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By the Numbers

Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress this week, filled with falsehoods and untruths, defies the spirit of this week’s parasha, which urges us to be diligent with numbers and facts

Liel Leibovitz
May 27, 2011
Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to a joint session of Congress.(C-SPAN)
Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to a joint session of Congress.(C-SPAN)

Analysis of this week’s Torah portion requires a certified public accountant more than a qualified writer: The whole thing’s about numbers. Moses, following God’s commandment, conducts a census of the Israelites and finds 603,550 men of draftable age. The Levites are counted next, and then each tribe gets its own accurate tally. If you’re the sort of reader who’s into facts and figures, this week’s downpour of digits is a rollicking read.

But what are the rest of us to make of this bit of text, we whose eyes glazed over in math class and require a calculator to work out a 20 percent tip on a $100 check? The answer lies in the spirit rather than the letter of the text, and in spirit this week’s parasha delivers a simple but profound message: We all count. Even a small nation, or in particular a small nation, must keep track of each and every soul. Seen through this prism, numbers are not abstractions; each one corresponds with a living, breathing human being. Which, of course, is why we should be very careful to handle numbers with accuracy and care—fudge a number, and you’ve sinned against the very core of the tangible and the real.

Ours, alas, is the era of unreal numbers, from the falsified spreadsheets of Bernie Madoff to the felonious schemes of the equally criminal yet tragically unpunished swindlers behind the subprime mortgage bubble. Bluffing discreetly on balance sheets is bad enough; do it in the open, on the largest imaginable stage, and we’re headed down a dangerous road.

Unfortunately, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of the Congress earlier this week was a master class of numeric (and other) inaccuracies. Because these things matter—they matter very much—let us, in the spirit of this week’s parasha, do the Jewish thing and set the record straight.

Netanyahu said: The vast majority of the 650,000 Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines reside in neighborhoods and suburbs of Jerusalem and Greater Tel Aviv.

Actually, there are 304,569 Israelis living in the West Bank, according to the Israel Defense Forces. Add to that East Jerusalem—which, according to most credible sources, is home to about 200,000 Israelis—and you hit the 500,000 mark. Even if one chooses to be generous and give the prime minister these East Jerusalemites in his count, one has to wonder, as Jonathan Lis recently did in Haaretz, why Netanyahu, who later on in his speech roared that “Jerusalem must never again be divided,” would possibly choose to include the residents of the undividable capital in the overall tally of the contested populace.

Of the 300 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, only Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy real democratic rights. I want you to stop for a second and think about that. Of those 300 million Arabs, less than one-half of 1 percent are truly free, and they’re all citizens of Israel.

This bit of bluster may come as somewhat of a slight to Israel’s northern neighbor, Lebanon, where the robust parliamentary elections of 2009 drew a record-high voter turnout. Also in line for surprise are the Iraqis, who, despite still struggling to find democracy’s balance, came out in droves to vote in the recent 2010 elections for the Council of Representatives: 62.4 percent of Iraqis cast a ballot that year, only a slightly less impressive showing than the 65.2 percent of Israelis who exercised their civic duty in the nation’s most recent elections in 2009. Oh, and Jordan? Its 120-member House of Representatives holds a substantial number of seats for women and religious and ethnic minorities. You know, as they’re wont to do in fiercely oppressive, thoroughly non-democratic countries.

As the cherry on top of Netanyahu’s rhetorical ruses comes the fact that two days before the prime minister thundered in Congress, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee passed, in a preliminary vote, a new bill that would give preference to applicants for government jobs who are veterans of the IDF, thereby openly discriminating against Israeli Arabs, who do not serve in the army. Add to that the so-called Nakba Law, which prohibits Israeli Arabs from teaching or commemorating their interpretation of the historical events that led to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, as well as other laws currently under consideration in the Knesset—like the one that would require all citizens of Israel to pledge allegiance to their nation as a uniquely Jewish state—and this whole “truly free” business begins to crumble.

In Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers. We are not the British in India. We are not the Belgians in the Congo. This is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God, where David set out to confront Goliath.

David, actually, swung his fateful sling in the valley of Elah, near modern-day Beit Shemesh, which is squarely within the boundaries of Israel proper. And if Netanyahu truly believes Israel is nothing like the Brits or the Belgians, he is welcome, of course, to do with the West Bank as had once been done with Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and annex them. Until then, however, the prime minister has to choose: If he wishes to follow the Bible as his unsurpassable guide to realpolitik, let him declare so openly and allow his constituents to support or reject his theological aspirations. But if he wishes to guide the ship of state according to the acceptable, rational norms of Western democracies, all that blessed biblical stuff is, alas, rather irrelevant. Seen from that perspective, asserting martial law on a territory and its citizens, setting up an intricate bureaucracy of governance, oppressing any aspirations for self-governance, and insisting time and again that the natives are too corrupt and incompetent to govern themselves sounds like it’s one punch bowl away from feeling right at home at the Bengal Club.

The fun never ends. One could, for example, juxtapose Netanyahu’s encomiums for the riotous youth of the Arab spring with his efforts to drum up support for the despotic Hosni Mubarak as the Egyptian president was losing his grip on power earlier this year, or contrast Netanyahu’s claim that “the Palestinian economy is booming” with the World Bank’s report, released this April, which finds that the very same economy would soon be rendered “unsustainable” unless Israel relaxes the considerable restrictions it still places on the Palestinian private sector.

But instead of hurling oneself against the firm wall of slurs and untruths Netanyahu erected in his Washington speech, let us read the parasha instead, and recall the spirit, sacred and fierce and urgent, that urges us to keep our accounting strict and strictly honest.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.