Blood Libel

I normally don’t “do politics” here at, but it is important to have a place to discuss the facts behind the history of the term’s use.

The term blood libel is all over the news and is trending high on Twitter, Google and other up-to-the-minute indexes of what’s hot. Sparking the interest in the term is a comment by politician Sarah Palin in an internet video address. Critics have blamed Palin and other right-wing politicians and pundits for using rhetoric that, in the eyes of the critics, amounts to incitement to violence, and the critics say that Palin and others like her are to blame for the recent shooting in Arizona in which six people, including a federal judge, were killed and thirteen others injured, including a US representative. Palin responds to the criticism by saying:

Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn.

Palin’s video can be seen here (the quote is at about the 3:25 mark).

What has caused the furor over Palin’s use of blood libel is that the term is traditionally used to refer to the belief, which dates to the medieval period, that Jews used the blood of Christian and Muslim children in preparation of the unleavened bread served at the Passover Seder. While the belief is no longer widely held in the Christian West, it is still commonly found in the Muslim world. Palin’s critics are outraged that she is apparently branding her political opponents with a term associated with a heinous and antisemitic belief.

Finding an accurate history of the term’s use is difficult. Unfortunately, the OED does not contain any references to the blood libel, and I am unable to accurately date its origin. (The earliest citation in Google Books that I can find is from 1967, which is much too late). But we can find how the term has been used recently in journalism and by those commenting on the internet.

Is the term used in non-Jewish contexts that would explain or excuse Palin’s use? In an interview with CBS News Radio in New York, the New York Time’s “On Language” columnist Ben Zimmer notes that the meanings of words change, and often specific references become more generalized over time. This is true in a general sense, but is there evidence that the sense of blood libel has been changing and being used in a wider, non-antisemitic context?

The answer is no. While Zimmer’s general point is quite correct, it doesn’t apply in this case. Palin’s use is one of the few that uses the term in an non-antisemitic context (actually the only one that I found, although I am sure there are some others that I’ve missed), and the only one by a person of prominence. The term has become somewhat generalized in that it does not necessarily refer to the use of children’s blood in the Passover ritual, but it always refers to a belief that Jews are murdering someone. For example, in November 2010 right-wing talk show host Glenn Beck accused Democratic supporter George Soros, who is Jewish, of assisting the Nazis in the Holocaust. Beck’s comment was labeled a blood libel by many. A search of Google News in the weeks leading up to the Arizona shooting turns up a handful of journalists using the term, always in reference to antisemitic beliefs. Similarly, a search of Usenet prior to this January turns up a few hundred uses since the 1980s, all in antisemitic contexts. The only use of blood libel that I found that was not in an antisemitic context was in a prayer posted to the Free Republic web site where the reference was ambiguous. (I’m not linking to it because I don’t want to encourage Freeper craziness.)

So it appears that by using the term Palin is using the term in a novel sense that is not justified by its history.

(Update: I have found some other uses of blood libel in non-antisemitic contexts in the days leading up to and just after the Arizona shooting by right-wing journalists. Palin may have gotten her sense of the term from these uses. I did not find them on my initial searches because I ended the date range of those searches a few days prior to the incident in Arizona. The fact remains that Palin’s use of the term is very new.)

(Note: be wary of web pages that purport to give the history of the use of blood libel over the years. Many have been updated in last few days and hours and are distorting the historical record by those with political agendas. One must rely on primary sources when dealing with hot-button issues like this one.)

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