By Barry Rubin
The main street of Dolhinov, then in Poland, in 1931 on Polish national day. The 1886 pogrom took place in the area pictured and against Jewish shops on the left behind the onlookers.
Without taking any partisan position, but purely on the issue’s historical merits, nothing could have been more appropriate than Sarah Palin’s use of the term “blood libel” to describe what happened to her after the Tucson killings. I know because my direct ancestors were the target of a blood libel.
A blood libel is a false accusation that someone else has deliberately caused the shedding of blood in order to harm that person or people, advance one’s own political and ideological agenda, and stir up hatred for them in a manner that might lead to the shedding of their blood in revenge.
I’ll tell the story of an actual blood libel first–recounted by newspapers at the time and interviews with the peasants done later by Russian anthropologists–and then explain the current post-Tucson story.
It’s a beautiful spring day for a fair, May 8, 1886, the festival of Saint Stanislav Dolhinov’s Russian Orthodox patron saint and the local church’s namesake in the town of Dolhinov, half-way between Vilna and Minsk. Among those walking around in the crowd and enjoying the food and festivities is the Krasovsky family of Gabytatsya village. Somehow, their 12-year-old son, Stanislav, whose holy name day it is, wanders off or perhaps his parents—dazzled by the splendors around them, relaxed by drink or tending their other children—lose track of him.
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He’s never seen alive again. Naturally, the parents launch a frantic search but he’s nowhere to be found in Dolhinov’s streets. Five days later, his body is discovered deep in the forest and many miles away, covered with tree branches. It is rumored that he had been stabbed in a dozen places. His funeral is held in Budslav, with lots of police to ensure no disturbances break out. You can still see his grave there, marked with a large pine cross.
Ritual murder is an old antisemitic accusation. It is one of the Canterbury Tales, that fourteenth-century classic of early English literature. In the Dolhinov area there is an account of such a story from 1603. The slander popped up as far away as Damascus, Syria, in 1840, and the long-time, Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass published a book in 1983 claiming Jews really do murder little children to turn their blood into matzoh. In Saudi Arabia it’s still claimed as true in newspapers, and the slander appears transmuted into modern political form through propaganda stories claiming deliberate Israeli murders of Palestinian children.
This is progress! Fom illiterate Byelorussian peasants to the United Nations in just a bit over a century! Of course, the alleged motivation has been altered to keep up with the times. Not the primitive notion of turning corpses into matzot but merely a greed for land and racism are your up-to-date, hip, explanations for blood libels.
But back to Dolhinov. The peasants whispered that one Leiba Katsovich from the village Matyki, found little Stanislav wandering alone in the crowd and promised to lead him back to his parents. Instead, Katsovich supposedly took him to a Mr. Rubin, very possibly my great-great-grandfather, Yankel (Jacob) Rubin, who was then around forty years old, or one of his cousins.
On Easter Thursday, June 12, many Byelorussians arrived in town well-fortified with copious amounts of home-made vodka. The police, tipped off that a riot was imminent, arrived in force but then stood by and did nothing. Led by people from the villages of Pogost and Bitavsty set off to find the evil Rubin and put him to death. Armed with poles, stones, and even sheep-shears, they ran across the central square, just outside their church, and charged into the tailor, hairdresser, and other shops. Windows were smashed, shops looted, the contents of the synagogue were dragged outside or taken home by peasants.
Four Jews were covered with tar. Some accounts say none were killed, others that several were left dead. If they had found my great-great-grandfather I probably wouldn’t be here writing this. The police didn’t investigate, no one was charged or jailed. Jews could not expect the Russian authorities to protect them.
And none of the peasants saw anything wrong in the assault on defenseless people since, after all, they believed the Jews deserved it. They even wrote a proud song about it, still being sung, with accompaniment by accordion and cymbals, a half-century later in surrounding villages:
“In 1886 all the people revolted,
Even Poles in Dolhinov revolted,
They were eating bread, drinking vodka and beating and strangling Jews
When they drank more they started beating Jews harder….
The Jews were suffering for the boy, Stanislav.
The Jews caught the boy; they didn’t give him anything to eat for 3 days,
They put him in a barrel and were rocking him,
They pulled him from the barrel as from a bog; all his body was pricked….
And nailed to the wall, and thrust through the ears with wire….
Let’s beat Jews in revenge for Christian blood!”
Now, fast forward to 2011. People have been murdered and someone did murder him. A blood libel means to accuse an entire group, and a person or persons within this group, for the killing. In this case, a 22-year-old mentally ill man shot, killed, and wounded people. Those who knew him say he hated television and didn’t listen to talk radio. He was registered Independent and once burned an American flag.
Yet conservatives in general, and Sarah Palin in particular, are accused of responsibility for this deed, often by those who have been equally or even more inciteful.
