David I. Roytenberg

What About Whataboutism?

We learned as I was writing this that the bodies of three Israelis taken on October 7 have been returned to Israel by a special forces operation in Gaza. I am full of admiration for the bravery and skill of the IDF fighters who completed this difficult mission.  May the memories of the murdered captives be only for a blessing to those who loved them and the whole people of Israel.

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Recently, when pointing out that Israel was being treated unfairly in the media I was accused of “whataboutism”. I wrote about this in my previous article, 21st Century Antisemitism. The accusation was made in the course of a discussion in which someone accused Israel of slaughtering Palestinians. I responded by filling in missing information about what is happening in Gaza and Israel’s reasons for being there. I challenged whether the use of the term slaughter was fair in the circumstances.

According to Wikipedia, “Whataboutism” is a term that was frequently applied by western critics to describe Soviet propaganda against the West. The classic example cited in the Wikipedia article on the subject is that whenever western countries complained about human rights abuses in the Soviet Union they would point to injustice toward Blacks in America.

According to the Wikipedia article, “whataboutism is a sub-type of the “tu quoque” argument”. This Latin expression means “you also”. A common way to express this idea is to say, “Who are you to talk?” It is essentially an accusation of hypocrisy.

If one reads the books of Noam Chomsky, such as Pirates and Emperors, much of their content can be seen to be whataboutism. Chomsky’s lifelong enterprise was directed at undermining the sense of moral superiority which the leadership and ordinary citizens of western countries feel (felt?) in seeing themselves as the defenders of freedom in the world.

“Pirates and Emperors” was a defense of terrorism. In the book Chomsky argued that just as states use armies, navies and air forces, oppressed people, who don’t have those assets resort to terrorism. He argued that calling the people like the Palestinian who attacked Israel “terrorists” was hypocritical, coming from the powerful states that supposedly oppressed them.

This argument, which was considered shocking to many, when Chomsky wrote Pirates and Emperors in the 1980’s has become a commonplace among the enemies of Israel in the present era. In denouncing the attacks of October 7, I encountered people who asked me, apparently in all sincerity, “Aren’t they freedom fighters?”

In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia, Chomsky was the most prominent of a number of western academics who were quick to throw doubt on reports of mass murder under the new regime. In this article on Cambodian genocide denial, we learn that Chomsky dismissed one of the early accounts warning the world about what was happening as “third rate propaganda.” As he always did, Chomsky redirected people’s attention to American conduct which he characterized as far worse, and insisted that reports of atrocities by the Cambodian communist regime were attempts to distract the world from American crimes. This line of argument is an example of “whataboutism” which, unusually for him, came back to haunt him.

Skulls from the killing fields of Cambodia. Source: Wikimedia Commons

While western sympathizers of the Khmer Rouge downplayed and ridiculed reports of atrocities in Cambodia, that monstrous regime held power for four long years. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and deposed Pol Pot, it became clear that even the worst reports had understated the horrors of the Cambodian genocide. Chomsky attempted to minimize and deny what he had said at the time. It was a rare misstep where he found himself out of step with the progressives who admired him. Those progressives turned against the Khmer Rouge and backed the Vietnamese. The invasion exposed the full extent of the catastrophe that the Pol Pot regime had inflicted on the Cambodian people.

It seems that the “whataboutism” tactics used by the Soviets and their western tools have turned out to be largely successful. There was never any serious reckoning over the American abandonment of their allies in Southeast Asia. The Western intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, who led the opposition to the Vietnam war and acted as apologists for the communist regimes that seized power in the aftermath of the US withdrawal, have had long and successful careers. The Cambodian disaster does not seem to have given them pause and Chomsky has spent many more decades pointing out the flaws of Israel and the America while ignoring the depredations of their enemies.

Looking back at these events is instructive for those of us concerned about Israel in the present moment. The strategy of ignoring the bad behaviour of people deemed to be “oppressed” and focusing on the behaviour of those who are allegedly oppressing them is precisely the tactic that seems to have won over much of the world to the side of Hamas in the present war.

The tight control of information from Gaza and the complicity of western media and human rights NGOs in amplifying the message of Hamas are similar to the role played by western leftists during the Cambodian genocide. Back then, any bad news coming out of Cambodia was dismissed as propaganda attempting to defame the popular forces which had liberated the people of Cambodia from imperialism. By the time the truth came out, it was too late for two million Cambodians who died at the hands of the regime.

In the present moment, the most of the news that appears on our television screens about the war in Gaza is amplification of Hamas’ claims of Israeli wrongdoing. As in Cambodia, any reports of misdeeds by Hamas are being dismissed by the progressive voices who predominate in Canadian media as Israeli propaganda. Meanwhile the people of Gaza are caught in a killing ground that was created by the actions of Hamas on October 7 and their continued refusal to agree to a ceasefire. While that is what is happening, the story is not making it on to the television screens of most western voters.

Looking back at what happened in Cambodia, we see that even when the truth eventually comes out, the people who were complicit in misleading the western public never faced any consequences. After his ignominious behaviour on the Cambodian file, Noam Chomsky went on to co-write (with Edward S. Herman) the popular and influential “Manufacturing Consent”. Published in 1988, the book accused western news media of being a tool of the powerful against everyone else. This book created an upheaval in the way news was reported in the West.

Partly thanks to the success of “Manufacturing Consent”, we are living today with media which cannot make a moral distinction between the atrocities of Hamas and Israel’s just war of self-defense.

Given that “whataboutism” was widely used to criticize Soviet propaganda and the works of people like Chomsky who served their interests, it is ironic but not surprising that the practitioners of “whataboutism” turn the accusation on advocates for Israel who are trying to push back against the erasure of Israel’s account of the war. In spite of the claim, the thrust of my argument was not, “But Hamas did bad things too.” It was, “Your account of Israel’s actions in fundamentally inaccurate.” That’s a part of the story that practitioners of whataboutism would rather not think about.

This article was originally published on May 17 at Canadian Zionist Forum.

About the Author
David Roytenberg is a Canadian living in Ottawa, Canada, with a lifelong interest in Israel and Zionism. He spent 9 months in Israel in 1974-75 on Kibbutz Kfar Glickson and is a frequent visitor to friends and family in Israel. He is married and the father of two sons. David is Secretary of MERCAZ Canada and the chair of Adult Education for Kehillat Beth Israel in Ottawa. He wrote monthly about Israel and Zionism for the Canadian Jewish News from 2017 to 2020.
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