Sarah Palin, Mikhail Rybachenko and the origins of 'blood libel'
Sarah Palin probably never heard of Mikhail Rybachenko, but that's more or less who she was referring to when she used the phrase "blood libel" to describe the easy slander of certain conservatives for the shootings in Tucson. Rybanchenko was a 14-year-old who was found murdered outside the city of Kishinev, now in Moldova. Word quickly spread that he had been killed by Jews and his blood drained for the preparation of Passover matzo. Indeed, it was said that the boy's main arteries had been precisely punctured so that his blood could be drained. The medical examiner said this was not the case, but he was a Jew and could not, therefore, be trusted.
Rybachenko's body was found on Feb. 13, 1903, and in and of itself the murder did not trigger a pogrom. That took months, time for rumor and myth to lethally combine -time, too, for the local newspaper, a true anti-Semitic rag, to try to build circulation in a time-tested fashion.
In his account of the Kishinev pogrom, Easter in Kishinev, Edward H. Judge goes into the remarkable history of the blood libel, a tenacious myth that neither truth nor facts nor common sense could destroy. Readers of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales may recall "The Prioress's Tale," with its account of the murder of a boy by Jews. Chaucer wrote some 100 years after Jews were banished from the kingdom, so it's clear the myth was well-established and, as always when it comes to anti-Semitism, needed neither Jews nor facts to keep it alive.
In Kishinev, from February to April, the rumors festered and metastasized. In their own diffident way, the authorities did what they could do to combat them, but their true sentiments were discerned by the populace. It was widely believed that a pogrom would be condoned, that Christians could enrich themselves at the expense of Jews and even murder them without legal consequence.
On Easter Sunday, the pogrom commenced. It lasted two days and claimed the lives of 51 people, 49 of them Jews. An additional 424 Jews were injured, 700 homes were damaged and 600 shops were looted. More than a quarter of Kishinev's buildings were in some way damaged.
The pogrom had been both lethal and extensive. It also had a worldwide impact. In New York, the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst, The Journal and The American, dispatched an odd but inspired choice to go to Kishinev and report on what had happened: the Irish nationalist Michael Davitt. Davitt turned his dispatches into a book, Within the Pale, which was published later that same year. In the book, Davitt revealed nothing that was not already known, but he was accepted as an unbiased observer -- neither a Jew nor a Zionist agitator.
Davitt attributed the riots to "the horrible influence of the ritual murder propaganda upon untutored minds possessed of ignorance and fanatical conception of religion." He warned Russia to deal with its Jews -- its "Semitic malady," as one official put it to him -fairly and justly or risk further radicalizing its four million Jewish subjects. Too late. The pogrom at Kishinev not only radicalized many Jews, but convinced many others they could only be safe in their own country -the Palestine that became Israel.
Palin was undoubtedly unaware of the historical meaning of the term "blood libel" and that's all right with me. She, or whoever wrote her statement, understood that it meant an unjust accusation leveled not against an individual, but against an entire community, in this case conservative commentators. She was, untypically, right. In fact, the term has been used and abused by Israeli politicians as well as others, as has fallen into general discourse. That's too bad. The phrase is not allegorical at all. It has a precise meaning and relates to precise historical events -as well as accusations still current in the Islamic, particularly the Arab, world.
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