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Friday, January 14, 2011

[By Barry Rubin, crossposted from The Rubin Report.]

d_Dolginovo_1931_g_Bazarnaq_plosadq_Repeticiq_parada_k_3_maq.jpg

The main street of Dolhinov, then in Poland, in 1931 on Polish national day. The 1886 pogrom took place in the area pictured and against Jewish shops on the left behind the onlookers.

Without taking any partisan position, but purely on the issue's historical merits, nothing could have been more appropriate than Sarah Palin's use of the term "blood libel" to describe what happened to her after the Tucson killings. I know because my direct ancestors were the target of a blood libel.

A blood libel is a false accusation that someone else has deliberately caused the shedding of blood, made in order to harm that person or people, advance one's own political and ideological agenda, and stir up hatred for them in a manner that might lead to the shedding of their blood in revenge.

I'll tell the story of an actual blood libel first--recounted by newspapers at the time and interviews with the peasants done later by Russian anthropologists--and then explain the current post-Tucson story.

It's a beautiful spring day for a fair, May 8, 1886, the festival of Saint Stanislav Dolhinov's Russian Orthodox patron saint and the local church's namesake in the town of Dolhinov, half-way between Vilna and Minsk. Among those walking around in the crowd and enjoying the food and festivities is the Krasovsky family of Gabytatsya village. Somehow, their 12-year-old son, Stanislav, whose holy name day it is, wanders off or perhaps his parents--dazzled by the splendors around them, relaxed by drink or tending their other children--lose track of him.

He's never seen alive again. Naturally, the parents launch a frantic search but he's nowhere to be found in Dolhinov's streets. Five days later, his body is discovered deep in the forest and many miles away, covered with tree branches. It is rumored that he had been stabbed in a dozen places. His funeral is held in Budslav, with lots of police to ensure no disturbances break out. You can still see his grave there, marked with a large pine cross.

Ritual murder is an old antisemitic accusation. It is one of the Canterbury Tales, that fourteenth-century classic of early English literature. In the Dolhinov area there is an account of such a story from 1603. The slander popped up as far away as Damascus, Syria, in 1840, and the long-time, Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass published a book in 1983 claiming Jews really do murder little children to turn their blood into matzoh. In Saudi Arabia it's still claimed as true in newspapers, and the slander appears transmuted into modern political form through propaganda stories claiming deliberate Israeli murders of Palestinian children.

This is progress! From illiterate Byelorussian peasants to the United Nations in just a bit over a century! Of course, the alleged motivation has been altered to keep up with the times. Not the primitive notion of turning corpses into matzot but merely a greed for land and racism are your up-to-date, hip, explanations for blood libels.

But back to Dolhinov. The peasants whispered that one Leiba Katsovich from the village Matyki, found little Stanislav wandering alone in the crowd and promised to lead him back to his parents. Instead, Katsovich supposedly took him to a Mr. Rubin, very possibly my great-great-grandfather, Yankel (Jacob) Rubin, who was then around forty years old, or one of his cousins.

On Easter Thursday, June 12, many Byelorussians arrived in town well-fortified with copious amounts of home-made vodka. The police, tipped off that a riot was imminent, arrived in force but then stood by and did nothing. Led by people from the villages of Pogost and Bitavsty, the mob set off to find the evil Rubin and put him to death. Armed with poles, stones, and even sheep-shears, they ran across the central square, just outside their church, and charged into the tailor, hairdresser, and other shops. Windows were smashed, shops looted, the contents of the synagogue were dragged outside or taken home by peasants.

Four Jews were covered with tar. Some accounts say none were killed, others that several were left dead. If they had found my great-great-grandfather I probably wouldn't be here writing this. The police didn't investigate, no one was charged or jailed. Jews could not expect the Russian authorities to protect them.

And none of the peasants saw anything wrong in the assault on defenseless people since, after all, they believed the Jews deserved it. They even wrote a proud song about it, still being sung, with accompaniment by accordion and cymbals, a half-century later in surrounding villages:

"In 1886 all the people revolted,
Even Poles in Dolhinov revolted,
They were eating bread, drinking vodka and beating and strangling Jews
When they drank more they started beating Jews harder....
The Jews were suffering for the boy, Stanislav.
The Jews caught the boy; they didn't give him anything to eat for 3 days,
They put him in a barrel and were rocking him,
They pulled him from the barrel as from a bog; all his body was pricked....
And nailed to the wall, and thrust through the ears with wire....
Let's beat Jews in revenge for Christian blood!"

Now, fast forward to 2011. People have been murdered and someone did murder them. A blood libel means to accuse an entire group, and a person or persons within this group, for the killing. In this case, a 22-year-old mentally ill man shot, killed, and wounded people. Those who knew him say he hated television and didn't listen to talk radio. He was registered Independent and once burned an American flag.

