What ‘blood libel’ really means

In 1255, an 8-year-old boy named Hugh was found dead at the bottom of a well in Lincoln, England. Rumors spread across the village, and soon everyone knew who had done it: the Jews.

But the Jews had done more than simply kill “Hugh of Lincoln,” as the young martyr was called. No, villagers said, it was much worse than that. The Jews — always “the” Jews — had kidnapped the boy, fattened him on milk and white bread for 10 days, and then slaughtered him to use his blood in their Passover ritual.

And that, my fellow Americans, was a real “blood libel.” Not the kind invoked by Sarah Palin, who needs a little history lesson of her own.

By now, you’ve probably seen or read about Palin’s Facebook response to last weekend’s Arizona tragedy. In an eight-minute video clip posted on Wednesday, Palin lambasted critics who blamed angry political rhetoric for the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the deaths of six others.

“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 they purport to condemn,” Palin declared, looking straight at the camera. “That is reprehensible.”

Fair enough. But politicians shouldn’t use careless metaphors that do violence to real historical suffering, either. That’s reprehensible, too.

Let’s be clear: Palin was right about her critics, and she had every right to fight back. It was grossly unfair for Democrats to fault her — or any other Republican — for the heinous acts of Jared Loughner, who shot Giffords outside a Tuscon mall last Saturday.

True, our airwaves are full of violent political rhetoric. And yes, Palin’s own website once posted a graphic depicting Giffords’ congressional district inside a rifle’s cross hairs.

But we have no idea if any of these words or images affected Loughner, whose motives and politics remain largely unknown. At this stage, then, pretending that Republicans are responsible for the Arizona tragedy is, well, a libel against the GOP.

But is it a blood libel? Of course not. And to see why, consider what happened after the death of Hugh of Lincoln.

A local Jew was arrested and tortured into “confessing” to Hugh’s murder. Then he and 92 other Jews were jailed; eventually, eighteen of them were hanged.

So it went, across Europe, from Gloucester and Bristol — two other sites of blood-libel charges in England — to Paris, Salzburg, and Seville. Historians have counted over 100 such episodes between the 11th and 19th centuries, all of them ending in torture, imprisonment, or death for Jews.

Why did Jews want Christian blood? It depended on whom you asked. According to one well-worn myth, Jewish men sought to replenish the blood that they shed when they were circumcised. Others speculated that Jewish men menstruated, which also led to blood loss — and the need to replace it.

And when Europeans came to the Americas, they brought the blood-libel canard with them. In 1850, a New York newspaper ran a front-page story reporting that Jews had bled a Christian missionary to death in the Middle East and mixed his blood with matzoh (unleavened bread) for Passover.

Other Jewish holidays raised similar fears. A few months after the missionary story, on the eve of Yom Kippur, New York was seized by rumors that Jews had killed a Christian girl for the holiest day of their year. The next morning, on Yom Kippur itself, a mob of 500 ransacked a local synagogue to avenge the imaginary crime.

As late as 1928, in Massena, N.Y., Jews faced blood-libel charges in the disappearance of a 4-year-old girl. After all, the town’s mayor noted, the girl had disappeared just two days before Yom Kippur; perhaps Jews had killed her as part of their worship. When the child was discovered a few days later, unharmed, the mayor was forced to apologize.

And just last year, in British Columbia, a Muslim newspaper reported that Israel was allegedly conspiring to kidnap 25,000 Ukranian children and to harvest their organs. After a sharp public outcry, the newspaper removed the article from its website and apologized.

Palin should apologize, too. And not just to Jews, including Giffords.

No, Palin should apologize to all of us. In a speech condemning the irresponsibility of her critics, who have played fast and loose with the facts, Palin did something even worse: She trivialized one of the great crimes of human history.

Are the Republicans to blame for the Arizona shootings? Of course not. But by suggesting as much, were the Democrats doing something akin to mass murder? Palin knows the answer. Now let’s see if she has the courage and the decency to say it.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”