Did Sarah Palin borrow the term ‘blood libel’ from Israeli discourse?

Sarah Palin, an American conservative celebrity, has used the term ‘blood libel’ to tar critics of her incendiary rhetoric, following a deadly shooting in the US. Did she borrow the phrase from Israeli discourse? Here, it stands for the idea that any accusation against Israel must be a lie. To admit any wrong is to justify violence against Israeli civilians, and the denial of their right for self-determination. After all, does not Israel itself justify violence against civilians and the denial of Palestinians‘ right for self-determination, on the basis of wrongs committed by its neighbors?

Israel, like many other countries throughout the world, has undergone a process of Americanization over the last few decades. This is not very surprising, considering the global cultural dominance of the US, its special relationship with Israel, and its large and influential Jewish community. However, when the process happens in reverse, and a nation of 307 million starts to resemble its tiny protégé, this is enough to make one sit up and take notice.

The harbinger of this trend is none other than Sarah Palin, the former running mate of 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Palin, a conservative celebrity, who served half a term as governor of Alaska, is a notoriously inarticulate gun-lover. Those two traits have undergone an unpleasant merger, as Palin encouraged her supporters to “reload” and “aim for” rival Democrats. She even went so far as to post on her Facebook page a map of the US, marking with rifle targets those congressional districts with Democratic representatives Palin aimed to defeat.

When one of those very Representatives, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot and critically injured in a massacre which left six others dead, some questions emerged about Palin’s rhetoric. In response to this criticism, Palin drew on a favorite phrase employed by defenders of Israel’s policies. She claimed that her critics have engaged in a “blood libel” against her. Blood libels were stories that were spread in the Middle Ages, accusing Jews of killing Christian children and using their blood in their Passover feast. These libels were used to foment and justify violent and deadly attacks against Jewish communities (for an exhaustive summary, read here).

So-called “pro-Israeli” commentators have used this term in recent years in regards to accusations that the IDF was responsible for the death of Palestinian child Muhamad el-Dura. Just in the last few weeks, they employed it again, in regards to the case of Jawaher Abu Rahma, killed due to the excessive use of tear gas against demonstrators in the Palestinian village of Bil’in (+972 has extensive coverage of Jawaher’s death and its aftermath). The suggestive proximity between these statements and Palin’s counter-attack lend credence to Juan Cole’s estimate that Palin borrowed the term from the discourse on Israel.

As Cole mentions, the term ‘blood libel’ was used by Netanyahu to describe the Goldstone report, which called for an investigation into allegations of war crimes committed by both Israel and Hamas during the Gaza war of 2009. Some of these allegations were later substantiated by the IDF’s own criminal investigators. At the time, however, even such a “mainstream” figure as Israeli president Shimon Peres said that the Goldstone report “gives de facto legitimacy to terrorist initiatives”.

That makes about as much sense as Sarah Palin’s allegations that criticism against her “serves only to incite … hatred and violence”. How can calls to tone down heated rhetoric be an incitement to violence? How can demands to investigate war crimes give legitimacy to terrorist attacks?

The answer is simple, and horrible. According to the mindset of some Israelis, if an Israeli is harmed, then any response, however disproportionate, is justified. If refugees disrupt a baby’s sleep, and her father than goes out and violently assaults them, the only cause for concern is the assailant’s safety. If Hezbollah kills three Israeli soldiers, in a vile act of terrorist aggression, than it makes sense to launch a war that would kill hundreds of innocent civilians on both sides and leave tens of thousands homeless. If nine Israelis are brutally massacred by Hamas rockets over a three year period, this is all the justification needed for a military campaign that would leave at least 300 non-combatants dead in three weeks, according to the IDF’s own count.

The Israelis who think this way then project this belief onto their critics. When I say that Jawaher abu Rahma was killed by the IDF, I must be justifying terrorist attacks against innocent Israelis. After all, in the minds of the ‘blood libel’ crowd, if Jawaher was called Adi, and was a Jewish Israeli, her death would certainly justify a massive retaliation, even if it innocent Palestinians are killed along the way. When Goldstone claims that Israel may have committed war crimes, his report surely amounts to a call for Israel’s destruction. After all, if Israel was the target of much lesser wrongs than those described in the report, it would feel completely justified in denying Palestinians’ right of self-determination.

Therefore, the only course of action left for Israel’s “defenders” is spin, obfuscation, and silencing criticism. If they admit any wrong, they would give their enemies ample justification to retaliate. Wouldn’t Israel do the same, in their shoes?