Sarah Palin in her response to the controversy over her violent political imagery and that of the US right wing in general in the wake of the Tucson massacre, provoked a new controversy when she said,
“Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.”
The “blood libel” was the false and outrageous accusation launched against Jews in medieval and early modern Europe by Christians that they stole Christian babies and used their blood in secret rituals. This bizarre obsession of European Christians resulted in attacks on and pogroms against the poor Jews on many occasions.
So why would a leader of white Christian populists (the kind of people who in previous eras have often been prejudiced against Jews) deploy the language of ‘blood libel’ to make her and her movement seem as though it were a persecuted minority?
I believe that the phrase was taken over by Palin’s speech writers from right wing Israeli discourse. Historian Melani McAlister argued in her book Epic Encounters that the US white right wing began using the Israelis in the late 1970s as a kind of collective Rambo figure to make themselves feel better about their declining power in world affairs. With the loss of the Vietnam War, the oil price spike, the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the hostage crisis, the US went through what Jimmy Carter called a “malaise” and was threatened with loss of control over the Third World.
Israel also seemed besieged by Third World enemies, especially the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and so forth. Thus, a successful Israeli operation such as the rescue of hostages at Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1976 gave the American right wing heart. Israelis were promoted into the ranks of white people (“whiteness,” which began by implying a northern European Protestant ethnicity, can be gained or lost over time by ethnic groups in the United States). The Israelis’ victories over brown peoples were psychological palliatives for the raw feelings of declining American white populists. This surrogacy, Rambo function of Israel for the American right wing was reinforced by September 11 and by the reconfiguration of the Palestinians, among the more secular people in the Middle East, as wild-eyed Muslim fanatics (an image that rather erases the Christian Palestinians from the scene).
In the past ten years both the American right wing and the Israeli right wing have suffered the humiliations of victory. The invasion and occupation of Iraq produced US torture, atrocities, and local civil war, a refutation by reality of the Right’s hopes of restoring the tarnished reputation of war and empire. The Israeli right, which is anyway not a self-reflective set of political traditions, increasingly did not know its own strength. Its wars on little Lebanon and littler Gaza did not look to the world like a David and Goliath story a la the Six Dar War with Egypt and Jordan. Those wars looked like a world class military and a high-tech society beating up on small, less developed neighbors. The Israeli disregard for Arab civilian life, moreover, appalled all close observers who cared about human rights and the international law of war. At the same time, the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank brought increasing misery to stateless, helpless Palestinians.
The Goldstone Report for the United Nations was among the first major extended critiques of Israeli crimes against civilian Palestinians to gain international credibility. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party pushed back against it last November in New Orleans. The Jerusalem Post reported of Netanyahu that he denounced the ‘delegitimization’ of Israel by documents such as the Goldstone report on civilian casualties and called it “a modern day blood libel.”
Psychiatrist Alfred Adler argued that the central human neurosis is an inferiority complex deriving from feelings of inadequacies in childhood, and that some people deal with it by over-compensating and developing a superiority complex, leading them to denigrate and put down others on the basis of ethnicity, for instance. That is, some people deal with their feelings of inadequacy by becoming competent and confident and positive toward their neighbors. Others deal with them by becoming bullies. Netanyahu is a classic of the latter sort, as his rhetoric demonstrates. The Gaza War cannot be criticized because that would make Netanyahu face the inadequacies he has suppressed through his bullying demeanor. To protect himself from critique he must make himself an innocent victim, attacked by the irrational hatreds of others.
In this way, the Goldstone Report, headed by a prominent Jewish jurist, becomes equivalent to the medieval persecution of Jews by fanatical and bigoted Christians.
For the Israeli far right wing, a peace process with Palestinians and the prospect of living with them is itself a blood libel. The USG Open Source Center translated the following:
‘ Washington Talks ‘New Blood Libel’ Against Jews
In a commentary entitled “Who Needs the Palestinian People?” published 23 August on the “Aveterra” LiveJournal blog, Mikha’el Goldenberg writes: “In light of the upcoming talks at the White House and Arab ultimatums, I will venture to declare this meeting ‘the new blood libel’ of the US Administration and its accessories with the aim of destroying the Jewish people under the pretext of peace. The Arabs of Gaza need to be resettled (according to the old 1943 US plan, which the UK opposed) to the territory of Iraq. The Arabs of Judea and Samaria should follow them. The Arabs of Israel must swear loyalty to the State of Israel, or else they can leave to the four winds. Otherwise, their very existence here is a pretext for all wars. No Arab state on historic Jewish land, on the biblical land of the Jewish people. If the United States, Russia, and Europe do not recognize this, then as traitors of their ancestors, who prayed according to the Holy Scriptures, they are unworthy to live on the earth.” (Aveterra LiveJournal in Russian — “Israeli Agency for Political and Politological Information” blog of anonymous writer… )
In this anonymous pro-squatter screed, opposition to the ethnic cleansing of millions of innocent Palestinians is equivalent to pogroms against Jewry.
The misuse of the ‘blood libel’ defense reached a crescendo of absurdity in early 2010, when a rabbi accused of sexual indiscretions dismissed the charges as… you guessed it… ‘a blood libel.’
Palin took the long-standing American right wing populist use of the Israelis as a symbol of white biblical riposte to the siege of pagan brown peoples a step further on Wednesday. She actually identified her followers as themselves a sort of tribe of Israel, and thus open to the same kind of persecution that the children of Israel have long suffered from. This extreme identification with the themes of the Likud and Shas Parties in Israel is an extension of the long-standing tradition of Christian Zionism. Whether Palin’s diction goes beyond that movement to suggest a strain of British Israelism is unclear.
The parallels to the right wing in Israel are exact. Just as its leaders complain that restraints on Israeli freedom of action in killing civilians during wars, or pressure on Israel to accept peaceful co-existence with the Palestinians, are a ‘blood libel,’ so any criticism of Palin for deploying a rhetoric of violence and warfare in civilian politics is likewise a blood libel.
The bully, afflicted by an inferiority complex, sees all opposition as unfair persecution.