Why? Because she and others allegedly stirred up the murderer to commit his deed for her perverted goals. There is no evidence that there was any actual connection between things she or others said and the killings. In fact, the evidence shows no such link. In Glenn Beck’s case, the only time he ever mentioned Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was to praise her.
Of course, things could have been different. For example, the killer might have written that he loved Palin and listened to Beck every day. He might have said that he wanted to kill the Rep. Gabrielle Giffords because she was part of a left-wing conspiracy to destroy America and institute a Marxist regime. In that case, the accusations would have been based on evidence and justified.
Or to give another example, assume there was an ideology that directly urged violence and the murder of groups of people. It spread these calls through every available manner and had committed thousands of these actions. Even little children were systematically instructed to grow up to be killers. Moreover, direct links between ideology or movement and specific killers could be documented in detail. Then to accuse that revolutionary Islamist ideology and movement of shedding blood would be quite accurate. Indeed, the Palestinian Authority–which is universally described as moderate in every news story–daily does similar things.
Compare the Tucson event to the Fort Hood shootings, where the killer gave a lecture with slides explaining why he was going to commit a massacre yet all the people casting stones now never seemed able to figure out who and what motivated him. Or the Times Square bomber where the same group of people suggested he might be unhappy over health care or his mortgage payments.
How can people who close their eyes or downplay the main source of blood libels against the Jewish people–and in some cases even use this tactic themselves–dare lecture us about the concept of blood libel?
Now let’s look a bit more at the other side. Those stirring up the peasants to loot and kill were in fact the ones seeking gain and/or acting out of hatred. They justified any lack of evidence by thinking that they knew the Jews were evil and some of them might have agreed that even if none of them actually commited the murder these people still deserved to be beaten or killed. In other words, it didn’t matter if there was any evidence. Everyone knew who the evil ones are, those who don’t’ deserve to be treated fairly.
There’s another aspect of a blood libel, too, that applies here: it leads to additional rounds of violence. Who, after all, does the word “blood” in blood libel refer to in this case? On one hand, there is the violence of the murder of Stainslav Kravosky; on the other hand, the violence stirred up against the alleged murderers.
Accusing Palin and others of this murder could lead to the shedding of their blood. Indeed, if one follows blogs, twitters, and comments online that is an easy thing to believe. In that case, those inciting people claiming that someone is a murderer are encouraging additional rounds of violence following the initial act.
That is a blood libel. By the way, it is also the kind of thing that liberals used to call a witch-hunt.
Instead of criticizing Palin for her use of the term, then, people should reflect on how it reveals a lot about the behavior of others in the last few days.
Given the contemporary crazed political and intellectual atmosphere, the reaction of many people who read this column will be that it is written because I support Palin politically. I don’t. I support telling the truth about who is exploiting the use of the term “blood libel.” And it isn’t her. Even worse, there are people who have been spreading blood libels against Jews and largely given a pass by the media, which in itself has been doing so increasingly about Israel and Israelis in recent years.
What could be more absurd than seeing America’s leading antisemite Patrick Buchanan–who launched a blood libel that Jews and Israelis set off the 2003 Iraq war for their own gain (reflecting the idea about World War One that launched the Holocaust in Germany) giving a lecture about the proper and improper uses of the blood libel concept. Others with a history of spreading blood libels–notably the Reverend Al Sharpton [see appendix]–were given space in the Washington Post to pretend that they were voices of tolerance and calm.
Indeed, the current idea that one cannot support the justice of any principle or point of fact without having a hidden political agenda is one of the most chilling concepts of this out-of-control era we unfortunately are living in at present.
But there’s one more point that must be mentioned here. Nothing is more outrageous than people and institutions that are spreading blood libels today against Jews (even if they are Jews themselves who, in some cases, usually only invoke their Jewish background when they are criticizing other Jews) suddenly becoming outraged about Palin’s remarks. Only hours before attacking Palin on this point, the New York Times coverage one-sidedly tried to prove that a Palestinian woman was murdered by tear gas fired by Israeli soldiers. And only days after it covered up anti-American blood libels.
The woman wasn’t even at the demonstration. There is tremendous evidence that the accusation wasn’t true. No American reporter was present at the scene. Not only do large elements on the Western intellectual, political, and media scene often collaborate in the perpetration of anti-Israel, anti-Jewish blood libels, they do not report on the myriad blood libels generated on a daily basis in the Muslim-majority and particularly Arab world.
Make no mistake on this issue. Jews and Israelis have been murdered on the basis of such blood libels. Israel has been slandered and demonized. We are living suddenly in the moment when antisemitism is at the highest level since 1945. And it ain’t the doing of skinheads but of “respectable” people.
There is another Jewish expression that fits well with the attacks on Palin and what is going on here over the blood libel issue. That word is: chutzpah.
Appendix: What does an American blood libel look like? I am not aware of any massive denunciation of Al Sharpton comparable to that used against Palin and others after Tucson: