Poor Sarah Palin. She can’t seem to open her mouth in public without
putting at least one foot in it. Using the phrase “blood libel” to describe political commentators or her opponents
blaming her for the Tucson shootings was most unfortunate. I have to wonder, though, if she even knew beforehand what kind
of freight that phrase carries. Probably not. She is an outstanding example of the shortcomings of American education.
On the other hand, I have to say that we, the Jewish community, cannot trademark or otherwise protect words like
“blood libel,” “genocide” or even “Holocaust” as much as we might like to. One of the
strengths of our English language is its extraordinary plasticity, even if this results in such barbarisms as using “genocide”
as an anti-abortion slogan.
and misuse of words ultimately robs them of their strength and trivializes both the words themselves and the things they were
invented to highlight. This is a mixed blessing because it means that fewer words are “fighting words,” but it
also desensitizes us to things that we should remain sensitive to. But I digress.
Did you know that the last (or latest?) blood libel incident happened in 1928
and that it took place in upstate New York?
It was in September of that year that a three-year-old girl, a Christian, was reported missing there. Massena is
still a small community – it was very rural then – right across the river from Ontario, easy enough to wander
out of. But in the first stages of panic, a local police officer got the idea that Massena’s rabbi might know something
of the child’s whereabouts and the rabbi was duly brought in for questioning.
The rabbi, Berel Brennglass, had emigrated from Lithuania in 1915 and he knew
the drill. So might anyone else who could read a newspaper; the infamous Beilis Case in Russia concluded the year Brennglass
left. That case, by the way, was brilliantly delineated in Bernard Malamud’s best book, The Fixer, and made in to a very effective movie starring Alan Batea and Dirk Bogarde.
(Parenthetically, is it any wonder that so many Jewish people supported the overthrow of the Czar only two years later?)
Fortunately, even upstate New York was not as
backward as Czarist Russia. Someone made a phone call to New York and the news reached Reform Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, at the
time the nation’s leading Jewish spokesperson. Immediately, the “big guns” of the Jewish community trained
northward and in short order, the case was quashed, the mayor of Massena formally apologized and the hapless police officer
Meanwhile, the little
girl was found safe, just wandering around in the woods….
Thus ended what I hope will be the last of these scurrilous blood libels after only a thousand years – the earliest seems to date from the tenth Christian
century. And, speaking of Christians, it’s my belief that the whole heinous business got started because people in the
far corners of the Roman Empire heard vague reports of a new “Jewish hippie” sect - later known as Christianity
- in which the faithful ate their God and drank his blood. Some still do, but they call it Communion and no one today is greatly
exercised by the practice.
In my teaching
career I often had occasion to point out that Jews are forbidden to ingest the blood of any living thing, so using human blood
– in matzoth, the original blood libel – would
be completely impossible. But you cannot reason people out of what they didn’t reason themselves into.
Well, maybe Gov. Palin’s little flap will
have the positive effect of causing people to educate themselves about this ugly facet of Jewish history and lead to a deeper
understanding about why we are so sensitive, even in matters regarding language.