic overtones of the phrase she chose to use jars when 30-year-old Gabe Zimmerman, one of those killed by gunman Jared Loughner, was Jewish, as is his boss, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, still in intensive care after a bullet wound to her brain.

For Palin to present herself as the real victim when six people are dead and 13 in hospital is wrongheaded and self-centred, but that's politicians for you. For her to go on to liken her treatment to the profound injustice done to generations of Jews down the ages when in Tuscon a Jewish man is about to be buried, and a Jewish woman is fighting for her life, took my breath away. The just-another-of-Sarah's-inept-gaffes excuse is wearing a little thin. So did Palin deliberately set out to cause offence? The evidence stacks up. Though she is lionised by right-wing Republicans, she knows that any hopes she has of a successful run for presidency in 2012 depends on broadening her appeal beyond Tea Party zealots, fellow God-squaders, and the nation's hockey moms. She has therefore gathered around her a team of advisors to make her sound more plausible to the American electorate. There have been weighty articles under her byline about economic policy and stage-managed visits to Haiti to meet earthquake survivors. She even plans to go to Israel, long a pivotal issue in US politics. She may want to reschedule that after her broadcast.

In this context, Palin's use of the words "blood libel" feels much more like a calculated appeal to Christian voters in the States. She often describes the US as a "Christian nation" and had already talked in her speech about how she was praying for the victims in Tucson. By mentioning the blood libel, she was showing electors that she is someone who knows her Bible.

There is an ongoing scholarly dispute about the origins of the blood libel. Some see them in economic factors – the envy the Jews of the Middle Ages prompted in their fellow citizens. Living mainly in cities, the 1,500,000 European Jews in the 12th and 13th centuries were over-represented in professions such as law, medicine and finance, and were often among the few literate and numerate residents. Their success and wealth led to their persecution, according to this theory, but greed had to be dressed up in the garb of religious hatred, hence the blood libel.

Other academics, though, prefer to see the roots of the blood libel in religion and the Good Book, specifically in words uttered at Jesus' trial in chapter 27 of Matthew's Gospel. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, wanting to release Jesus but prevented from doing so by a crowd baying for his blood, symbolically washes his hands. "I am innocent of this man's blood. It is your concern," he says. And the crowd shouts back, "his blood be on us and our children".

Christianity spent its first 1800 years quoting this remark as proof positive that the Jews would be eternally guilty of the crime of deicide. The stain of Jesus' blood had been passed down through the ages and was still on their hands. It was only in 1965 that the Catholic Church got round formally to dismissing this nonsense in the document, Nostra Aetate. Before that, as late as 1858, Pope Pius IX ignored an international outcry when in the city of Bologna (then part of the Papal States) he seized from his parents a Jewish child, Edgardo Mortara, so that the boy could be raised a Catholic. How much better than being brought up by Christ-killers, it was argued in the Pope's defence.

The connection between the charge of deicide and the blood libel is a complex one, but there is sufficient common ground between the two for them to overlap and in the popular mind in the medieval period become one. A race that killed the Messiah would think nothing of the ritual sacrifice of a child.

Quite what prompted the imagined but shared set of circumstances in most of blood libel stories is likewise hotly disputed by academics. One possibility is that the template is based on accounts, during the Crusades, of Jews in the Holy Land killing their own offspring to avoid them being seized by the Christian invaders. In the retelling in the oral tradition, this became Jews kidnapping Christian children and using their blood.

Another suggested source of this wicked collective fantasy lies in the demonisation of the early Christians by the Roman authorities. They were intrigued by the secret gatherings of the fledgling church and dismissed the given reason that they were simply sharing bread and wine at a eucharistic feast. Instead the Romans became inflamed by talk of Christians sacrificing Jesus' body and blood, and ended up endorsing rumours of cannibalism. "As for the initiation of new members," reported Minucius Felix in Octavius, his account of Roman attitudes to Christians, "the details are as disgusting as they are well-known. A child covered in dough to deceive the unwary is set before a would-be novice. The novice stabs the child to death with invisible blows ... Then they drink hungrily the child's blood and compete with another as they divide the limbs."

