Last week’s Western Wall and conversion controversies divided and united simultaneously, causing a rift between Israel and American Jews but creating a circle the wagons effect within American Jewry. The American Jewish community is a famously fractious one – insert your own version here of the joke about two Jews and three synagogues – but most American Jews seem to share outrage at being treated as little more than tourists by the Israeli government. But along with the anger within the ranks of American Jewry has come a related conversation about the appropriate limits of that anger, and whether it is hypocritical to focus on one particular injustice when there is a far greater injustice out there to fight against.
In an important piece in Ha’aretz, Simone Zimmerman acutely crystallized the problem that some have with the depth of the reaction from American Jewish leaders to the Western Wall backtracking. Aside from the directness of her thesis, Zimmerman is a prominent voice who should be taken seriously by anyone wanting to understand the direction in which many younger American Jews are moving. Her argument is that American Jews are hypocritical in complaining about their rights within Israel while at the same time being complacent about Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights, and that American Jewish anger should be first redirected at the larger evil of the occupation before addressing its own smaller and more parochial concerns. In Zimmerman’s view, it is mortally obtuse for American Jews to be so upset over this issue when they continue to abet Israel’s behavior towards the Palestinians. Zimmerman writes, “It is obscene that on the fiftieth anniversary of the occupation, as a quarter of a million West Bank Palestinians were denied entry to Jerusalem to pray and to celebrate during Ramadan, and as Palestinians in Gaza observed their fast and celebrations in the dark, with barely enough clean drinking water or electricity to survive, American Jewish leaders are upset that they can’t just drop in for a visit and close a backroom deal with the prime minister.”
This sentiment is often referred to as “whataboutism,”– as in “you are angry about Exhibit A, but what about Exhibit B?”– and like numerical infinity, there is no end to where whataboutism can go. What is disorienting in this case is that Zimmerman is making her argument from the left to criticize Israel’s behavior, but it will be immediately familiar to most from the right’s use of it when defending Israel’s behavior. The most common employment of whataboutism with regard to Israel is the argument that whatever Israel may be doing, other countries are doing far worse, and why single out Israel for opprobrium while ignoring much greater and more impactful problems in the world. So for instance, the wrath of human rights organizations is brought down upon Israel, but what about Syria, where the civil war right next door causes human suffering on a daily basis that dwarfs anything taking place in the West Bank?
Whataboutism can sometimes be importantly clarifying. In the case of the United Nations Human Rights Council, for instance, where Israel is the only permanent topic on the agenda for each council session and where more resolutions condemning Israel have been passed than all other resolutions combined, asking what about a plethora of authoritarian countries that are serial abusers of human rights in a way that Israel does not approach is a fair and useful tool. But the downsides to whataboutism should be obvious. Aside from the fact that it can be and is used as a way of skirting issues worthy of debate, what people care about generally tends to reflect their own passions and backgrounds. There are very few things in the world so egregious that they should outweigh every other consideration, but whataboutism is a tactic used to dismiss issues of all sorts.
I have always found the hawkish pro-Israel use of whataboutism to be misplaced. It is not because there aren’t more important and far worse examples of state misconduct in the world; there certainly are, and if you think that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is genocidal or the world’s single greatest crime against humanity, not only are you impervious to facts, but you do indeed have only to train your eyes directly to Israel’s north to see what real crimes against humanity look like. It is because people care about the things that are near and dear to their hearts, and many of the American Jews who criticize Israel more than they criticize other countries do so because they feel like they have a stake in Israel and that Israel’s actions impact their own lives. American Jews are always going to be viewed by the outside world as being connected to Israel whether they accept that connection or not, and thus what happens there seems more directly pressing to many of us than what happens in Syria or Sudan or Yemen. I suspect that this is partly why Zimmerman founded IfNotNow; Israel and its actions impact Zimmerman in a deeply personal way that cannot be explained by their gravity relative to the gravity of, say, the daily atrocities in Syria or the famine in Somalia.
Zimmerman’s argument is subject to the same critique. I understand why not being able to have an egalitarian bar mitzvah at the Western Wall appears to be a true First World problem compared to the fact that Palestinians in Gaza only have electricity for a fraction of the day while sources of clean water become more scarce and sewage runs in the streets. As someone who works for an organization dedicated to finding a workable two-state solution, I take a backseat to nobody in my zeal for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that results in an independent Palestinian state. None of that should negate the real hurt that many American Jews feel about access to the Western Wall in a way that respects their religious traditions, and that is especially so for American Jewish rabbis, whose occupations and moral authority stem directly from the religious aspect of their Judaism rather than from their relation to the state of Israel.
To attack Zimmerman for working toward ending the occupation rather than devoting her life to alleviating racism or poverty in Los Angeles would be ridiculous; an attack on Jews who are upset about the religious status quo at one of Judaism’s most important religious sites because larger and more proximate problems exist in Israel is similarly unfair. This view presupposes some sort of larger objective criteria that dictate what should and should not spark people’s outrage, but such objective criteria do not exist. I, too, wish American Jews would pay more attention to and speak out more loudly about Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians and its actions in the West Bank. I do not, however, fault those who feel more strongly about some other aspect of Israel that affects them in a more emotional way, and I am confident that criticizing them on the grounds of whataboutism is not going to get them to come around to my viewpoint.
If what leads American Jews to see Israel in a more complex way is the government’s decisions about the Western Wall, that will be a net positive in the end. We can acknowledge that different things upset us to different degrees without issuing a moral or character judgment. I do not think that Zimmerman is wrong, but trying to arbitrate legitimate grievances from illegitimate grievances will ultimately result in a world where no grievances are addressed, because somewhere there will always be a larger monster to destroy. Subjecting Israel to whataboutism from either the right or the left only leads to a black hole of angry recriminations from which nothing will escape.