Whataboutery warfare: Radicals are reshaping Israel’s political landscape

Protest outside the Histadrut in Tel Aviv. (courtesy)

Whataboutery politics is a term that we have come to see quite frequently in political discourse and journalism in Israel today. It refers to the strategic, almost knee-jerk reaction of diverting attention away from an inconvenient topic by pointing at another, arguably related issue, saying, in essence, “But what about this?” It’s a shrewd ploy, simultaneously turning the spotlight elsewhere while implying a moral equivalency that may or may not exist. This rhetorical tactic has turned discussions about almost every topic in Israel, especially political ones, into a never-ending ping-pong match of deflection.

Radical factions from every corner of our political spectrum have adopted this tool with zeal. They hijack narratives, twisting them in their favour and conveniently spinning the story to suit their agenda. The question is, how has this tactic become so pervasive, and what can we do about it?

At its heart, whataboutery is a form of psychological manipulation. By bringing up another issue, it creates cognitive dissonance, forcing the listener to grapple with two disparate points at once. This disruption is intended to cloud judgment and obscures the original topic. What’s more, it gives the user an artificial moral high ground, as if by highlighting another issue, they are taking a more holistic, “better” and balanced perspective.

As a former IDF spokesperson, I occasionally utilized bridging as a tactic to provide a broader understanding of the realities of counter-terrorism operations, humanitarian missions, and operational errors. However, in contemporary Israel, radicals, fringe political groups, and pundits have transformed whataboutery into a weapon. In an age of instantaneous, real-time communication and information overload, these radicals exploit the cognitive dissonance caused by whataboutery and manipulate narratives to their advantage. They hijack a narrative, twist it, and let the ensuing chaos spread rapidly, especially with the support of controversy-favoring social media algorithms, resulting in a constant internal conflict.

Over yesterday’s “Day of Disruption”, the police deployed what appears to be more forceful tactics, and over the weekend, a reserve colonel in the Israeli Air Force, Udi Ori, was injured and required eye surgery after taking a direct hit from a water cannon during a protest against the judicial overhaul. The heated debate and oversimplified discussion against people questioning how the police acted orbited around “Where were you when the ultra-Orthodox/ Ethiopians/ Arabs/ Settlers heads were being cracked open?” While these are legitimate questions, since when do two wrongs make a right?

So, what can we do about it? How can we guard against the distortion of our collective narrative?

The answer lies in critical thinking and the fortification of our media literacy. We must insist on staying on point during debates and discussions. For every “What about X?” we should respond with a firm “Let’s first finish talking about Y.” We must remember that no issue can invalidate or diminish the significance of another.

Moreover, we must challenge our bias and avoid the trap of binary thinking. Problems aren’t neatly boxed into right or wrong, and solutions aren’t always polar opposites. Life is more complex, and so should be our understanding of it.

Lastly, we must remember the power of an informed citizenry. An electorate that understands how narratives can be hijacked is less likely to fall for manipulative tactics. To that end, we must promote media literacy in our education system, fostering a culture of skepticism and inquiry from a young age.

In a world where communication is instant and information is abundant, it’s easy to get lost in the whirlwind of whataboutery politics and radical spins. However, by fostering critical thinking and media literacy, we can prevent our conversations and our collective narrative from being hijacked. The price of allowing radicals to continue spinning stories is too high. Let’s cut the strings of this puppet show, and reclaim our narratives.

About the Author
Lieutenant Colonel (R) Peter Lerner, Director-General of International Relations at Histadrut, oversees global activities, fostering mutual learning and international solidarity within the labor movement. As a senior advisor to the chairman and leadership, he plays a pivotal role. Peter's nomination by the International Trade Union Confederation as a member of the ILO Governing Body in 2021 marked a significant milestone for Histadrut. Beyond his Histadrut roles, Peter serves as a board member for the National Insurance Institute and holds director positions in Histadrut enterprises. Formerly, he served the Israel Defense Forces for 25 years, gaining prominence as the IDF spokesperson. Peter holds a Masters in Diplomacy, Conflict Resolution and Management, and a BA in Social Sciences from Bar Ilan University.
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