In saying her critics manufactured “a blood libel,” Sarah Palin deployed a phrase linked to the false accusations made for centuries against Jews, often to malign them as child killers who coveted the blood of Christian children.
Blood libel has been a central fable of anti-Semitism in which Jews have been accused of using the blood of gentile children for medicinal purposes or to mix in with matzo, the unleavened bread traditionally eaten at Passover.
The spreading of the blood libel dates to the Middle Ages — and perhaps further — and those allegations have led to massacres of Jewish communities for just as long.
The term blood libel carries particular power in the Jewish community, though it has taken on other shades of meaning. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Wednesday that “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.”
One of the first recorded tragedies attributed to blood libel occurred in the 12th century, when a boy named William in Norwich, England, was found dead with stab wounds. Local Jews were accused of killing the child in a ritual fashion and, according to several histories on religion, most of the Jewish population there was subsequently wiped out.
Such charges continued for centuries, with Jews often assigned blame in the unsolved killings of children. Many of the dead children were considered martyrs; several were elevated to sainthood by the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches.
Allegations of blood libel spread during the Holocaust and persist today.