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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The higher math of relative safety

During the years of the Intifada everyone suddenly became accomplished statisticians.  Instead of sleeping, the darkest hours of the night were spent crunching shaky data and calculating baseless odds.  And in the gray light of the early morning the results of these nocturnal math sessions were used to draw the arbitrary red lines for the coming day:

'I'll take taxis but not buses from now on'

'I'll stay in Tel Aviv and avoid Jerusalem until things get better'

'I'll tell my daughter she can go into coffee shops, but only to make a take-out order'

'I'll wait a few more days without hearing about shooting before I'll visit my cousins in Gilo'

'I'll stay inside the green line until things calm down'

'I'll visit Israel in the winter... it'll be safer without so many tourists there'

...and so on... and so on...

And the funny thing?  Since almost all the people walking around today who made such calculated decisions are still alive to tell the tale... their statistical analysis must have been right on the money! 

Who knew we were such a mathematically-gifted people?!

But what we studiously ignore in our rush to award ourselves a gold star is that there are thousands of people who...

... avoided buses and were maimed or killed waiting for taxis or walking down the sidewalk.

... were blown up in 'safe' Tel Aviv neighborhoods.

... lost loved ones who were in the coffee shot take-out line 'for just a second'.

... miscalculated the intervals between shootings from Beit Jalla into Gilo.

... avoided dangerous places like the west bank, but were torn apart by a bomb at their favorite mall in Natanya.

... watched friends return with beautiful Israeli summer vacation tans, but who had the misfortune of stumbling upon an inexplicable mid-winter terror attack.

Now once again we are lying awake at night recalculating the odds.  We wake up to the morning news and draw our red lines over breakfast, certain that they will save us from the intentions of a determined enemy:

'I won't go to the north this August... better to wait until the fall'

'I won't go out to the shops here in Haifa but I should be safe out on my balcony'

'I'll let the kids play in the garden but not down the street'

... and so on... and so on...

But the truth we refuse to admit is that we are poor at math.  The data on which we are basing our calculations is hopelessly flawed (or non-existent).  Our approach to statistics would be more familiar to a theologian than a mathematician.   We have invented a higher, faith-based form of math... and live our lives devoutly by its rules.

We ignore the inconvenient fact that it is statistically much more dangerous to drive on Israel's overcrowded roads and highways than to do any of the things we now forbid ourselves and our families.   We refuse to accept that the risks we face from hamburgers and cigarettes are statistical certainties compared with the imaginary comfort offered by the foolish red lines we draw in our daily lives.

If we were to allow ourselves to think about such things, we would realize that our odds of 'winning' are really no better than the old ladies' who sit in smoky bingo halls with their good luck charms arrayed on the table in front of them. 

All we know for sure is that, for us, waking up tomorrow to recalculate the odds and draw a new set of red lines is considered a win.

[I wrote this post after the recent arrival of a few dozen refugee families from Haifa and Karmiel to our 'west bank' settlement of Efrat.  These are people for whom a trip into 'the territories' would have once crossed all red lines and flown in the face of their mathematical calculations for safety.  Yet they are now watching in wonder as their children play with perfectly nice settler children on quiet, tree-lined streets in the cool, crisp air of Gush Etzion.  And as they digest this new and puzzling data, they just might be coming to question their statistical definition of relative safety.]

220_70

Posted by David Bogner on July 25, 2006 | Permalink

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» Haveil Havalim #80 from Soccer Dad
Welcome to Haveil Havalim edition #80. The purpose of Haveil Havalim is to feature the best Jewish and Israel related blog posts of the past week. Of course many Jewish and pro-Israel bloggers have been writing about the war. But there have been other ... [Read More]

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Flawed logic David. If you think life is just a crap shoot and safety is a matter of luck, then have those who believe you
take a two day hike and picnic in southern Lebanon!
or walk slowly across a busy intersection blind-folded.

Posted by: Gil Brenner | Jul 25, 2006 2:32:57 PM

Gil: I don't think that David was implying that safety is a matter of luck. On the contrary. I think that he was trying to make 2 basic points in this post -- maybe 3:

1) human nature is to focus on a "non-controllable" circumstance and worry about it -- perhaps even obsessively -- because by virtue of it's nature, it is inherently more frightening than the dangers with which we are most familiar and might even be able to control (diet, exercise, bad driving habits, etc.)