Yet conservatives in general, and Sarah Palin in particular, are accused of responsibility for this deed, often by those who have been equally or even more inciteful.

Why? Because she and others allegedly stirred up the murderer to commit his deed for their perverted political goals, their desire--so to speak--to use the blood of innocents to make their political victories.

But there is no evidence of any connection--either directly or in terms of ideas--between things Palin or others said and the killings. In fact, the evidence shows no such link. In Glenn Beck's case, the only time he ever mentioned Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was to praise her. Beck has repeatedly urged listeners in the clearest terms not to engage in violence, predicting--as it happens, correctly--that the moment a violent incident happened he and his supporters would be blamed.

And indeed there are cases of right-wing intimidation, particularly at the grassroots' level. Here's an example from California backed up by videotapes. But if one is talking about what's happening in the media and at the higher levels of politics, how can one leave out all the vitriol from the left side of the spectrum, pretending it all comes from one direction? Many specific examples are available, from incendiery rhetoric by politicians, to television talk show hosts, to rank-and-file people.

There cannot be any serious discussion of civility if that talk is merely a thin cover for attempts to make partisan gains. The needed effort at calmer debate will fail if it is clear that this is just a cynical tactic to stifle debate and criticism more generally.

Of course, things could have been different in the Tucson case. For example, the killer might have written that he loved Palin and listened to Beck every day. He might have said that he wanted to kill the Rep. Gabrielle Giffords because she was part of a left-wing conspiracy to destroy America and institute a Marxist regime. In that case, the accusations would have been based on evidence and justified.

Or what if a right-wing leader or member of Congress had been shot? By the way, remember that Giffords is about as conservative a person can be and still get elected by our Democratic party. The judge murdered in Tucson by the killer was a conservative Catholic appointed by President Bush.

Yet if a violent shooting had been carried out by a left-winger, how would the media and others have reacted? In a very different manner than they did in this case, highlighting the need not to blame anyone at all. And what if, in that situation, Republicans and conservatives immediately began blaming MSNBC and others they way that Palin and others had been blamed? Can you imagine the adjectives used to condemn such behavior by the overwhelming majority of the mass media, no doubt including the phrase "blood libel?"

Or to give another example, assume there was an ideology that directly urges violence and the murder of many people because they are Jews or Christians, or just Americans or Europeans. It spreads these calls through every available manner and had committed thousands of these actions. Even little children are systematically instructed to grow up to be killers. Moreover, direct links between this ideology or movement and specific killers is documented in detail. Then to accuse that revolutionary Islamist ideology and movement of shedding blood would be quite accurate. Indeed, the Palestinian Authority--which is universally described as moderate in every news story--daily does similar things.

Compare the Tucson event to the Fort Hood shootings, where the killer gave a lecture with slides explaining why he was going to commit a massacre yet all the people casting stones now never seemed able to figure out who and what motivated him. Or the Times Square bomber where the same group of people suggested he might be unhappy over health care or his mortgage payments.

How can people who close their eyes or downplay the main source of blood libels against the Jewish people--and in some cases even use this tactic themselves--dare lecture us about the concept of blood libel?

Now let's look a bit more at the other side. Those stirring up the peasants to loot and kill were in fact the ones seeking gain and/or acting out of hatred. They justified any lack of evidence by thinking that they knew the Jews were evil and some of them might have agreed that even if none of them actually commited the murder these people still deserved to be beaten or killed. In other words, it didn't matter if there was any evidence. Everyone knew who the evil ones are, those who don't' deserve to be treated fairly.

Sound familiar?

There's another aspect of a blood libel, too, that applies here: it leads to additional rounds of violence. Who, after all, does the word "blood" in blood libel refer to in this case? On one hand, there is the violence of the murder of Stainslav Kravosky; on the other hand, the violence stirred up against the alleged murderers.

Accusing Palin and others of this murder could lead to the shedding of their blood. Indeed, if one follows blogs, tweets, and comments online that is an easy thing to believe. In that case, those inciting people claiming that someone is a murderer are encouraging additional rounds of violence following the initial act.
That is a blood libel. By the way, it is also the kind of thing that liberals used to call a witch-hunt.

Instead of criticizing Palin for her use of the term, then, people should reflect on how it reveals a lot about the behavior of others in the last few days.

Given the contemporary crazed political and intellectual atmosphere, the reaction of many people who read this column will be that it is written because I support Palin politically. I don't. I support telling the truth about who is exploiting the use of the term "blood libel." And it isn't her. Even worse, there are people who have been spreading blood libels against Jews and largely given a pass by the media, which in itself has been doing so increasingly about Israel and Israelis in recent years.

