Whataboutism is an argumentative tactic where a person or group responds to an accusation or difficult question. Instead of addressing the point made, he or they counter it with “but what about X?” In fact, the gemara in Arachin 16b writes that whataboutism is a reason why Rabbi Tarfon believes that nobody in his generation would accept rebuke. Why?
אם אמר לו טול קיסם מבין עיניך אמר לו טול קורה מבין עיניך
If the one rebuking would say to another, “Remove the splinter from between your eyes,” i.e., rid yourself of a minor infraction, then the second person would respond, “Remove the beam from between your eyes,” i.e., you have committed far more severe sins. Classic whataboutism! But just because people engage in that practice, it doesn’t make it right. Your bad behavior is not an excuse for my bad behavior. Sometimes we may think that my good behavior is tied to your good behavior, but that’s often not the case.
Take, for example, the mitzvah of kibbud av va’aim, or the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents. My obligations of kibud and mora, of providing material needs to my parents and not acting in a disrespectful manner towards them, apply even if they are not so nice to me. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch rules (Yoreh De-ah 240:3) that even if a person is dressed with fine clothing and sitting at the head of the community and his father and mother came and ripped his clothes, hit him on his head and spit in front of him, the son should not shame the parents. Just to be clear, the parents may not act this way towards their child; however, the Torah does not use the argument of whataboutism to argue that if the parent acted badly to the child, then the child may act badly to the parent. Of course, there are situations in which one must create healthy boundaries with a parent who is seriously harmful. However, one is not permitted to dishonor his parents simply because they have not shown appropriate respect to him.
Another example is our halachic obligation to give charity to a needy person. Perhaps that needy person is at fault because he could have gotten a job but decided not to. Maybe he was financially irresponsible. Do we say, “What about him? Why must I give him charity? After all, he behaved carelessly and irresponsibly and that is why he became poor!” The Torah does not use the argument of whataboutism to argue that if someone acts badly and therefore has no money then I have no responsibility to help him. He has an independent responsibility to be financially responsible and I have an independent responsibility to help him even if he acted carelessly which left him penniless.
A third example is our halachic obligation to confront someone who may have harmed us. The Torah states that we must not hate our friend in our heart; rather, we must rebuke him. (Vayikra 19:17) The Ramban explains that if someone harms us, then we, as victims, have a halachic responsibility to confront the one who harmed us. If we don’t and instead hate our friend in our heart, then this failure is considered sinful. But what about the other person? The other person harmed me and he didn’t apologize! Am I now responsible to confront him in order to try to make him understand what he did wrong so that he will apologize? The argument of whataboutism here does not preclude my obligation to try to foster peace even though I was the victim and the other person acted badly towards me.
I hope we can apply the Torah’s rejection of whataboutism to two current issues that our brethren in the state of Israel currently face. First, this has been a trying week in Israel with the horrific terror attacks. First, two brothers, Hallel and Yagel Yaniv, were shot and killed in a terror attack on Sunday in Huwara. Secondly, US-Israeli citizen Elan Ganeles was killed in a terror attack on Monday near Jericho. Our hearts grieve with the families of the deceased and we pray that God should grant the IDF with the strength, wisdom and resolve to protect all of its citizens. However, in response to the murder of the Yaniv brothers, dozens of Israelis rampaged in Huwara, torching houses and cars.
We could employ the argument of whataboutism and say that we may engage in violence against innocent Arabs because some Arabs have engaged in violence against innocent Jews. But we must reject this argument. We can argue that the army or the government must take stronger steps against our enemy in order to deter terror attacks, but wanton violence against innocent Arabs is not the answer to these attacks by arguing that we are simply doing to them what they are doing to us.
Secondly, the past few months have been very trying for the state of Israel because of the attempt by the government to pass judicial reform. Do we need judicial reform in Israel? I think that a strong argument can be made that the judiciary has too much power in appointing judges and the Supreme Court has too much power in striking down laws passed by the Knesset. However, some of the proposed reforms by the government, including the ability of the Knesset to override a decision by the Supreme Court by a simple majority, are too extreme. An argument of whataboutism, that the Supreme Court has too much power, does not give the Knesset the right to then pass laws that will give the legislative branch too much power. Additionally, the government offered dialogue to the leaders of the opposition, but the leaders of the opposition created preconditions to the dialogue that legislation should be frozen while there is dialogue. Did the opposition leaders reject the dialogue in bad faith? Maybe. Has the opposition used hyperbolic and incendiary language in its quest to fight the proposed judicial reforms? I think so. Nevertheless, the government should not engage in whataboutism. The government should act in good faith and freeze legislation for a limited time to at least give dialogue a chance to succeed or at the very least moderate some proposals to create greater consensus on judicial reform.
Yes, it is natural to engage in whataboutism. It is human nature to respond to someone’s rebuke of removing a splinter from between your eyes by saying remove the beam between your eyes. But our Torah values challenge us to aspire for more, to transcend our nature, to strive to be better and to light the way for others to follow.