“The Evil Eye Controls Something Which Is Counted”: Gaza, Israel, and the Nature of Numbering

Several years ago, another overwhelmingly asymmetrical conflict between the armed forces of Israel and the Gaza Strip was under way.  The terms of debate then were similar to those we hear now: Israel’s undoubted “right to defend itself” versus the claim that its actions in Gaza do not constitute a legitimate or morally proportional exercise of that right.   It is certainly the case that because the Gazan combatants possess only small arms and unguided rockets, while Israel is the sole regional superpower and possesses in abundance every instrument of war that advanced industry can provide (including, today, a missile defense system that, Israel claims, intercepts almost 90% of incoming rockets), Gaza, in the previous conflict, suffered over a hundred times more deaths than Israel.  The majority of those deaths were civilians.  I can think of no better response to the news of the last few days than to re-post, with slight adjustments, a meditation on the religious meaning of body-counting which I first posted in January, 2009.

I’ve been thinking about numbers lately. A few days ago it was 758, 257, and 10. Today it’s 1010, 315, and 13.

Science is big on numbers. If you can’t count or measure a thing, you can’t do science on it. So does the converse hold? If you can count or measure a thing, must you be able to do science on it? Not necessarily. We can count people, but there are ways in which we cannot do science on them. Is one person half as important as two people? If I have two children, do I love them 2.0 times as much as I would one?

Strange but true: people are both countable objects and distinct universes of absolute worth on which no number can be laid. But the scientific habit of mind does not find this double vision congenial.  The more time we spend quantifying everything in the universe, including people—counting and weighing them, measuring their reactions, imaging their brains, polling their opinions—the less plausible non-quantifiable human value seems. It cannot be detected or measured, which to the scientific mind is suspicious. It smacks of superstition, prescientific thinking, dualism.

Back to those numbers. Palestinians killed by the Israel Defense Forces in the Gaza conflict between Dec. 27, 2008 and Jan. 8, 2009: 758. Children in that group: 257. Israelis killed: 10 (3 civilians, 7 soldiers, 4 from friendly fire, 0 children). [1] As of January 14, Palestinians 1,010 (children, 315) and Israelis 13. [2]

Secondary figures can be crunched from these data. For example, ratio of Palestinian deaths to Israeli deaths as of 14 January: 77.69. Minimum percentage of Palestinian dead who were civilians (counting as Hamas none of the 315 children or 76 women and—implausibly—all 619 men): 38.7%. Ratio of Palestinian to Israeli children killed in this period: mathematically undefined (315 divided by 0). Minimum ratio of Palestinian civilian deaths to Israeli: (315+76)/3 = 130.33.

These figures, or their overall magnitudes, have featured largely in the global buzz about Gaza. Some voices have accused Israel of disproportional violence, recklessness, or deliberate collective punishment; for example, nine Israeli human rights organizations urged on Jan. 14 that Israel may be committing “grave violations of international humanitarian law” in Gaza. [3] Others, such as the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, have argued that the principle of “proportionality” in war is a crock, that Israel is not bound by law or morals to “calibrate its use of force precisely according to the size and range of the weaponry used against it,” and that “there clearly is no international expectation that military losses in war should be on a one-to-one basis.” [4] But if a one-to-one basis is absurd—whether for “military” losses or human losses overall, the latter of course being the point at issue in Gaza—is there some basis that is not?  Twenty to one?  Seventy-seven point six nine to one?  Or are numbers irrelevant as such?  Apparently they are not irrelevant as such: the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs itself presents many numbers as morally significant. For example, “Israeli population centers in southern Israel have been the target of over 4,000 rockets, as well as thousands of mortar shells, fired by Hamas and other organizations since 2001.” [4]

Let’s back up a few thousand years for a minute. People are counted frequently in the Bible: the book of Numbers consists largely of census figures, hence its name. But there is a peculiar story in II Samuel 24 (retold in I Chronicles 21 with differences). King David, incited by God—or, in the I Chronicles version, Satan—orders his military chief Joab to count the people of Israel. Joab objects: “May the LORD add to his people a hundred times as many as they are! Are they not, my lord the king, all of them my lord’s servants? Why then should my lord require this? Why should he bring guilt upon Israel?”

Joab’s plea is interesting because David has asked for a number and the first thing Joab does is give him one: 100. However, like Jesus’ seventy times seven and unlike the datum requested by David, Joab’s 100 is not a counting number but an anti-number that declares by its roundness and magnitude the absurdity, in this setting, of enumeration itself.  What matters, Joab urges, is that the people are the king’s servants.  As I read it, he is saying that David should be content with that God-ordained relationship and not demand an additional form of knowledge, the numerical or quantitative.  To do so is ungrateful, out of line, “brings guilt upon Israel,” because God himself, despite all the many numbers in Numbers, is not really a numbers guy:

It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it is because the LORD loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers . . . (Deuteronomy 7:7).

God loves you because he loves you. A nose count you want?

Nevertheless, the census was taken. When the result was delivered, “David’s heart smote him”—why then?—“And David said to the LORD, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done.’” God responded with three more numbers: 7, 3, and 3. Your pick, he says: 7 years of famine, 3 months of nonstop military defeat, or 3 days of pestilence.  David chose the 3 days of pestilence.  Seventy thousand died.

David and Joab.

