Numbers

Reflections from Israel, August 15, 2006

by Forest Rain, Lionheart

I feel so, so sad today. For the past few days I’ve felt like I can’t breathe. I can’t rest. My throat is choked with unshed tears.

All I can think about is numbers.

Israelis often seem obsessed by numbers. The over 6 million murdered by Nazis. The over 6 million that currently populate the state of Israel. The number of Arabs living amongst us. The years there were wars. The date a husband, brother, child or friend was killed. The number of people who died alongside them. The identifying numbers of the resolutions passed by the UN. The amount of explosives in a bomb detonated by a suicide bomber… Israelis have good reason to be obsessed with numbers.

During this war with Hizballah the TV stations showed us a different number each day, letting us know how many days we fought for our lives. A good thing too – I tried to keep track of the days but everything ran together. Night and day turned upside down. I had a hard time remembering what day of the week it was, much less how many days had gone by. Each day I tried to count the sirens and the explosions and each day I lost count. There were so many explosions I lost the ability to tell the difference between the sound of a katusha slamming into Karmiel and the sound of artillery fire being shot from the near-by hills, over the border into Lebanon.

I’m not sure exactly why numbers are so important. I suppose being able to count, to differentiate and isolate separate events helps create order. It carves sanity out of insanity. I tried to count, to keep track. Each day I failed. Each new day I tried again. The numbers on the TV screen helped, a little.

An American friend told me that the people around her have a hard time understanding why Israelis get so upset over what American’s consider a “minimal loss of life”. In response she contrasted the populations of both countries:  The day after Hizballah attacked Israel (this time) she wrote:

The last census taken in the US gave us a population of 299, 206, 827 people.  The last census taken in Israel gave them a population of 6,352,177. Yesterday 8 IDF soldiers were killed.  In comparison with the population, this would have resulted in the loss of 377 US soldiers in one day. There are 3 IDF soldiers being held captive at the present time.  This would equal to 141 US soldiers being kidnapped and held hostage.

During this past month 157 Israelis were killed. That would be 7,395 Americans. As if 9/11 happened twice in one month.

Even so, it’s not the numbers that matter. It is what they represent that counts.

In Israel the news comes on at proscribed times. The worse the situation the more news updates are added to the regular schedule. During this past month there often was no break in the news. On better days it came just on the hour. If we were lucky a few hours went by between updates. The special 11pm news that I was watching a few days ago went straight on into the normal midnight news.

The news crew, desperate to show something pleasant decided the reporter should interview a group of soldiers resting between combat missions to show how our boys were doing. Sprawled outside, leaning on whatever was convenient, the camera revealed a group of handsome guys. Built like men, with the gleam of youth in their eyes, they were chatting companionably between themselves. They included the reporter they had so often seen on their TV screens at home as one of their own. With typical Israeli abruptness, one of the soldiers interrupted the reporter, calling out: “Moshe! You forgot to ask the most important question!” “What’s that?” Moshe asked. The soldier, Sagi Eko, from Karmiel, said with a grin: “You forgot to ask what we miss the most!”  

Sagi explained, “Right now, the girlfriend doesn’t matter, I don’t care about food or even a shower. All I want is my mom!” Sagi’s friends laughed and chimed in with their assent. “Bring me my mom so I can hug her for about ten minutes,” said Sagi “and I will be set to fight for another month or so!” 

I’m sure Moshe would have been happy to produce Sagi’s mother for him. What a small request to ask in return for risking his life to protect his people and his country. The best the news crew could do was to try to get in touch with Sagi’s mom. They posted the studio phone number along with the message: “If you are Sagi’s mother or a member of his family, please call us”. Sagi’s mother DID call. She couldn’t talk to her son; most likely by the time she called he was already back in the midst of yet another hand-to-hand, life and death battle. The man reading the news spoke to Sagi’s mom on air, asked her if she had seen the piece with her son and made sure to tell her how much her boy loves her.

You might think such an event would be rare but here in Israel it’s not. The next day I saw footage a different group of soldiers had filmed, documenting themselves (via their cell-phone video cameras) inside Lebanon. They were resting between battles. Some of the soldiers were sleeping. One was praying. Another was singing a song that basically consisted of the chorus: “Mother, mother, oh how I love my mother”.

People overseas don’t understand why we love our soldiers so much. They don’t understand why we are devastated when one is hurt or killed. Some, like my friend, try to use numbers to explain. Israelis (especially those employed by the State Department) often attempt to use numbers, statistics and ratios to explain, without realizing that it is that very insistence on using numbers that enables people to ignore what stands behind the numbers.

The Nazis thoroughly understood that mechanism – that is why they carved numbers into the arms of Jews. They turned people into numbers, which can be erased without any qualms.

For this very reason those who combat this horror memorialize the murdered by plucking names out of the numbers. On the Memorial Day for the Holocaust people read the names of each person known to have been murdered. They are not a faceless 6 million. They are people with names and with stories. They had shoes and glasses and suitcases too… It’s not the numbers that make the difference; it’s the people the numbers stand for that matter. On the Memorial Day for our soldiers a TV channel is dedicated to one single thing – displaying the name of each soldier killed protecting Israel. It takes 24 hours to go through the list of all those killed in the different wars. The people of other nations sometimes understand this as well. That is why there are names on the Vietnam memorial wall. That is why the names of those murdered on 9/11 were read during the memorial ceremony.

Numbers are important but the most important thing is to remember what the numbers represent. It’s not, “How many?” It’s, “Who?”

People might say: What is one person? To them I say –

One person is Sagi. Or his mother. Or me. Or YOU.

One person is everything.

And until people learn see the faces behind the numbers, nothing will ever change. 


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