What could be more absurd than seeing America's leading antisemite Patrick Buchanan--who launched a blood libel that Jews and Israelis set off the 2003 Iraq war for their own gain (reflecting the idea about World War One that launched the Holocaust in Germany) giving a lecture on MSNBC about the proper and improper uses of the blood libel concept. Others with a history of spreading blood libels--notably the Reverend Al Sharpton [see appendix]--were given space in the Washington Post to pretend that they were voices of tolerance and calm.

Indeed, the current idea that one cannot support the justice of any principle or point of fact without having a hidden political agenda is one of the most chilling concepts of this out-of-control era we unfortunately are living in at present.

But there's one more point that must be mentioned here. Nothing is more outrageous than people and institutions that are spreading blood libels today against Jews (even if they are Jews themselves who, in some cases, usually only invoke their Jewish background when they are criticizing other Jews) suddenly becoming outraged about Palin's remarks. Only hours before attacking Palin on this point, the New York Times coverage one-sidedly tried to prove that a Palestinian woman was murdered by tear gas fired by Israeli soldiers. And only days after it covered up anti-American blood libels.

The woman wasn't even at the demonstration. There is tremendous evidence that the accusation wasn't true. No American reporter was present at the scene. Not only do large elements on the Western intellectual, political, and media scene often collaborate in the perpetration of anti-Israel, anti-Jewish blood libels, they do not report on the myriad blood libels generated on a daily basis in the Muslim-majority and particularly Arab world.

Make no mistake on this issue. Jews and Israelis have been murdered on the basis of such blood libels. Israel has been slandered and demonized. We are living suddenly in the moment when antisemitism is at the highest level since 1945. And it ain't the doing of skinheads but of "respectable" people.

As for the idea that Jews should or do find the use of the expression "blood libel" by Palin objectionable, that is rubbish. And that point is just as true if anyone else used that phrase in the same situation.

There is another Jewish expression that fits well with the attacks on Palin and what is going on here over the blood libel issue. That word is: chutzpah.

Appendix: What does an American blood libel look like? I am not aware of any massive denunciation of Al Sharpton comparable to that used against Palin and others after Tucson.



4 Comments

Thank you for this. Such simple, unbeguiling, straigh-forward accounts and contrasts are extraordinarily refreshing, given the current "reportage" and political/media climate in general.

The following may be the most tragically telling condensation in this account:

"This is progress! From illiterate Byelorussian peasants to the United Nations in just a bit over a century!"

Why do Jews get so worked up over Holocaust denial? If it were asserted by a great many know-nothings that the Civil War never happened, would that change the fact that it did happen and had huge consequences? There are many stupid and many malicious people in the world, with many ignorant of history and open to believing the most cockamamie things, e.g., that 9/11 was engineered by the Mossad, who warned Jews to stay home that day. So why pay them any attention? Oh, you say there are a great many very compelling reasons to take Holocaust denial super seriously and not ignore it - for starters, it is on its face hideously obscene to deny that unparalleled genocide; Holocaust denial is fundamentally evil, seeking as it does to continue the defamation of Jews and facilitate the persecution of them; it mocks those who suffered so much, so cruelly, and so unjustly at the hands of others; etc. OK, yeah, we should not let Holocaust deniers go unchallenged.

Well then why don't we counter Holocaust deniers and promote Holocaust awareness by encouraging people to say that whatever they don't like amounts to a Holocaust and call those they don't like Nazis? PETA used to (and may still) liken the raising of animals for slaughter to the Holocaust, and many opponents of abortion analogize the termination of pregnancies to the slaughter of Jewish children in concentration camps. That heightens Holocaust awareness, doesn't it? Oh, you say the effect of such loose Holocaust analogizing makes light of the ineffable horror that the Holocaust was. OK, yeah, we shouldn't approve when Roger Ailes rails against his ideologic adversaries as Nazis, no matter who has the better case, because that it is so unwarranted and amounts to an abuse of the Holocaust.

No one nor anything incited Jared Loughner to kill 6 and wound 13 as he did. His act was that of a deranged mind. So, those who would blame Sarah Palin for setting him in motion with her provocative political partisanship are flat out wrong in that. But that doesn't make blaming her amount to a "blood libel" against her, nor allow her to say she now knows from her experience what it must have felt like for a Jew to pick up a copy of Der Sturmer.

"There's another aspect of a blood libel, too, that applies here: it leads to additional rounds of violence." For it to apply here, there would have had to be a "blood libel," and there was nothing remotely like a "blood libel." (Do you think that if your great-great-grandfather or one of his cousins was looking on, they would feel a shared bond with Palin?)

