Farid Esack

“Whataboutism” is a virus that afflicts most apologists for apartheid Israel when they come into contact with someone who supports Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as a nonviolent strategy to support the Palestinian struggle for justice.

The major symptom is a sudden onset of sympathy for other causes (typically, Syria, North Korea, Tibet, Zimbabwe – almost never Guantanamo Bay, or white racism). This symptom would hitherto have been completely absent from their bodily and mind systems such as activism or on Facebook and Twitter accounts, public comment or even in private conversations.

Those genuinely interested in these causes and keen to enlist support for them should not get too excited when symptoms of whataboutism appear in this group of affected persons, because it is psychosomatic. The delusion of interest in another cause has a limited lifespan and will only survive in the context of the very momentary argument about solidarity with the Palestinians.

Like most viruses, even pseudo ones, whataboutism has the potential to do damage. In this case, its intention is to damage support for the Palestinian struggle by deflecting attention from it while masquerading as a benign virus concerned with infecting other struggles in the world with compassion and peace.

Whataboutism is a relatively mild illusionary virus that can quite easily be dealt with. But, like all viruses, some degree of will to be cured is helpful.

So what about all these other countries where human rights violations are much worse than those inflicted by the Israelis against the Palestinians?

Well, first of all, thank you very much for acknowledging that there are human rights violations by the Israelis against the Palestinians. This is a good starting point.

The BDS movement is a movement in solidarity with the Palestinians. This “in solidarity with” part is a crucial bit to understand. To be in solidarity with people under occupation or imprisoned in the world’s largest prison camp, Gaza, means the following:

First, you heard the cries. Second, you possibly – but only possibly – have also seen the prisons and conditions of imprisonment. (Though, it should be remembered, you need not have seen the Nazi crimes against Jews, the Romany people and others to have been in solidarity with them.) Third, you believe that the imprisonment is unjustified. Fourth, you feel a sense of compassion with the captives, imprisoned and dispossessed. Fifth, you disabuse yourself of the arrogance that you know best how to liberate them. Finally, you believe in the agency of the imprisoned and occupied to guide you in how you must express your sense of compassion.

The last one is a tough one for many people who simply want to do good but are not interested enough to inquire from those who ask for support about the most effective means they require to do so. This is the difference between solidarity on the one hand and paternalism and condescension on the other. Solidarity is about identifying with the struggles of the other; the latter are about you and the retention of your power.

On July 9 2005, 171 Palestinian nongovernmental organisations convened and, echoing the earlier anti-apartheid struggle, called on the world to boycott, divest from and impose sanctions against Israel “until it meets its obligations under international law”. This was the largest and most representative Palestinian call ever made. Its legitimacy has been sustained by the fact that the organisational formation born from the call, the Boycott National Committee based in Palestine, has continued to meet every year to evaluate its effectivness, to welcome new endorsements and to reinvigorate it.

Over the last decade this call was endorsed by virtually every single major Palestinian political and civil society formation. To be in solidarity with the Palestinian people means to identify with and support the weapon that they have chosen as their primary one – BDS.

This call obviously has to meet the ethical values of those who hear it. If, for example, a woman under attack by a man screams for help and demands that you kill her attacker, you may say: “I am sorry, but I do not believe in violence.” Whether you have the ethical right to walk away with indifference just because the woman being attacked is calling for something that you find morally reprehensible is quite another story. There is nothing in the Palestinian call that conflicts with the ethics of decent human beings.

Peace-loving people support BDS because the Palestinians have asked for them and others have not. Should any other oppressed community ask for them, all peace-loving peoples will then consider them. If we are unable to deal with them, we shall refer them to sister movements who form part of our larger network of anti-imperialist and peace-with-justice-loving activists.

The calls for such solidarity would, however, have to come from those who live under (or have escaped) and have opted to resist their specific oppressions. We are not particularly interested in those afflicted by a temporary bout of whataboutism and are merely using it to deflect attention from the daily humiliation, oppression and occupation suffered by the Palestinians.

There are two subspecies of white rhinoceros: the southern white rhinoceros, of which there were about 20 500 wild-living animals in 2013 and the much rarer northern white rhinoceros, of which there are only five confirmed individuals left, all in captivity. We are not going to confront all of those campaigning against poaching of southern white rhinos about why they have chosen this as their campaign when northern white rhinos are much worse off. Nor are we going to rubbish them because rhinos on the whole are not among the top 25 endangered species.

Should we accuse these environmental activists of being motivated by a particularly deep-seated historical hatred for some East Asians, who are the biggest culprits in this dirty rhino-poaching business? If, without any basis, you criticise anti-rhino poaching activists, we have good reason to suspect that your criticism has nothing to do with animal rights but perhaps more with defending your personal stakes in the rhino-poaching business.

As for those afflicted by whataboutism, a good cure is actually to get off your butt, choose one of the causes on your “what about?” list, contact the victims or those who can reasonably be assumed to speak for them and do something about it. You can depend on us for our support. We have only 24 hours in a day. But yes, we will support you.

We are, after all, proud internationalists and many of us are also environmentalists.

Professor Farid Esack is a founding board member of the environmental justice nongovernmental organisation groundWork and he chairs the board of BDS South Africa