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Posted at 9:01 AM ET, 01/13/2011

Sarah Palin, Mikhail Rybachenko and the origins of 'blood libel'

By Richard Cohen

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.

By Richard Cohen  | January 13, 2011; 9:01 AM ET
Categories:  Cohen  | Tags:  Richard Cohen  
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Comments

To repeat---I don't think you get to say" blood libel" after you accused a Jewish Congresswoman of wanting to put your Christian child in front of a "death panel."

Posted by: jetlone | January 13, 2011 10:48 AM | Report abuse

I decidedly disagree with your assessment. "Blood libel" has the word "blood" in it. It clearly means an unjust accusation against a race or ethnic group, not some arbitrary "community." Therefore, Ms. Palin's use of the word was disingenuous and inflammatory toward Jews and anyone else who has been the target of blood libel. Her speech writers knew exactly what they were doing.

Posted by: zaphod71828 | January 13, 2011 10:51 AM | Report abuse

As a Jew, and a former synagogue president, I am not in the least offended by Governor Palin's comment. I deplore the current trend in saying that certain words or phrases are reserved for, er, the chosen few, and that if the wrong person uses the phrase it is a fatal flaw that not only dooms their political career, but given our vindictive nature in this country, disqualifies them for any job that is above manual labor. Having followed the story closely since it began, the media immediately began to speculate about the Tea Party and the right being responsible. The game plan seemed to change only slightly with the disclosure that the shooter was a lunatic and his views seem more left wing than anything else, and so he was somehow set off by the nature of political discourse in this country, with both forefingers firmly pointed at the right.

I guess the question is, who is really using this awful tragedy for political advantage? I'm pointing firmly at Obama, the left, and their attendant media. They are now determined to get something out of this. Gun control or Sarah Palin's head on a platter, they don't seem to care which but want both.

Posted by: Nemo24601 | January 13, 2011 10:58 AM | Report abuse

There is no evidence to support the comments by Nemo. There was no evidence to support some of Palin's wild exaggerations. There is evidence in the form of statistical correlations over time that when the anti-government rehetoric gets over-heated and exaggerated nut-cases start shooting. We have seen it too many times not to be aware. No, you can't always trace a direct cause and effect but the climate seems to raise the temperature and set these troubled people off.

Posted by: withersb | January 13, 2011 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Maybe Palin used the term in sort of a correct way but it was unbelievably over the top and only served to reinforce in many people's mind what a narcissisist this woman is and how she ALWAYS plays the victim. Sarah's dog and pony show is getting tiring -- actually it has been that way for a long time, now.

Posted by: Sandydayl | January 13, 2011 12:17 PM | Report abuse

With all due respect Nemo, you are certainly entitled to your personal opinion on the subject, but your last paragraph exposes your Conservative viewpoint as the overriding basis for your view.

I don't think this is about one group "owning" the phrase; rather it is about the hypocrisy of someone posting cross-hairs on a map on her website specifically aimed at Giffords (who made a statement of concern about it), under the guise of freedom of speech, then complaining about the words of criticism inuring to her that follow when some lunatic attempts a "Second Amendment Solution."

That Palin chose to release her statement on the same day of the memorial for the real victims demonstrates her insensitivity and lack of gravitas required for any elected office, much less the highest office in the land. That she utilized a term fraught with such a bitter, anti-Semitic history, when Giffords is herself Jewish, takes it beyond the pale.

Even Conservative websites such as the National Review have recognized the disingenuousness of the use of the phrase:

"Justifying the use of this language is absolutely insane and evidences a propensity for self-pity and victimization that I would have thought unpalatable to people who espouse the value of individual responsibility. There can be no equivocation of the plight of Sarah Palin and the false accusation that Jewish people killed Christian children so that they could use their blood to bake matzah for Passover. Last time I checked Sarah Palin remains unharmed, and the beneficiary of media attention (both bad and good), which has made her a millionaire. Meanwhile the myth of "blood libel" has empirically caused the deaths of many Jewish people throughout history. The conflation of the two seems to be an act of pure narcissism and historical ignorance. The defense of which is indefensible."

Posted by: DCSucks | January 13, 2011 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Maybe Palin used the term in sort of a correct way but it was unbelievably over the top and only served to reinforce in many people's mind what a narcissisist this woman is and how she ALWAYS plays the victim. Sarah's dog and pony show is getting tiring -- actually it has been that way for a long time, now.

Posted by: Sandydayl | January 13, 2011 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Sandy - Palin's use of the word was over the top - plays the victim? Did yo umy left leaning friend read the accusations being tossed at her from the delusional left - and I do mean delusional left - baseless in fact and or evidence? The left literally accused her of the murders by this psycho path with not but a shred of fact to make a connection between that nut and her. The delusional left have trumpeted this now for 5 days...and now - as more and more FACTS come out - you know those silly little things the left like to ignore...the left is being shown for what they are...a disgrace and embarrassment for trying to profit off these murders...all because this country continues to reject their agenda. I'm far from a fan of Palin's - but based on all the falsehoods - lies - distortions against her and her name - I would not begrudge anyone to come out swinging against the ilk and dirt making those accusations...aka the Democratic Party.

Posted by: short1 | January 13, 2011 1:10 PM | Report abuse

I think people are either deliberately or otherwise missing the point. Instead of taking a conciliatory tone Palin chose instead to go into defensive/attack mode, and again made the story about her and not the victims. This shows plainly the mindset of the woman. She seems unable to register empathy in any form. She is revealed as a shallow, vindictive woman, wholly consumed with herself.

