Like many Europeans, the Dutch used to think of their country as less violent than the United States, in both word and deed. That’s no longer the case, after the street assassinations of politician Pim Fortuyn and film director Theo van Gogh. After Fortuyn’s murder in 2002, the political left came under fire for the tone of their verbal attacks on Fortuyn, who was a populist right-winger — something of a foreshadowing of the Tucson shootings, albeit with the politics of the accused and accusers switched.
In Germany, political discourse is far more subdued. There is, of course, a historical reason for that: hate-mongering speech during 1920s and 1930s that led to political assassinations, firebombings and the rise of the Nazis. Moreover, there are certain things in Germany that you cannot say; most famouly, you cannot by law deny the Holocaust. Also, libel law is more stringent than in the United States. Josef Joffe, the German journalist we talk to, says that as a result, German political rhetoric today is “almost boring.”
Sarah Palin’s equivalent in Germany — should such a person ever exist — almost definitely would not have used the term blood libel. With its Jewish associations it would have been beyond the pale. It was strange enough to hear it in the United States. Defending herself against charges that her own harsh language contributed to the Tucson shootings, Palin said journalists and pundits were “manufactur[ing] a blood libel.” See her video message here.
Historically, as my colleague Alex Gallafent reports, blood libel is a “false accusation that Jews murder others in order to use their blood in ceremonies.” This form of anti-Semitism goes back centuries. After the false accusation was made, more extreme rhetoric followed, often ending in ethnic violence. Sarah Palin’s use of the term seems misplaced, insofar as she is neither Jewish nor is she accused of orchestrating or relishing the death of anyone. Still, it did draw attention to Sarah Palin, which may have been the point. It meant that Barack Obama’s oratory at a memorial ceremony inTucson later that day, while receiving high marks, did not get the banner headline coverage than it might otherwise have done.