By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Prominent Republican Sarah Palin defended her fiery rhetoric on Wednesday but ignited a fresh controversy by accusing critics of "blood libel" in linking her to a deadly Arizona shooting spree.
A defiant Palin, leaping into a roaring debate on the consequences of overheated political rhetoric, said her critics had been irresponsible in rushing to blame Saturday's gun rampage on vitriolic campaign speech.
"Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn," Palin, a potential 2012 White House contender, said in a video posted to her Facebook page.
Palin's reference to "blood libel," a false, centuries-old allegation that Jews were killing children to use their blood in religious rituals, launched a new round of criticism of Palin's rhetoric.
"We wish that Palin had used another phrase, instead of one so fraught with pain in Jewish history," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
The accusation of "blood libel" has been employed for centuries to justify the killing or expulsion of Jews. The phrase had been used by other conservative commentators, including a Wall Street Journal column, since the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who is Jewish.
"Perhaps Palin honestly does not know what a blood libel is, or does not know of their horrific history -- that is perhaps the most charitable explanation we can arrive at," said David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Suspected Arizona gunman Jared Lee Loughner faces five federal charges in the weekend attack, including the attempted assassination of Giffords, who is in critical condition after being shot in the head while talking to constituents outside a Tucson supermarket.
The rampage fueled a growing debate about whether the heated partisan rhetoric featured in recent U.S. political campaigns can lead to violence, and politicians in both parties have suggested cooling the tone of discourse in Washington.
"Palin's invocation of a 'blood libel' charge against her perceived enemies is hardly a step in the right direction," Harris said.
FOCUS OF CRITICISM
Palin has been a focus of criticism from the left since the shootings for urging followers to "reload," not retreat, after the healthcare debate and publishing an electoral map identifying vulnerable Democratic congressional districts, including Giffords,' with rifle cross-hairs.
The 2008 vice presidential candidate, a favorite of Tea Party conservatives but a lightning rod for liberal critics, has hinted at a presidential run but polls show her trailing many possible Republican rivals and President Barack Obama.
Seated before a fireplace and an American flag, Palin said in the video it was reprehensible for critics to say political rhetoric was to blame for the shootings.
"They claim political debate has somehow gotten more heated just recently. But when was it less heated? Back in those 'calm days' when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols?" she asked.
Blame for the shooting should not rest "with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle," she said.
Palin had been silent on the shooting for days since posting a message of sympathy for the victims on her Facebook page, even as other Republican presidential contenders spoke out about them.
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty was the only potential Republican contender to distance himself from Palin, although subtly. He told The New York Times the crosshairs map was "not a device I would have used."
Palin's comments came on the day Obama headed to Arizona to attend a memorial service for the dead, who included a federal judge, a 9-year-old girl and one of Giffords' young aides. Her colleagues in Congress put most of their work on hold and held a bipartisan prayer service.
Palin was not the only conservative voice to defend campaign rhetoric from the right.
Losing Nevada Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle, a Tea Party favorite, condemned criticism of her call during the campaign for "Second Amendment remedies" -- a reference to the constitutional amendment on the right to bear arms.
"Inappropriately attributing blame of a singular tragedy to achieve a political agenda is contrary to civil discourse, and is a media ploy to which I refuse to belong," Angle said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Peter Cooney)