The Art of Deflection: Whataboutism in Israel and the Jewish World
"Whataboutism" is an illusion most closely related to the ad hominem fallacy.
Future of Jewish is the ultimate newsletter by and for people passionate about Judaism and Israel. Subscribe to get the best of Judaism and Israel delivered to you.
Much of today’s discourse is obsessed with whataboutism, a technique of responding to a complex topic by using a shallow comparison to some other instance.
It happens in politics, on social media, and during local and international uproars, but it is certainly not a new tactic. Whataboutism was taught by the sophists — a group of lecturers, writers, and teachers in Greece — more than 2,500 years ago.1
In modern-day Israel, you’ll often hear left-wingers celebrate the separation of religion and state in other Western countries, as an argument for why there also ought to be such a disassociation in the State of Israel.
Yet, the last time I checked, Israel was not created to be just another Western country, and what happens in other Western countries is not necessarily a barometer for what Israel should or shouldn’t do.
Plus, Judaism in and of itself isn’t a religion, so making an argument about Israel’s questionable relationship between “religion and state” is, frankly, misguided.
On the other hand, you’ll also hear right-wingers defend extremists like Israeli politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, who supposedly has a picture of Baruch Goldstein — an Israeli-American mass murderer — in his living room. These folks will excuse Ben-Gvir by claiming that Ahmed Tibi, a Palestinian-Israeli politician, has a photo of Yasser Arafat (another terrorist) hanging in his home.
Not to sound cliché, but when was the last time two wrongs make a right?
In some limited circumstances, whataboutism can be a legitimate tactic; for example, when it’s relevant to highlight that a person making a statement is biased. For the most part, however, even if the person making the statement is being hypocritical or invoking double standards, this does not mean that their statement is false. And a random comparison to other instances just deflects honest discussion.
Formally speaking, whataboutism is an illusion most closely related to the ad hominem fallacy, in which a person responds to an accusation by attacking the person making it. In psychology, this is known as “gaslighting.”
Whataboutism is also frequently employed to counter criticism at the nation level: If a certain country finds itself as a target of criticism, they may note that other countries also have imperfections. Israel is both a victim and perpetrator of this tactic.