April 13, 2021

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Whataboutism (Divest This!)

One of the great frustrations when dealing with BDS propagandists is the difficulty getting them (or anyone else) to acknowledge the yawning chasm between their zeal to fight for “Justice for Palestine” when said Palestinians come under Israeli jurisdiction and their complete indifference to the suffering of those same Palestinians (or anyone else) at the hands of non-Israelis.

“Syria is that way!” taunted the Israeli Prime Minister a few years back when a crop of Flotillists tried to break the quarantine of Gaza with their pretend load of “humanitarian aid,” summing up the question many of us ask regarding why those who storm the streets the second the Jews shoot back can’t bring themselves to even run a pancake-breakfast fundraiser for the hundreds of thousands dead in Syria’s civil war – especially since that number includes more Palestinian casualties than were generated in 60+ years of war with Israel.

As always, if you confront a BDSer with this seeming inconsistency/hypocrisy, they will simply ignore you in favor of continuing to spew their own propaganda messaging, regardless of what you have to say.  But if they get backed into a corner, one of their most frequently used counter-moves is to attack their opponent for practicing “whataboutism” (also pronounced “whadaboudism” – preferably with a Sylvester Stalone accent).

Unlike “Pinkwashing” – a fake phenomenon the Israeli haters baked up in order to have something else to talk about whenever the gap between gay rights in Israel vs. the Arab world is pointed out – whataboutism is an actual argument, which means there is a surface logic to the BDSers using it to defend their own glaring inconsistency with regard to human rights concerns.

The term describes a fallacy which assumes if you support one cause then you are being inconsistent (or even hypocritical or neglectful) by not applying the reasoning behind that support to all similar (especially similar but far worse) cases with equal or greater verve.   As an example, claiming that someone fighting for civil rights of African Americans is a hypocrite if they don’t put even more energy into fighting for black lives in Sudan’s Civil War is a clear example of “whataboutism.”

The reason this is a fallacy is that it assumes everyone is obliged to be perfectly consistent regarding what they choose to care about, and that not applying their energies based on the rank order of need translates to indifference to that suffering.  But here on earth, we all make choices that prioritize some goods vs. others.  If you support your local Boy Scout troop or help create a community farm, are you a good citizen or an uncaring monster for not putting that energy into “worthier” causes such as rescuing orphan boys in far-off civil wars or feeding the starving (vs. well-fed locavores)?  And if you claim to fight for general principles like “human rights,” there is always someone worse off than the particular group you have chosen to be the recipient of your support.

This is why there is a certain logic for a supporter of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions directed at Israel to claim that someone asking them why they don’t BDS China or Sudan might be practicing whataboutism since, in those instances, China and Sudan are distinct issues (even if they all fall into the general category of human rights abuse cases).

The reason I described this as “surface logic” earlier is that the crude: “You can’t fight for Palestine if you don’t also fight for Tibet” argument is not really what critics are saying when they ask for consistency with regard to places like Gaza, Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East.  For human rights abuses in those places are not peripheral to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but central to it.

Take Gaza where Hamas came to power by killing off their Fatah rivals, stay in power through terror directed at their own population, and trigger repeated wars with Israel after securing their own safety in tunnels built below hospitals, schools and mosques while forcing the civilian population to stay above ground to serve as cannon fodder for the propaganda component of their ongoing war effort.  Given this, pointing out the BDSers indifference to Palestinian suffering in Gaza is not peripheral but central to the question of whether they really stand for human rights at all (vs. shielding their militancy behind a human-rights vocabulary).

Syria is another example where asking why such “human rights supporters” don’t seems to give a damn about the hundreds of thousands of people killed there since the start of the Syrian Civil War is central vs. tangential to any discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  For Syria is and has always been a key player in that conflict, having participated in conventional wars, terror wars, and proxy wars against the Jewish state, not to mention participating in nearly a century of economic warfare (Damascus was HQ for the Arab League’s boycott office for decades, for example).  So highlighting that this progenitor for the BDS movement is currently killing more Palestinians than Israel ever has is not a distraction but a perfectly valid question that the BDSers simply would prefer to not have to answer.

In fact, one could make the case that the entire Arab war against Israel represents whataboutism on an industrial scale never before seen in human history.  For – as is playing out today in a Middle East aflame – the problems of the region have always been about the dysfunctional government, fanatical politics and instability that characterizes virtually every nation in the Middle East save Israel, embodied in states which are by any measure the world’s worst human rights abusers.

But bring any of this up and you’re sure to be met with a photo of a dead Gaza child (or, just as likely, a photo of a dead Syrian being laundered as a Palestinian) or loud demands that we talk about the latest bathroom addition to an apartment in Gilo – anything but the human rights catastrophe that characterizes those nations that have been at the forefront – and are thus the de facto partners – of the propaganda war current traveling under the name of BDS.

Going further, the transformation of the United Nations and virtually every organization and entity created for fight for human rights across the planet into weapons directed at the Jewish state is meant to ensure that whataboutism never needs to be invoked by Israel’s foes since a refusal to look at the vast crimes of Israel’s enemies is now hard wired into the system.

Back in the 1980s, someone toted up million+ people killed in the Middle East since 1948 who died in wars and other violent acts that had zero to do with Israel’s existence or continuation.  And it would not surprise me if contemporary calculations brought that number well above the two-million mark.  Which leaves us at the question anyone genuinely interested in human rights should be asking: whataboutthem?

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