Ever since Sarah Palin sounded off this morning about a "blood libel" against conservatives -- whom she says are being scapegoated in the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. -- there's been a focus on the reaction of Jewish groups. That's understandable.
After all, the blood libel -- the centuries-old falsehood about Jews killing Christians for ritualistic purposes -- has an ugly history, having been used to justify not only anti-Semitism but massacres of Jews.
"Palin has every right to defend herself," said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, but he expressed regret that the former GOP vice presidential nominee accused her critics of "blood libel."
"While the term 'blood-libel' has become part of the English parlance to refer to someone being falsely accused, we wish that Palin had used another phrase, instead of one so fraught with pain in Jewish history," Foxman said.
Some commentators speculated that Palin did not understand the import of what she was saying, an insensitivity magnified by the fact that Giffords is Jewish. "Perhaps Sarah Palin honestly does not know what a blood libel is or does not know of its horrific history," National Jewish Democratic Council CEO David Harris said in a statement.
But, as is often the case, Palin is likely being underestimated and, perhaps, misunderstood. It's highly unlikely that she threw an incendiary term out there without knowing what it means, and it's even less likely she did so in an effort to promote anti-Semitism.
Here' s another theory of the case: The former Alaska governor was likely trying to send a signal to her evangelical Christian supporters who are, in fact, deeply pro-Israel (although many Jews are wary of their support for the Zionist state, seeing them as more interested in the Rapture than a healthy Jewish nation).
Palin was likely aligning herself with pro-Israel evangelicals by identifying with Jews, not by insulting them, although that was surely the effect given the widespread bristling at her remarks.
After all, it's not the first time Palin has aligned herself subtly with Jews. She has noted that after her election as governor in 2006, her childhood pastor suggested that she take the Bible's Queen Esther as a role model. Esther was a beauty queen who became a fierce protector of the Jewish people. Palin is comfortable in the role of Esther, and many of her evangelical supporters see her in that guise, describing her as Esther-like. The multi-faith website Beliefnet called this phenomenon "Esther-mania."
By adopting the blood libel language, Palin was most likely trying to pull another Esther -- aligning herself with Jews, not denouncing them. It appears to have been a badly miscalculated effort, but it's unlikely that it was her intention to offend.
"It was a dog whistle," said one Jewish Republican who worked in the George H.W. Bush administration and declined to be named to avoid becoming enmeshed in the intraparty debate over Palin. The reference was to a device that's silent to some ears but calls to others. "The media didn't get it, but Christian activists did," this source added.
Indeed, it's worth noting that the term blood libel is sometimes used by Jews against Jews within Israel -- which doesn't necessarily make Palin's remarks more offensive. When former Israeli President Moshe Katsav was indicted on rape charges in 2009, his brother accused the prosecutor of "blood libel." The family of an Israeli mother recently accused of starving her child circulated posters saying she was also a victim of a blood libel. The term has currency beyond its ancient Christian-vs.-Jew meaning.
Palin's use of the term fired up her troops, and the secular media missed the point. It's easier to keep thinking Palin's a dimwit than to think she knows just what she's doing. On the other hand, even if Palin was trying to rouse her evangelical base, she may have done it in such a blunderbuss manner that it more than undercut any gains she might have made.
Palin's office has declined to elaborate further on her comments.