Michael Saenger

The Moral Urgency of Whataboutism

“Whataboutism” is a word that has become very important in the conversation about Israel and Palestine, particularly in relation to the global movement to condemn Israel as a bad moral actor in relation to Palestinian lives.

The word itself was first popularized in the propaganda fight that was part of the Cold War. America and its allies wanted to criticize the Soviet Union in international forums, and the Soviets, of course, were adept and firing back criticisms at the United States. The word became a way for American apologists to try to keep the focus on problems inside communism. So if the Americans criticized the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the United Nations, the Soviets would point out that the Americans had interfered violently in other countries, such as Chile. The American critics of the Soviet Union would then characterize such a maneuver as whataboutism.

There were always problems with this. For one thing, much of what the Soviets were pointing out is now recognized as legitimate criticism. The US did interfere in Chile. And long before the public discussions of American police violence against Black people in the past decade, Soviet media correctly marked that as a serious failing of a society that claimed to be free.

So what does all that have to do with Israel? For critics of Israel, the term whataboutism is used to dismiss any effort that defenders of Israel make to compare violence or inequity in Israel with anywhere else in the world. If anti-Zionists raise the issue of the exodus of Palestinians in 1948, Zionists respond by talking about the exodus of Jews from the Arab world at that time and in the years afterward. Such a response, the critics of Israel then respond, is whataboutism – a disingenuous effort to change the subject. As Michael Koplow puts it,

The most common employment of whataboutism with regard to Israel is the argument that whatever Israel may be doing, other countries are doing far worse, and why single out Israel for opprobrium while ignoring much greater and more impactful problems in the world.

The logic here is fairly direct. If you get pulled over for speeding, and your response to the police officer is to say that other cars were going faster, that won’t get you very far.

Anti-Zionists use the term, from their point of view, to keep the focus on Palestinians, and so for them, any comparison to another time, another region, or another situation can only be a deflection.

But hidden in this use of the term is the fusion of two kinds of comparison. One kind of comparison tracks with the driver caught speeding. He has done something bad, that’s not being denied. His defense is simply that other people were doing worse things, and they are still driving, not facing a ticket.

But that’s not the only reason why defenders of Israel compare the Jewish state to other regions of the world. The other, much more important, reason why they do so is not to argue that Israel’s actions are less wrong than others, but instead to raise the question of whether Israel’s actions in a particular case were actually wrong in the first place. That’s important, because if Israel is criticized for doing something that no other nations is condemned for doing, we must and should think through comparisons to figure out why that condemnation is happening. Is it because more people care about Israel, so more people are discussing it? Maybe. But another possibility is that antisemitism is tilting the conversation, both making Israeli misdeeds sound worse than they are and in many cases making Israeli actions that are entirely normal sound like misdeeds.

This is one reason why so many countries, including Germany, the United States, and Argentina, have endorsed the definition of antisemitism articulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, a document that remains central to the global understanding of what antisemitism is. One key characteristic of antisemitism laid out in that working definition is “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” In other words, while whataboutism has been forbidden in some left-wing circles, it has been morally mandated by many of the most influential democracies in the world.

The point here is that comparisons can certainly be evasions, but they can also be essential correctives to a pervasive antisemitism.

We should remember that the term itself was brought into the public discourse by people who did not really want a full and accurate debate. American propagandists did not want to hear Soviet criticisms of American hypocrisy with regard to racism. They did not want to hear Soviet censure of American foreign policy in Latin America. They wanted a debate that only pointed in one direction. Real debates, real conflicts and real morality never work that way.

About the Author
Michael Saenger is Professor of English at Southwestern University and the author of two books and the editor of another. He has been a Finalist for the Southwestern Teaching Award, and he has given talks on cultural history in Europe, Israel and North America.
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