Posted by: madgrant | January 13, 2011 1:11 PM | Report abuse

With all due respect Nemo, you are certainly entitled to your personal opinion on the subject, but your last paragraph exposes your Conservative viewpoint as the overriding basis for your view.

I don't think this is about one group "owning" the phrase; rather it is about the hypocrisy of someone posting cross-hairs on a map on her website specifically aimed at Giffords (who made a statement of concern about it), under the guise of freedom of speech, then complaining about the words of criticism inuring to her that follow when some lunatic attempts a "Second Amendment Solution."

That Palin chose to release her statement on the same day of the memorial for the real victims demonstrates her insensitivity and lack of gravitas required for any elected office, much less the highest office in the land. That she utilized a term fraught with such a bitter, anti-Semitic history, when Giffords is herself Jewish, takes it beyond the pale.

Even Conservative websites such as the National Review have recognized the disingenuousness of the use of the phrase:

"Justifying the use of this language is absolutely insane and evidences a propensity for self-pity and victimization that I would have thought unpalatable to people who espouse the value of individual responsibility. There can be no equivocation of the plight of Sarah Palin and the false accusation that Jewish people killed Christian children so that they could use their blood to bake matzah for Passover. Last time I checked Sarah Palin remains unharmed, and the beneficiary of media attention (both bad and good), which has made her a millionaire. Meanwhile the myth of "blood libel" has empirically caused the deaths of many Jewish people throughout history. The conflation of the two seems to be an act of pure narcissism and historical ignorance. The defense of which is indefensible."

Posted by: DCSucks | January 13, 2011 1:30 PM | Report abuse

"How dare those child-killing conservatives use the term 'blood libel'?"

Posted by: tomtildrum | January 13, 2011 2:55 PM | Report abuse

It was a libel, a vicious libel against Sarah Palin, and she has been scapegoated and vilified by the press and the left for too long.

The Washington Post has attacked Sarah Palin viciously and unfairly. This gang of elitist left wingers are the reason this paper is so reviled by so many people, almost as much as the dreaded and moribund New York Times. Newspapers have an obligation to be balanced and fair. Only Dr. Krauthammer and George F. Will get it.
Have you no shame, at long last? Remember that phrase?

"McCarthyism was a major factor in a change in feelings about both politics and society. The distrust of the government and the political activism in the 1960’s can be directly attributed to the lessons learned from the McCarthy era.

This hunt for scapegoats is a dark spot on America’s history. People’s lives were ruined. Some committed suicide and some left the country. The national anthem calls this the land of the free. People here are allowed to hold any belief that they want. Joe McCarthy forgot that. All of America forgot that during the Senate hearings, and we are still paying for it today."
POSTED BY: LETFREEDOMRING2 | JANUARY 13, 2011 2:51 PM

Posted by: LETFREEDOMRING2 | January 13, 2011 2:59 PM | Report abuse


la Palin makes me sick.

She is not in a hospital, fighting for her life. She is not burying a child, or friend or relative. She is not helping the injured put their lives back together. She is not helping community members deal with their grief.


In other words, she is not in any way a "victim" of this tragedy, and I resent her attempt to make it all about her. Her attempt to change the focus from the actual victims to her poor little self is in poor taste, and demonstrates her overweening narcissism.


It's not about you, Sarah, so shut it, already.

Posted by: slavicdiva | January 13, 2011 3:19 PM | Report abuse

how old are you dick?

Posted by: simonsays1 | January 13, 2011 4:32 PM | Report abuse

yes, that is an old dick'

blaming the jews?

what did the jews have to do with tuscon?

you are really really reaching here, dick.

Posted by: simonsays1 | January 13, 2011 4:37 PM | Report abuse

how do a 'crowd' of people,
stand there and let some punk
unload 31 rounds into women and children?


Posted by: simonsays1 | January 13, 2011 5:19 PM | Report abuse

This is all just so stupid. A little girl and five other innocent people die, and now it's all about Sarah Palin. WTF.

Geez, America, get a grip! Please! I wish that WP and the rest of the "news" media would try some time to get serious about their job.

Posted by: bugbuster1 | January 13, 2011 7:05 PM | Report abuse

It's getting embarassing just watching Palin's career melt down. How did she ever think she was a fit for politics?

Posted by: thomasmc1957 | January 13, 2011 7:10 PM | Report abuse

When you're an idiot like Palin and surround yourself with idiots, you can always claim ignorance. I still want to see her run for president as an independent just to piss off all the conservatives.

Posted by: blarsen1 | January 13, 2011 7:14 PM | Report abuse

Just another left-wing bash of Palin, done covertly, of course...

Posted by: DL13 | January 13, 2011 7:23 PM | Report abuse

While the liberal media, particularly Obama acolytes at MSNBC, immediately jumped down former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's throat for her use of the term "blood libel" in a video statement yesterday, it appears the network has not always thundered with righteous indignation at the use of the term.
There was no reaction from MSNBC's Chris Matthews in 2000 when Jack Kemp used the term to describe a harsh radio ad the NAACP had used against then-Gov. George W. Bush (R-Texas) nor in 2006 when Mike Barnicle used the term in reference to Sen. John Kerry having been criticized by a group of Vietnam War swift boat veterans.

Posted by: hunter340 | January 14, 2011 3:30 AM | Report abuse

Will no one put a muzzle on this b!tch?

Posted by: seemstome | January 15, 2011 2:55 PM | Report abuse

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