Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Invisibility Cloak Activated

I don't blog about Sarah Palin much here, mainly because I don't find her pronouncements all that interesting. But she let one go today that was very revealing about the way our culture views Jews - or doesn't, as the case may be. Here's the interesting part:
Vigorous and spirited public debates during elections are among our most cherished traditions. And after the election, we shake hands and get back to work, and often both sides find common ground back in D.C. and elsewhere. If you don’t like a person’s vision for the country, you’re free to debate that vision. If you don’t like their ideas, you’re free to propose better ideas. But, especially 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 they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.
She is referencing, of course, the admittedly unfair criticism directed at her and other right-wingers blaming their rhetoric for contributing to the environment that allowed the attack to occur. In what has to be the definitive proof of the Blind Mouse/Cheese Principle, Palin is finally, for once, right to play the victim here.

But, um... blood libel? You do know what that actually means, right?

The term "blood libel" refers to the macabre and frighteningly common (at least in the Middle Ages) myth that Jews killed Christian children and used their blood to make matzah. Jews were killed by the dozens because of this myth - it even contributed to the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 (they weren't allowed back until 1655). Needless to say, unwarranted criticism of harsh political rhetoric doesn't really compare.

Truth be told, though, Sarah Palin probably doesn't know this. She's probably just got the term from Glenn Reynolds, who in turn probably isn't entirely certain about its meaning because it has been used erroneously before. The comparison of criticism of right-wingers to destructive lies about Jews is offensive to Jews, of course, as are ridiculous Holocaust comparisons. But what are the chances that Palin and Reynolds actually know this? There are few Jews in Alaska, and not a whole lot of Jews in Knoxville, either. Jewish history just isn't likely to come up in conversation for either of them.

This incident is a reminder that Jews are still a small minority in a country dominated by Christian culture. Jewish culture is visible only in the sense that we're funny, we like bagels, and we celebrate some weird holiday with candles around Christmastime. Some people know that we often wear tiny hats, that some of us have lots of facial hair, and that we celebrate the Sabbath a day early. Also we have rabbis, which are kinda like preachers or priests. Some scroll might be involved. And really, that's it, unless you're friends with Jewish people and you talk to them a lot about their religion and culture.

But part of being a small minority is that people don't think about you when they're saying or doing things on an everyday basis. For example, people don't understand that crosses don't work as a memorial for non-Christian soldiers. And that's okay; I don't expect everyone to know everything about Judaism or understand the specific sensitivities of Jewish culture. I expect that, living in a Christian-dominated culture, I'm going to be wearing a cloak of invisibility most of the time. This isn't an admonition, just an observation.

So we accept that Christians will inevitably say things that get on Jews' nerves without really realizing it. (The inverse is probably true too.) But we should still point those things out when they happen. What I wonder, though, is if people like Palin and Reynolds would be willing to understand their error when it is pointed out to them. Their history suggests otherwise.

7 comments:

Miguel said...

I actually first heard the term from the Reynolds article. I didn't actually know what it was a historical reference. I had just assumed it was just a strong adjective he was applying to the form of libel he thought was being thrown out there, though it was seemed to me an odd adjective to use. Strangely nobody ever really touched upon that part of it that I know of (The Reason blog post that quoted that section didn't really make a note of the term usage either).

Well now I know. It's certainly not a term I was ever planning to use in discourse, but it's good to know that I probably shouldn't use it period.

Matthew B. Novak said...

I was also completely unfamiliar with the term. I just assumed that Palin had a speechwriter that knew what the term meant and also didn't particularly care for her, so slipped it in.

Also, do you mean to imply there's more to Jewish culture than bagels?

Anonymous said...

If you took offense to their use of it, that's certainly your right. But frankly, , you do not "know" whether what Sarah Palin or Glenn Reynolds understood the term. Your conclusion is not supported by your argument.

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