On blood libels and standing ovations

Mahmoud Abbas revived the old Jewish blood libel in a speech before the EU Parliament last week, saying:

Just a week ago, a week, a group of rabbis in Israel announced, in a clear announcement, demanding their government, to poison, to poison, the water of the Palestinians,” he said. “Is this not incitement? Is this not clear incitement, to the mass murder of the Palestinian people?”

Abbas has since walked back his baseless claim, a claim that generated outrage throughout the Jewish world. I was outraged too, but not at Abbas. This is exactly what I have come to expect from a man with a long history of anti-Semitic pronouncements.

For me, the most shocking and depressing aspect of this story is that the EU Parliament gave Mr. Abbas a standing ovation at the conclusion of his speech.

Their reaction was not uncomfortable silence. Not even faint applause, itself an indicator that the speaker crossed moral and ethical lines. People heard a speech that included the blood libel against Jews (among other whoppers) and it inspired them to leap to their feet.

So if I could, I would love to chat with a few of the EU Parliament members who were so moved by Mr. Abbas’ speech.

I’d like to know if the words “poison the water” rang any little bells in their historical memories. Dear EU leaders, have you forgotten your own long, gruesome history of propagating the blood libel myth? Or do you recall it quite well, and are only too pleased to believe that it is, at last, true, being carried out by the despised Israeli Jews?

Europe is rapidly becoming a place where it is unsafe for Jews to live openly as Jews. Surely you are aware of this. Was there even a moment when the repackaging of shopworn lies against the Jews set off an alarm? As you stood and cheered Mr. Abbas did it not occur to you that such lies are easily and quickly spread via social media, providing fresh incitement for the Jew-haters in your own countries?

Your behavior brings to mind a quote attributed to Hungary’s pre-WWI Prime Minister Count Bethlen, who described an anti-Semite as ‘one who detests the Jews more than necessary’.

There is one more possible explanation for giving a standing ovation to Mr. Abbas. Perhaps some of you actually did not listen to the speech. Maybe you were on your smartphones the whole time, scrolling emails or playing games, and didn’t hear a word. When you saw others standing, you stood too. So the ovation was not so much an affirmation of the content of Abbas’ speech as it was the reaction of a bunch of….sheep.

If there really were EU members of Parliament who stood for Abbas and only afterwards realized, to their horror, what they stood up for, then one might hope for a statement of rebuke on their part. But when our own US State Department spokesman cannot bring himself to condemn the anti-Semitic tropes in Abbas’ speech, I can hardly hope for better from the Europeans.

Both Mark Twain and later Winston Churchill observed,  “A lie travels halfway around the world before the truth puts it’s shoes/pants on”. Living in a world awash in lies is not new, but the speed with which lies are disseminated has changed.

That is why the optics of the EU Parliament cheering and applauding a man who accused Jews of poisoning the Palestinian water supply are so dangerous. It give encouragement to anti-Semites everywhere.

And that is why I would very much like to ask the esteemed members of the EU Parliament: What, exactly, were you thinking?

About the Author
Sally Abrams co-directs the Speakers Bureau of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. She has presented the program “Israel and the Middle East: the Challenge of Peace” at hundreds of churches, schools and civic groups throughout the Twin Cities and beyond. A resident of suburban Minneapolis, Sally speaks fluent Hebrew, is wild about the recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi, the music of Idan Raichel, and is always planning her next trip to Israel. Visit: sallygabrams.com
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