In Defence of Whataboutery

August 7, 2014 by Rabbi James Kennard
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“Whataboutery” for those who are blissfully unaware, is the dismissive response given by anti-Israel campaigners when they are accused of applying double standards to Israel.

Rabbi James Kennard

Rabbi James Kennard

When asked “but why aren’t you concerned about deaths in Syria?” the standard reaction today is to reply with “you’re telling me to ‘look over there’ as if the suffering in Gaza doesn’t matter” or a simple reference to “whataboutery”, as if that obviates the need to actually answer the question.

The term “whataboutery” has been traced back to the Northern Irish troubles in the 1980’s. The leader of the (non-violent) Catholic party would complain that his calls for better conditions for his community were met with “but what about the IRA and their terrorism?”, and he was right to claim that “whataboutery” was being used a poor excuse to deny Catholics their rights.

But to ask an anti-Israel campaigner why they are so selective in their moral outrage is not to suggest that suffering in Gaza does not matter. No one with a human soul feels anything but remorse and regret when an innocent child dies in war, even if that death is an unavoidable consequence of a justified action of self-defence.

The question of “why don’t you protest about Syria” is not to deflect attention away from Israel’s actions. It’s to understand the motivation of the protestor.

An individual might be called to action by a number of factors. For instance, they might naturally be stirred by the suffering of children and desire to “do something” to lessen that anguish. But that can’t be the motivating factor if they let the suffering of thousands of other children in the world go unnoticed and unprotested.

Or the campaigner against Israel may be a Muslim, and understandably would be moved by the plight of their co-religionists in Gaza. Yet many such protestors remain unmoved by Muslim deaths at the hands of Russia, or Burma, or China. In particular they seem impervious to the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have been killed by other Muslims (including Hamas).

Maybe they believe Gaza to be occupied (even though it isn’t) and feel it is wrong that one country should occupy another. It follows then, they should be angered by the occupation of Tibet and East Turkistan by China, or Western Sahara by Morocco, or Kashmir by India and countless other examples. Yet they are not.

So if worthy motivations such as anger at suffering in general, or at the deaths of co-religionists, or a desire for all peoples to be free cannot be logically ascribed to anti-Israel protestors, the only remaining explanation is that they treat Jews differently. And there is a word for those who single out Jews for special disdain.

The same question can be directed at the media and their highly selective reporting. But here the lack of proportion has far-reaching and sometimes terrifying consequences. As I write, 50,000 of the Yazidi people are trapped on the summit of Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq, besieged by ISIS terrorists below. Knowing that descending the mountain will lead to certain death they remain stranded as they die of thirst.

This has been reported by CNN and others (that’s how I know about it) but you have to look deep inside a newspaper or scroll far down a webpage (past all the items about Israel) to find it. The tragic events in Gaza were called “genocide” (incorrectly) and each shell that landed near a UN compound a “war crime” (incorrectly) yet ISIS is perpetuating a real genocide, under our noses, the world pays no attention, and children die.

Maybe it’s the lot of the Jew to be watched so closely. Maybe that’s the way it has to be so that we never stop striving to be a light unto the nations (and the IDF doing more than any other army to limit casualties while fighting for security shows that we have much to be proud of by that measure). So if the media wants to look carefully at what Jews do then so be it.

But it’s not “whataboutery” to demand that they look elsewhere as well, and remind the world that there are other moral outrages apart from Gaza. Or do 50,000 Yazidis have to remain on top of the mountain until they’re all dead?

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