"As for the idea that Jews should or do find the use of the expression "blood libel" by Palin objectionable, that is rubbish." WRONG! And it is rubbish to say otherwise. (Works just as well going the other way, which is to say it isn't argument and does nothing to persuade.)

"...there are people who have been spreading blood libels against Jews and largely given a pass by the media, which in itself has been doing so increasingly about Israel and Israelis in recent years." True, but how does that validate Palin's claim that she is the target of a "blood libel"?

You have conflated a great many things, too many to tease apart here. While they are not all unrelated, they do go off in a number of different directions. You should rethink this. Sara Palin ought not be met with approval when she uses for her own purposes the notion of a "blood libel".

dcdoc,

But that doesn't make blaming her amount to a "blood libel" against her ....

First of all as you admit His act was that of a deranged mind. so Sarah was libeled.
Now with all those crackpots running loose if one of them chooses to spill her blood then in good English parlance we will have a bloody libel.

The problem with words like holocaust, nazi, human rights etc., is that they have all been reduced to clichés and now bare no true resemblance to their original meaning other than to be offered up as clubs to beat the opposition/enemy.
As for "blood libel", from the current discourse it is obvious that very many people have no idea of the history of the libel and the bloody results it shed.

"There's another aspect of a blood libel, too, that applies here: it leads to additional rounds of violence."
Yes, and that is if her blood is shed and the "enemy" gets up tight and decides to take a gun to those libelers there is going to be more violence. The Krugmans will be screaming for a hudna because their incitement will have succeeded.
These types pushing libels are not nice people but malicious as they proceed to extract the maximum advantage from a crisis.

Cynic,

"First of all as you admit His act was that of a deranged mind." As I admit? It is beyond dispute that his act was that of a deranged mind. Where do you imagine that "admission" gets us? Saying that someone's actions were those of a deranged mind does not mean that they could not have been "inspired" to act about angry rhetoric, though in Loughner's case it may be concluded that his paranoid schizophrenia cut him off from the "real" world and accounted for his conduct. so Sarah was libeled." And saying that someone's actions were those of a deranged mind do not mean that the perpetrator is sure to be found not criminally responsible, since the legal standards for not criminally responsible are not easily satisfied and pretty whacked people are still sent to prison for the balance of their lives. (see Haq in Seattle).

"so Sarah was libeled." You seem to be using "libel" in the colloquial sense of the word, not in the strict legal one? Palin would have a snowball's chance in Hell of proving "libel" for several reasons, including that "libel" is about false and defammatory factual assertions, not opinions, and could never get past the legal hurdles set by NYTimes v Sullivan in cases where the plaintiff is a "public figure," as she surely is. (And what provable damages?)

"Now with all those crackpots running loose if one of them chooses to spill her blood then in good English parlance we will have a bloody libel." JFK, RFK, and MLK were the objects of some pretty nasty rhetoric; were they instances of what you call "bloody libel," which doesn't sound much, if at all, like what Jews have had so much experience of over the course of centuries. But your "argument" accepts the proposition that angry rhetoric might bring about violence, even murderous violence, directed a an individual. Do you think Bill O'Reilly calling George Tiller on national TV "Dr. Tiller, baby killer" somehow encouraged Scott Roeder, who showed no signs of mental illness, hence couldn't be described as "deranged" like a Jared Loughner, to murder Tiller? If you do, then do you think that though Palin and others of different political stripe can't be taxed with Loughner, they should rethink their rhetorical excesses, that is the talk about "not retreating, but reloading," picturing those they oppose politically in the cross-hairs of a gun, mentioning "2nd Amendment rights" as a means to bring about change, etc.? Sharron Angle, who ran for the US Senate from Nevada used such rhetoric, ran with Palin's endorsement.

"The problem with words like holocaust, nazi, (I don't know what "human rights" is doing in this grouping)...etc., is that they have all been reduced to clichés and now bare no true resemblance to their original meaning other than to be offered up as clubs to beat the opposition/enemy." So you don't want "blood libel" a term that has such particular meaning for Jews, since many of their forebears were slaughtered on account of outrageous, fantastical lies, to go that same route, do you, that is in the direction that Sara Palin would take it.

"Syme: It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. You wouldn't have seen the [Newspeak] Dictionary 10th edition, would you Smith? It's that thick. [illustrates thickness with fingers] The 11th Edition will be that [narrows fingers] thick. Winston Smith: So, The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect? Syme: The secret is to move from translation, to direct thought, to automatic response. No need for self-discipline. Language coming from here [the larynx], not from here [the brain]" -1984 (film)


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