In this theory, the Christian Church evolved from being accused of blood sacrifice by its enemies to, once it had achieved political hegemony in Europe, accusing those it regarded as challenging its power, the Jews, of exactly the same crime. There was certainly a rush of cases of blood libel in the medieval period when an all-powerful papacy, backed by the Inquisition, rallied the faithful by accusing those who remained outside their control – principally Jews and pagans – of supping with the Devil and indulging in foul rituals.

Other notable cases, beside William of Norwich, include those of Hugh of Lincoln, Robert of Bury and Harold of Gloucester. All were young Christian boys, all disappeared, and in each case the local Jewish community was convicted in the court of public opinion of killing them to use their blood in Passover bread. Robert's death in 1181 cost 57 Jews in Bury St Edmunds their lives at the hands of the mob, while the rest of their community was expelled from the Suffolk town. Hugh's demise – mentioned in Chaucer – led to 18 local Jews being hanged, though the real motive appears to have been the greed of local officials who could boost tax revenue by seizing the assets of any accused Jew.

All three boys went on to become popular Christian saints, though their cults have been largely discarded by Catholicism in more recent times. And it didn't just happen in Britain. Another notorious case was that of Simon of Trento in Italy. His disappearance in 1475 set off the same chain of events, culminating in eight local Jews being burned at the stake. For centuries he was regarded as the patron saint of torture victims but again has been sidelined by Catholicism.

The modern Russian Orthodox Church appears to have fewer qualms about Saint Gavriil of Belostok. This six-year-old son of devout Orthodox parents went missing at Passover time in 1690 in the town of Grodno, then in Poland. Local Jews faced the blood libel. His remains were kept in a monastery and in 1820 he was canonised and made patron saint for children. His cult died out in Soviet times, but the 1990s saw a revival of pilgrimages to Grodno in newly-independent Belarus, and led to concerns of anti-Semitism being expressed to the United Nations Human Rights' Commission.

Like Republicans of her ilk, Sarah Palin is, of course, no great admirer of the UN. But, in her drive to be regarded as an international stateswoman, she may like to reflect that the blood libel has never quite been consigned to history. It was repeated often by the Nazis to justify the Holocaust and, as recently as 2005, 20 members of the Russian state Duma lodged a complaint with the Prosecutor General's Office, demanding that Russia "ban all Jewish organisations" because they were engaged in "anti-Christian and inhumane practices [which] extend even to ritual murders". Not the sort of allies she needs if she is to be president.

Sarah Palin is playing with fire. She has been one of the most effective practitioners of the use of words-as-weapons, damning Barack Obama's healthcare reforms, for instance, as "death laws". But just as such poisonous oratory can get the crowds cheering, it can also lay you low. Perhaps the real choice that faces Palin now is whether she wants to join the ranks of politicians whose gaffes and casual ignorance of history make them a joke, or step up into the responsible mainstream.

In the first camp is former US Vice-President, Dan Quayle, who once remarked that "the Holocaust was an obscene period in our nation's history", or Italian premier, Silvio Berlusconi, who recently celebrated his 74th birthday with an ill-chosen joke about Jews, money and the Holocaust that he later protested was just a misunderstanding.

Before this sounds like (yet another) assault on Palin, it is worth entering in mitigation that she is not alone, when reaching for a phrase to smite her rivals, in hitting upon something odious that will blow up in her face. Even the secular saint Polly Toynbee – better educated and more articulate – caused offence recently when she described the Coalition Government's cuts as a "Final Solution". But if there was, as seems likely, even an iota of calculation in what Palin said – whether by her or her speechwriters – then right now she should be bowing her head in shame.

Peter Stanford's The Devil: a Biography is published in paperback and e-book by Arrow

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