Within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.
To critics, Palin was reckless in her choice of words because "blood libel" is fraught with historic connotations.
given the fact that Representative Giffords is Jewish."
Palin's use of the term is "glaringly inappropriate and displays a profound lack of historical sensitivity," said Jenna Weissman Joselit, a professor of history and Judaic studies at George Washington University.
"I would have advised against using it -- the term is historically unique and refers specifically to false charges of ritual murder," said Noam Neusner, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and the son of a famed Talmudic scholar. "While Ms. Palin has a legitimate gripe against her liberal critics, who were wrong to associate the Tucson shooter with her politics, she is using a term that simply does not apply. She could have simply used the word 'libel' and she would have been fine."
Palin is not the first conservative to use the term. Commentator Andrew Breitbart used the term in a tweet Tuesday, writing, "And to the gutless GOP establishment who watches in silence the blood libel against @SarahPalinUSA. We will remember. #TeaParty"
The blood libel myth dates back to the 12th century, when Jews were first falsely accused of kidnapping Christian children to re-enact the martyrdom of Jesus Christ. Throughout history it was used to justify violence against Jews, from pogroms to the Holocaust.
Because of the phrase's central role in stoking anti-Semitism over the centuries, Palin's use of it hit home immediately with Jewish commentators:
- Conservative Jonah Goldberg gently chided Palin in the National Review for using the term in a context that "isn't ideal."
- Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in The Atlantic that he hoped this would be a teaching moment for Christians "because the blood libel still has modern ramifications -- Israel, after all, was founded as a reaction to Christian hatred, of which the blood libel was an obvious and murderous manifestation."
- "There are few more freighted phrases in the history of hate than 'blood libel,' wrote Huffington Post's Howard Fineman. "This anti-Semitic attack has resulted in countless pogroms and massacres through the ages. Saint Sarah, it seems, is now comparing herself to one of those martyrs."
Palin has been a strong supporter of Israel, and even her staunchest critics don't suggest that anti-Semitism is behind the faux pas.
But Robert Lehrman, a former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, said Palin's choice of words was likely not accidental.
"Only Jews know about" the visceral meaning of the term, he said. "And because the right and some tea party people -- like Tony Katz -- talk about the Jewish-dominated media, the unspoken implication is this: 'Most people won't get this, but you Jewish reporters know what I'm saying.'"
Others said that beyond the poor choice of words, the video message underscored that Palin may be problematic as a presidential contender in 2012.
"Sarah Palin, a woman of unquestionable charm and personal appeal, is unfortunately deeply ignorant -- certainly not stupid, but shallow and unreflective," said Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker. "Republican voters have picked up on this and have concluded that she is unfit for the presidency. Her impulsive comments are inconsistent with what is demanded of a president, which requires that they resist the temptation to toss off quips that might have serious consequences."
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, co-author of "Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words" and one of the country's leading experts on political speech, said Palin's use of the term distracted from the merits of her argument: "We judge those aspiring to lead not only by what they say but by how they say it."
Follow Andrea Stone on Twitter.