There is a long tradition of Jewish commentary on this story, and many explanations have been offered of why the census was sinful.  Some scholars favor the view of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (“Rashi”) in the Middle Ages: “the evil eye controls something which is counted.” [5] On this view, counting itself is alien to God.  According to Rabbi David Golinkin, Yitzhaki and some other Talmudic commentators say that “God only sends His blessing to something hidden, not to something counted or weighed.” [5]  (This would seem to imply that science itself cannot be blessed, but never mind that for now.)  A longstanding aversion in some Jewish communities to head-counting and census-taking may be attributable to this commentary tradition.  Even today, some conservative rabbis forbid participation in the Israeli census.  As Golinkin puts it—though he does think the census permissible—“Counting people is dangerous.”

Are the corpse-counts out of Gaza and southern Israel dangerous?  If we argue that Israel sins in killing x Palestinian civilians to answer or prevent on the order of x/130 Israeli civilian deaths, do we ourselves commit the sin of treating people as objects, quantifying the unquantifiable?  Do those who argue that Israel’s violence in Gaza is culpably disproportionate fail, blinded by their attachment to an inappropriate ethical algebra, to grasp the real issue, which is Israel’s right to defend itself?  That argument was made by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on January 5: “Proportionalism is for theoreticians. . . . There is no so such thing as a proportional response to terrorism. This is not something we are playing by the Marquis of Queensbury rules. People’s lives are at risk.” [6]

But Bloomberg’s appeal to the non-negotiableness of “people’s lives” in dismissing proportions like 1:130 as irrelevant is self-contradictory. For “people’s lives” are being destroyed in Gaza, too—that is, if Palestinians are people.

Moreover, though I am no Talmudist, it is notable that the Mosaic law’s definition of just response is that “one-to-one basis” which the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs rejects as absurd, that proportionalism which Bloomberg calls “ridiculous” [6]: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21: 23-25). A harsh code, but, as my wife has often said, the world would greatly improve if we could only rise to its level—if, for example, the US had taken actions after 9-11 that were likely to result, at worst, in no more unintended civilian deaths than occurred on 9-11 itself or might recur in similar future attacks, rather than the million or so deaths that actually have resulted. [7]  Or if Israel was not out-slaughtering Hamas, civilian for civilian, at least 130 to 1.  An eye for an eye would be so refreshingly restrained, temperate, humane.

The view that Israel is justified in inflicting any level of violence in response to any aggression, that all blame for all resulting deaths rests on the alleged truce-breaker, Hamas [which was originally created by Israel to act as a Palestinian rival to Fatah], fails all tests. (I say “alleged” because both sides undermined the ceasefire: viz. [8]. [The situation is less ambiguous in 2012.]) In particular, it contradicts the Biblical notion of humanness. The point of not counting people like objects is that people count in a way that objects do not: no number of people is too small to matter.  But for defenders of Israel’s present actions, it seems that no number of dead Gazans is large enough to matter, large enough to “bring guilt upon Israel,” even though it is Israel’s US-supplied munitions that are actually rending the flesh.

The ratio 130:1 need not be read as a pseudo-scientific measurement of some imagined guilt-quantity.  It cannot be and is not that.  Like Joab’s 100, it is a number that challenges enumeration.  It draws attention to itself, jumps to a new level of signification, by sheer roundness and size.  It pleads.

In Genesis, God himself rejects the right of retaliation on urban areas regardless of innocent collateral death:

Then Abraham drew near, and said [to God], “Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt thou then destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from thee to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” (Genesis 18:23-24, RSV)

Fifty, eh? OK, what about 45, Abraham demands to know: would God spare the city for 45 righteous inhabitants?  Yes, God says.  Forty?  Yes.  Thirty?  Yes.  Twenty?  Yes. Even for ten?  Yes.

And there Abraham stops.  The limit, the individual, one, he dares not mention.  He dares not yet, perhaps, imagine the absolute, nonenumerable, non-metric worth of the single human person.  But his questions tend there.

Oh Israel.  Oh good land of so many good people.  Far be it from thee to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked.

Far be that from thee.

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[1] United Nations News Centre, “Security Council overwhelmingly calls for immediate Gaza ceasefire,” Jan. 8, 2009 (http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp? NewsID=29495&Cr=gaza&Cr1).

[2] BBC, “More than 1,000 killed in Gaza,” Jan. 14, 2009 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7828884.stm ).

[3] http://www.btselem.org/English/Press_Releases/20090114.asp

[4] Dore Gold, “Did Israel Use ‘Disproportionate Force’ in Gaza?”, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Dec. 28, 2008 (http://www.jcpa.org/JCPA/Templates/ShowPage.asp? DRIT=1&DBID=1&LNGID=1&TMID=111&FID=378&PID=0&IID).

[5] “Does Jewish Law Permit Taking a Census?”, Responsa in a Moment, Schechter Institutes, Dec. 2008 (http://www.schechter.edu/responsa/0812.htm).

[6] Michael Barbaro, “Bloomberg’s Outlook Is Stern on Israel and Hamas,” New York Times, Jan. 5, 2009 (http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/01/05/bloombergsoutlook-is-stern-on-israel-and-hamas/?apage=1).

[7] Peter Beaumont and Joanna Walters, “Greenspan admits Iraq was about oil, as deaths put at 1.2m,” Sep. 16, 2007 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/sep/16/iraq.iraqtimeline ).

[8] “Misreading Gaza,” The Nation, Jan. 7, 2009 (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090126/carey? rel=rightsideaccordian).