By Symi Rom-Rymer
By now, anyone with access to the internet will know about the latest furor in the wake of the tragic shooting in Tuscon: Sarah Palin’s use of ‘blood libel’ in her first official statement since the shooting. In a rare demonstration of unity, her choice of words, with their inescapable echoes of past violence by Christians against Jews, drew immediate condemnation. Jewish organizations across the political spectrum came out with critical statements from Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who agreed with her position but regretted her choice of words to Jeremy Ben-Ami, President of the liberal Israel lobbying group JStreet, who simply denounced her statement.
As concerning as it is that ‘blood libel’ can be now ripped from its historical moorings and used by anyone in any context, even more concerning is Palin’s interactions with the American Jewish community. Her questionable rhetoric would not be as big an issue if Palin were not considering a Presidential run in 2012. But according to numerous news reports, she is. In a recent article in the Washington Post, she is reportedly taking steps “to build a more substantive political identity. The strategy, in which Palin intends to step up her involvement in public policy debates and embark on overseas trips to nations such as Israel, is in its early stages.”
While for many Jews, her candidacy would be unappealing—the majority of American Jews traditionally vote democratic—for other, more conservative Jews, Palin’s entrance and engagement on the political scene are seen with great excitement. Benyamin Korn, director of Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin, is one such example. In a recent op-ed in The Jewish Week, he asserted that a growing number of “Jewish intellectuals” are demonstrating public support for her and her ideas. “[Joseph] Lieberman, [William] Kristol, [Seth]Lipsky, and [John] Podhoretz are sophisticated, educated, thinking Jews who appreciate Palin’s heartfelt support for Israel, her forceful and informed advocacy for energy independence, her strong stance on national security,” Korn wrote. “All are bellwethers of the increasing respect for Sarah Palin amongst us – the educated and affluent American Jews.”
But whether or not you agree with Palin’s views on energy or national security, her statements on issues most crucial to American Jews call into question whether she would be a genuine friend to American Jews as president. First of all, despite in a now famous interview with Barbara Walters, Palin made clear that she supported Israel and its settlement expansion not for historical or even moral reasons but because it fit with her view of Israel as the staging ground for the End Times. The idea that she could base crucial policy decisions—policy decisions that affect not only American Jews, but our co-religionists in Israel— on her religious beliefs demonstrates a deeply disturbing lack of intellectual maturity for any type of political position, let alone President of the United States.
Second, Palin has repeatedly insisted that America is a Christian nation. Her rigidity on this topic rejects not only the fundamental American philosophy of the separation between church and state, but also effectively negates the role Jews and Judaism has played in shaping the United States. Beyond the glaring inaccuracies Palin’s statement demonstrate, it also shows little respect or understanding of the history of religious minorities in this country and the freedom that they have found here to worship according to their own religious traditions and principles; something Jewish Americans do not take for granted.
Finally, we come full circle back to her blood libel comment. Jewcy, the sly online magazine, recently posted a piece entitled, “New Stupid Things Sarah Palin Could Say.” Among the suggestions were, “this is a pogrom of justice” and “the lamestream media is committing a Shoah against me.” While masked in humor, author Jason Diamond addresses a critical problem: words and phrases have historical import and powerful contemporary force. Like the word ‘Nazi’ which has evolved from its original meaning into a simplistic catch-all word to describe a control freak (i.e. Soup Nazi or Heath Nazi), ‘blood libel’ poses the danger of devaluing the deep and powerful legacy of the Jews and others who fought so hard to expose that kind of thinking of what it is: aggressive and irresponsible fear mongering. To treat the phrase with such flippancy, as Palin did, and then to ignore calls to acknowledge its historical meaning demonstrates once again little understanding of or sympathy for American Jews and the core American values she claims to embrace.
If Sarah Palin decides to run for President in 2012, she will no doubt come under even greater scrutiny. As American Jews, our work is cut out for us. Even if you agree with her views on energy or the economy or abortion, demand accuracy and respect when it comes to Jews and Jewish history. For those who disagree with her, get your placards ready. 2012 is just around the corner.