Jerusalem & Babylon / The Case for Mama Grizzly

Getting uppity about misuse of Shoah terminology is so last millennium

This must be the first time this column has praised the Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman for his sobriety, but I admit that I found myself agreeing with him this week when he refused to join the chorus of condemnation emanating from American Jewish leaders over Sarah Palin's use of the term "blood libel." For those of you who've not been following the story closely, the former governor of Alaska and vice-presidential candidate has been coming under fire for "inciting" against Democrat legislators who supported Barack Obama's health care law, and thereby contributing to the virulent atmosphere in which a young man gunned down Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others in Arizona last week. On Wednesday Palin responded to the accusations, saying she had become the victim of a blood libel.

Well you can just imagine the field day a certain kind of Jewish leader has been having ever since. Here's one example from David Harris, the president and CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council: "All we had asked following this weekend's tragedy was for prayers for the dead and wounded, and for all of us to take a step back and look inward to see how we can improve the tenor of our coarsening public debate. Sarah Palin's invocation of a 'blood libel' charge against her perceived enemies is hardly a step in the right direction."

Should we share in Mr. Harris' outrage at Palin's use of this loaded phrase? He is basing his opprobrium on the principle that a (formerly ) persecuted minority owns the slurs and curses once used against them - the way the black American community has control of the word "nigger" and gay people have appropriated "queer."

In the same way, Jews apparently want a monopoly over the rich vocabulary of anti-Semitism. As the phrase "blood libel" has indeed been used as an accusation uniquely against Jews, a proud Christian such as Palin had no business describing the pounding she's been taking in the media as such. And certainly not - and this is the unspoken accusation - when speaking in the wake of the shooting of a Jewish congresswoman.

Well I'm sorry, but I choose not to be offended. And lest anyone suspect my position is based on a sneaking admiration for Mama Grizzly, let me cite an even more egregious use of anti-Semitic imagery.

Last Friday, I covered the weekly demonstration in the West Bank village of Bil'in. While the march and subsequent stone-throwing at Israeli security forces is normally in protest of the separation fence, which cuts the village off from much of its agricultural lands, last week the participants were marching in memory of Jawaher Abu Rahmah - the 36-year-old teacher who may or may not have died from inhaling tear gas. A large number of protesters wore yellow stars on their chests, inscribed with the word "Palestinian." (Get it? Jew, Palestinian, gas - now wait three seconds for it to sink in and read on. )

Should I have been offended by this? I wasn't even slightly bothered. Only later on, when a colleague who had also been at the Bil'in protest asked me what I thought, I realized that it hadn't even occured to me to mention it in my report from the scene. Of course, using the image of the star that the Nazis forced the Jews to wear was crass and insensitive, but the whole panoply of Holocaust imagery has become such a hackneyed cliche that I hardly feel capable of getting worked up about it.

The truth is, if we want to start blaming politicians and activists for cheapening the memory of the six million, we should start with Israeli leaders. Everyone does it. The left are quick to brand the far-right as fascist and speak portentously about "memories of dark periods" when we all know exactly what they mean; and of course our prime minister long ago trademarked his line, "It's 1938 and Iran is Germany" (though to be fair, he hasn't been using it much of late ). Oh and by the way, some of the Gush Katif settlers also used the yellow-star motif when the IDF came to remove them from their Gaza homes.

Jews for Sarah

Getting all uppity about misuse of Shoah terminology is so last millenium; that particular stable door has been left open for far too long.

So back to Sarah Palin. Some may say in her defense that a limited knowledge of world history led her to invoke the blood libel terminology, but I doubt that was the case. The eight-minute video statement she posted on the Web was just too well-produced and scripted for a chance phrase to slip in.

Even if Palin was not aware of the connotation, her well-paid media consultants (some of whom are quite likely Jewish themselves ) assuredly are. And I'm not bothered by that either, because at least in this case, she was actually spot-on. Political assassinations do indeed, as she said, "begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state."

Palin has every right to defend her freedom of speech in the strongest of terms and perhaps we should all be glad that terms such as "blood libel," which once related only to hatred of Jews, have now become an accepted element of political parlance. And this does not have to cheapen these words; instead, it universalizes the abhorrence every decent human being should feel toward bigotry and racism. Still, I do not necessarily agree with all of Palin's defenders.

Did you know that there is a group calling itself Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin? Honest. Though at first their website looks like a spoof. They bill themselves as "an independent group of academic, religious and political leaders," but I was only able to find one name associated with them - Benyamin Korn, former national executive director of the Zionist Organization of America and editor of Philadelphia's Jewish Exponent. He is also the son of a Reform rabbi and a self-described former "left-wing campus activist," now a convert to Lubavitch.

Korn was quick to rush to Palin's defense with a statement including multiple references to the use of "blood libel" in recent American political discourse. And while he's correct when he says that "falsely accusing someone of shedding blood is the definition of a blood libel," something makes me itchy when he explains his reasons for supporting Palin, as he did in an interview with the Jewish Press last May.

I suppose it's arguable that her family-values agenda really meshes with the traditional Orthodox Jewish outlook, as Korn maintains, but in the end his real justification is that, unlike Obama, "this woman clearly loves Israel, and that's what's important." Well no, it isn't, and one blanches to think what a President Palin would do to bring about peace in the Middle East (not that many previous presidents, including the incumbent, have covered themselves in glory in that regard ).

The furor surrounding Palin is about the limits of freedom of speech and the dangers of political demonization. And as much as I delight in disagreeing with Mr. Foxman, I support him wholeheartedly when he reminds us that "Palin has every right to defend herself against these kinds of attacks, and we agree with her that the best tradition in America is one of finding common ground despite our differences." Perhaps, as an Israeli, I'm also a little bit jealous of that tradition.