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What is 'blood libel'?

Within minutes of the release of Sarah Palin’s video response to the Tucson shootings, the Web ignited with furious debate about the former Alaska governor’s use of the phrase “blood libel” to describe connections drawn between Arizona shooter Jared Loughner and conservatives who have used guns and violence as metaphors for political activism.

In a nearly eight-minute long message, Palin said that “journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn.”

The intensely controversial nature of the term stems from its origins in hundreds of years of anti-Semitic rhetoric – a detail made no less striking by the fact that Loughner’s target, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is her state’s first Jewish congresswoman.

According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, the term refers to:

The accusation that Jews murder non-Jews to obtain blood for Passover rituals. This accusation was repeated in many places in the Middle Ages and was the cause of anti-Jewish riots and massacres. It was a regular motif in anti-Semitic propaganda until the Second World War.

The first recorded accusation of Jews murdering Christian children appears to have been in 1144 A.D., when -- according to Thomas of Monmouth, a monk – a English boy’s murder by crucifixion was blamed on Jews in Norwich.

The myth – which became pervasive in medieval times and beyond – evolved into a popular superstition that Jews harvest the blood of Christian children to make Passover matzoh or to use for other ceremonies.

Less than 4 hours after the release of the video, Wikipedia.org's entry on “blood libel” had been updated to note Palin's application of the phrase to the aftermath of the Tucson shootings.

Despite the bright spotlight pointed at Palin’s uttering of the flashpoint expression, hers was not the first usage of the phrase by a conservative in the wake of the Arizona shootings. Several other commentators -- all political conservatives -- invoked “blood libel” in print yesterday.

In an op-ed about the shootings in the Wall Street Journal on January 11, University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds asked “Where is the decency in blood libel?” Human Events staff writer John Hayward urged the “Right to fight back” against blame for the attacks in a piece titled “The Giffords Blood Libel Will Fail; The Left rides a horse that is dying beneath them.”

And, on the same day, the editorial page of the Washington Examiner slammed New York Times columnist Paul Krugman for placing “the blood libel of blame for the Tucson murders squarely on the shoulders of the crowds at the McCain-Palin rallies and right-wing extremism."

*** UPDATE *** Several national Jewish organizations have responded to Palin's use of the phrase.

Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that it was "inappropriate at the outset to blame Sarah Palin and others for causing this tragedy," but added that "we wish that Palin had not invoked the phrase 'blood libel' in reference to the actions of journalists and pundits in placing blame for the shooting in Tucson on others."

"While the term 'blood libel' has become part of the English parlance to refer to someone being falsely accused, we wish that Palin had used another phrase, instead of one so fraught with pain in Jewish history," he said.

And Simon Greer, the president of Jewish Funds for Justice, called Palin's use of the term "totally out-of-line."

"The term “blood libel” is not a synonym for 'false accusation,' he said. "It refers to a specific falsehood perpetuated by Christians about Jews for centuries, a falsehood that motivated a good deal of anti-Jewish violence and discrimination."