US senator accused of invoking blood libel in Easter post about IDF in Gaza

Jeff Merkley references Christian holiday celebrating resurrection of Jesus in tweet calling on US to stop supplying Israel with bombs

Senator Jeff Merkley at the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies hearing, May 3, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)
Senator Jeff Merkley at the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies hearing, May 3, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A range of Jewish and pro-Israel figures, including Israel’s antisemitism envoy, accused Sen. Jeff Merkley of advancing a “blood libel” for linking Easter to what he called Israel’s “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza.

Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, had already marked Easter Sunday on X (formerly Twitter) with a generic wish for a “blessed holiday.” He followed up with a post citing the holiday in his call to cut arms shipments to Israel and to pressure the country to facilitate the entry of more humanitarian assistance into Gaza.

“On this Easter, let’s ponder [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s indiscriminate bombing of Gaza, which has killed more than 20,000 women and children, and his restriction of humanitarian aid, which has pushed Palestinians to the brink of famine,” Merkley said in a three-post thread on X.

Israel has disputed the number of women and children Hamas claims have been killed, saying it is lower, and has said it is doing everything possible to allow aid into Gaza.

“But we must also recognize that America is complicit in this tragedy by resupplying Israel with bombs and failing to use America’s leverage to increase aid delivered into Gaza,” Merkley added. “Reflecting on the admonition to feed the hungry and assist the stranger, and ‘blessed are the peacemakers,’ let’s push Team Biden to do better. More aid. No bombs.”

The phrase, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” is from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, and is sometimes cited in Easter sermons.

Anti-war activists demonstrate outside the office of Sen. Jeff Merkley in the Hart Senate Office Building at the Capitol in Washington, November 3, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Merkley is among the most outspoken critics of Israel in the Senate. He was the first senator, on November 20, to call for a ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas, launched on October 7 when the terrorist group invaded Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 253. His office did not reply to a request for comment.

A range of Jewish voices replying to the post condemned Merkley’s statement as well as its link to Easter, the Christian holiday celebrating Jesus’ resurrection that has long been used as a justification for attacks on Jews, who were historically blamed for killing Jesus. In recent decades, the Catholic Church and other major Christian denominations have repudiated that accusation, though it has persisted in some quarters.

Michal Cotler-Wunsh, a former centrist lawmaker who serves as Israel’s antisemitism envoy, wrote in a post on X that invoking the holiday to slam Israel’s military action was a blood libel.

“A US senator. Peddling blood libel. On Easter. We’ve been here before…,” she wrote.

Cotler was joined in describing Merkley’s post as a blood libel by David Harris, the former longtime American Jewish Committee CEO. Harris attached a massive graphic of BLOOD LIBEL to his arguments against Merkley’s claim. (The blood libel generally refers to the false accusation that Jews kill non-Jews to use their blood for ritual purposes, though the term has been applied more broadly to refer to spurious charges of wanton murder by Jews.)

Michal Cotler-Wunsh. (Rami Zarenger)

“Humanitarian aid arrives daily in Gaza, Hamas hoards aid, fails to distribute, Israel’s military action is as precise as any in history, Casualty figure comes from Hamas,” Harris said. “All in a war, Senator, STARTED by Hamas, a US-designated foreign terrorist group.”

Some responses focused on the connection Merkley drew to Easter while saying they would otherwise be his political allies.

“I say this as a liberal Democrat who probably agrees with you on 99% of policy: why the f*** would you use this framing, on Easter, which is saddled with centuries of blood libel against Jews, to make this argument?” said Joshua Zeitz, a historian who describes himself as a liberal Zionist.

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