Is Sarah Palin the victim of a blood libel?

Skewed political-correctness logic has meant that the Tea Party figurehead is being unjustly attacked for misuse of a term that has long assumed metaphorical status. While words can kill, censorship can damage an open society tenfold.

Sarah Palin 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Sarah Palin 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Immediately following the horrible shootings in Tucson, the blame game began. Some liberal democrats blamed the shootings on the poisonous rhetorical atmosphere in Tucson. Some pointed to Arizona’s permissive gun laws. Others were even more specific, pointing to a chart publicized by Sarah Palin that identified certain contested congressional districts, including that of wounded congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, by using the crosshairs of a rifle scope.
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Sarah Palin responded by accusing liberal commentators and journalists of a blood libel. Her use of that term created a firestorm of criticism by Jewish organizations ranging from the Wiesenthal Center to J Street. (J Street, which is more of a lobbying arm for the Democratic Party than for the state of Israel, is more vociferous in condemning Palin for her use of the term blood libel, than in condemning some of their own allies and supporters who frequently misuse the term “Holocaust” to mischaracterize Israeli actions in relation to Palestinians.)
As a lifelong liberal democrat, I am no political supporter of Sarah Palin. I also oppose her use of rifle cross hairs as political symbols. Yet I have no problem with her use of the term blood libel to characterize what she perceives to be false charges that her rhetoric and symbols were partly responsible for the deaths and mayhem in Tucson.
The term blood libel has taken on a broad metaphorical meaning in public discourse. Although its historical origins are rooted in theologically based false accusations against the Jewish people and individual Jews, its current usage is far broader. I myself have used it to describe what I believe to be false accusations against the state of Israel by the Goldstone report. The fact that two of the victims are Jewish is irrelevant to the propriety of using this widely referenced term.
Nor does the term blood libel stand alone as a theologically rooted term that has taken on metaphorical status. The word crucifixion, central to Christian theology, has long been used politically. William Jennings Bryan famously ran for office on the slogan “Do not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.” Similarly, the word crusade, which has darker theological implications, has been used to signify any large scale military or ideological attack. Dwight Eisenhower used that term in the title of his memoir, and some Catholic athletic teams call themselves the Crusaders. (Though I personally disagree with glorifying the horrible crusades against Moslems and Jews, I recognize that the terms have lost its original meaning.) Inquisition, too, has become a generally accepted term describing an unfair investigation or interrogation.
The only term that seems to have preserved its unique status is The Holocaust, perhaps because of the recency of the horrors it inflicted on so many. (To be sure, there are those particularly some strident enemies of Israel who throw around even this term promiscuously, but they are rightly condemned by reasonable people.)
The term blood libel is now used to characterize any false accusation that relates to the killing of human beings. Sarah Palin was accused of being responsible for the death and wounding of multiple human beings. She reasonably believes that accusation to be false in fact and politically inspired. She is entitled, in my view, to use the term blood libel in the context of an accusation of responsibility for bloodletting, without regard to the religion or ethnicity of the perpetrator, the victims, the accusers or the accused.
Language changes over time by usage. Whether Palin was or was not aware of the theological roots of the term she used, she selected a phrase that has become common place. Jews no longer own it, any more than Christians own theological terms rooted in their religion, or Moslems own words like Jihad, which have now assumed metaphorical status.
So let’s stop trying to stifle debate in the name of political correctness and let’s stop pretending to be offended when people we disagree with use words commonly employed, without criticism, by people we agree with. No group owns the vocabulary of political discourse.
The murders in Tucson present us with a teaching moment, as many tragedies do. Full and complete debate should be encouraged not only about the multiple causes of any such tragedy but also about how to prevent reoccurrence. Diverting attention from these issues by undeserved accusations of anti-Semitism and insensitivity distracts from the central issues and chills openness of expression.
The shootings in Tucson and the subsequent controversy inevitably raises comparisons to the murder of the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. That murder too generated considerable controversy over whether the rhetoric in Israel may have contributed to the tragedy. I had a small personal involvement in that controversy, since several days prior to his assassination PM Rabin had asked me to meet with him, to discuss the rhetorical climate in Israel. Rabin was scheduled to be in Boston the week after he was assassinated to speak to a Jewish group. He wanted to have lunch with me to consider whether anything could be done - consistent with freedom of expression - to constrain the rhetoric that he believed might incite violence. Our meeting never took place because the gunman’s bullet ended his life.
Words can kill.  But censorship can kill as well.  As Justice Robert Jackson, the American chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, reminded us: “Those who begin by burning books, end by burning people.”
It is a daunting challenge to strike the appropriate balance between the twin evils of incitement and censorship. Open societies should always err on the side of freedom of expression, and find other ways - consistent with democratic principles - to protect our public officials. Free speech is anything but free, as Americans and Israelis have learned from painful experiences.

Professor Alan Dershowitz’s latest book is a novel, The Trials of Zion.