Il governo italiano ha sospeso gli aiuti ai palestinesi

Il governo italiano ha sospeso gli aiuti ai palestinesi. Noi no. Donate all'UNRWA.

martedì 20 febbraio 2024

Lost in Ratio: Proportional Thinking and the Gaza Catastrophe

(This should be the English translation of this post. Unfortunately, after so many years, my English still doesn't fit my thoughts, so please be indulgent).

Israel is a complex phenomenon that we shouldn't try to summarize with simplistic definitions. No doubt about it. But those who argue that it is also an out-of-control sociological experiment have been provided with an important evidence in the last few days: the latest statement from the Israeli embassy to the Holy See.

Why does the Israeli government communicate in such a disastrous way? Here, in a thin A4 sheet of paper, we have a display of arrogance and an admission of guilt. "We must consider the big picture", they say. OK. Those who said the same thing after October 7th were called anti-semitic, but now of course it's different. So what's the big picture here? Looks like we should consider that for every militant "killed", only three civilians "lost their lives". Only three civilians out of four, yes, they're really claiming something like that. They don't even seem to expect that the interlocutor could react by asking: who caused these three civilians to "lose" their "lives"? The most immediate explanation is that they are used to interlocutors who never ask them these questions: by constantly rejecting any criticism as anti-semitic thoughtcrime, they have slipped into a self-referential bubble where no one would dare accuse them of killing civilians. But it's not just that.

To be truly convincing, you must believe in what you say, and this is usually one of the flaws underlying every regime based on propaganda: at some point, friction with reality becomes explosive. Whoever wrote that statement seems to believe that three civilian victims for every combatant is a success, something to be proud of. The Israel Defence Force is and will always be the most moral army in the world, and this should be proven by the fact that in wars fought by NATO in recent years, the ratio was higher, 1 to 9 or 1 to 10. How they managed to extract these numbers, I don't know, I took a look at the data for Iraq and it's a huge mess. Here I'll take them for granted because I'm not interested in debunking propaganda; I'm interested in understanding what they're thinking because it's the way they think that has led them to the catastrophe of these days.

My hypothesis is that Israeli government officials are so used to communicate ratios that they no longer understand absolute values. This leads to a culture shock, as absolute values are the only interesting data for the rest of the world. The rest of the world realizes that thirty thousand deaths in three months is an immense figure, unparalleled for a contemporary war (and there are many very close and very violent ones). How do Israeli government officials respond? They don't even try to correct the absolute value (thirty thousand). Instead, they provide a ratio (one militant out of four victims). How the rest of the world is supposed to react? Someone does the math and deduces that the IDF is accusing itself of having eliminated 22,500 civilians. It's still an enormous number, especially from a government defending itself in The Hague against a charge of genocide. Whoever wrote the statement didn't probably think that anyone would divide thirty thousand by four and then multiply by three. He was only thinking about the fractional number: three out of four, come on, it's not bad. In other wars it went worse, why do you even look at us?

Why so much emphasis on the ratio? Well, it certainly looks better than the absolute value. But to think that the rest of the world would buy into this, Israeli government officials must have bought into it first and for a long time. If we now take a look at how they communicated in the last 20 or 30 years, we realize that the habit of turning every absolute value into a ratio between different quantities is practically mandatory for them. Twenty years ago, during the so-called Second Intifada, I called it the Kissinger equation, except it's not exactly an equation (and I'm not exactly a mathematician). I called it that because at some point the former US diplomat, trying to explain the Israeli point of view, turned an already significant figure of victims (50 victims of suicide bombings) into something much more dramatic: he said that the suicide bombers had killed "the equivalent of 2500" US victims.

How did Kissinger get this figure? With a ratio. 50 Israeli victims stood to the total of Israeli Jews as 2500 victims stood to the total of US citizens. It's not that it didn't make sense. The sense was also to make it clear how serious a figure (50 civilian deaths) could be, which in the vast USA may seem almost routine. No, those 50 deaths were a lot because Israel is very small. Here, perhaps, we are at the heart of the whole problem.

Israel is very small. The disproportion between its size and its military and economic power (and its cultural and diplomatic influence) is something unseen since the times of the Greek city-states. Perhaps the catastrophe stems from here: the West is trying to save a too small outpost in every way; it cannot begin to give up pieces of it (it is already too small!), or let an enemy occupy strategic positions on the heights or the coast. But geography is a destiny: if a region is too small, and surrounded by potential enemies, it doesn't matter how many resources and settlers you can pour on it; one day it will simply cost too much.

Another immense disproportion is between Israel's smallness and the huge attention it receives from the world. To maintain this attention, to justify it, to alleviate the impression that half the world is fighting over an irrelevant strip of land, Israeli communicators have very quickly become accustomed to turning every number ratios by the Kissinger equation. I could cite endless examples, but I'm lazy. This is a slide published by IDF in 2014. 

Even in 2014 Gaza war, Palestinian deaths were more or less thirty times those of Israelis, but this was not the ratio that IDF wanted to share with us. The Israeli Force was keen to point out to us that the situation, although as usual confined to an area roughly the size of one of the 20 Italian regions, was extremely serious: the equivalent of carpet bombing over more than two-thirds of the peninsula. It's just propaganda, of course.

Or maybe not. In the eternal debate between those who think that language shapes thought and those who believe that thought shapes language, I wonder if some philospher wasn't right when he suggested that language and thought eat each other's tails infinitely. I'm not sure what philospher was and if he really said that. However, it seems to me a powerful idea: man has a thought, to express it he invents a language, and yet language leads him to think in certain ways and not others, which leads him to speak in certain ways and not others, until this thought/language leads him to collide with a reality that no longer corresponds to his thoughts or his words. Many empires have crashed on this problem.

The Kissinger equation, in the way Mr Kissinger applied it, didn't sound so eccentric. The problem is when you're not just communicating like this, but you start to think like this. Behind that ratio (one dead Israeli is worth 50 dead Americans) lies an axiom of chilling nationalism: every country recognized by the international community would be worth the same amount. Just as we are used from middle school to divide the GDP by the number of inhabitants, perhaps we should also divide the victims of wars and terrorism. As once I pointed out, this would make the injury of a citizen of the Republic of San Marino a crime against humanity. I was obviously joking. But whoever wrote that statement is serious. 

For him, the absolute number is not of great value. It needs to be contextualized – i.e., introduce a ratio between quantities that shows that other wars have had more victims. Even during the Iraqi War it took years and years of fighting in more cities to put together a similar number of civilian casualties. What happened in the last three months, however, is extraordinarily circumscribed, both in time and space. This is a strong argument for those who speak of attempted genocide. And yet Israeli government officials don't seem to understand it. It's possible that they are simply hiding behind the numbers. That would be the most optimistic hypothesis. I have another one: they consider Israel a state at risk of extinction. Any number of collateral victims would ultimately be irrelevant because the essential thing is the survival of Israel: without which perhaps the world would perish. Assuming that the world matters something to Netanyahu: let's hope so, or let's hope for his successors.

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