2) familiarity breeds contempt -- the dangers that we face daily -- and perhaps poo-poo (drinking, driving, smoking, etc.) -- are still dangers, and can strike with the same brutal randomness as the other, less-familiar dangers

3) sometimes we accept someone else's definition of risk, and allow it to become our own -- i.e. if you live in the midwest and all you know about NYC is the crime reports from national news, you might think that life in NYC was by definition violent, as you have no other source of information or perspective to balance that view. however, if you go and take the proper safety precautions (keep your wallet covered, stay on well-lit streets, avoid "bad" neighborhoods, don't engage the wack-jobs on the street, etc.) you may find that your initial perception of the situation was off-base....

Posted by: zahava | Jul 25, 2006 3:15:47 PM

whoops! wasn't done....

clearly some dangers are more immediate and with greater risk. i hardly think that david is suggesting that we ignore warnings or engage in especially risky behavior with a "hey we're all gonna die someday anyways" attitude. rather i think he is suggesting that perhaps we could /should think more honestly about which dangers we routinely ignore and which ones tend to make us recoil in horror....

Posted by: zahava | Jul 25, 2006 4:15:30 PM

Further support for your points, Zahava, comes from those folks who think that they can avoid the "danger" of flying from Point A to Point B by driving the whole route. This is in spite of the fact that some pilots enjoy announcing upon landing, "The safest part of your trip has now ended."

Posted by: Drew | Jul 25, 2006 4:35:46 PM

It's obvious when someone out-of-Israel asks, "Why do you intend to go to Israel?" they actually mean "Why on earth would you want to get blown up!" or with some skepticism "What business do you have there...", the calculated way of life for an Israeli is a necessity, it's what makes Israel different... we all can't be the same, some of us have more worries and cautions than others. It's life.

Posted by: pk | Jul 25, 2006 5:26:11 PM

I protest! Jews are excellent mathematicians... at least extrapolating from one case.

*sits back and waits for the chuckles*

Posted by: matlabfreak | Jul 25, 2006 5:51:12 PM

G-d makes all the calculations...

Posted by: Essie | Jul 25, 2006 6:08:23 PM

I have a cousin in Petach Tikva whose wife is so afraid of Jerusalem, she's only come once to see me in three years; and before that, she had not been here for a long time. Then I went to visit THEM one time, and there was a suicide bombing in Petach Tikva the day I came . . . I think the irony was lost on her.

I stopped thinking too much about statistics when I was 18, in 1991-92. So many of my peers cancelled their "year in Israel" that August, because of the Persian Gulf War. I showed up in school in Jerusalem in September, and a month later my British roommmates got word of a classmate of theirs who had died . . . she was supposed to come to Israel, but her parents had insisted she stay in England, where it's safe. A few weeks later, she fell out of a window in her seminary dorm room in a freak accident and died. So much for England being safe! ::she says grimly::

People make these calculations because the mind cannot handle unpredictable danger. We do it so that we feel we have some control. But really, none of us ever have any control.

Frankly, the reason I'm not going North right now is that it's boring there right now. Why would I go, unless to help with the war effort, just to sit in a bomb shelter? If there was a way I could VACATION, I'd still go. Whether I die by rocket or by car accident or by freak health incident, I'll still be dead. May as well enjoy the Galil, if only I could.

Posted by: Sarah | Jul 25, 2006 6:23:37 PM

"These are people for whom a trip into 'the territories' would have once crossed all red lines and flown in the face of their mathematical calculations for safety. Yet they are now watching in wonder as their children play with perfectly nice settler children on quiet, tree-lined streets in the cool, crisp air of Gush Etzion. And as they digest this new and puzzling data, they just might be coming to question their statistical definition of relative safety."

Tad patronizing. Reverse it to settlers bringing their children to play with the nice kids in the mixed Jewish/Arab neighourhood in Haifa (during quiet times) and the settlers being amazed at the "new and puzzling" data. Tell me how that feels.

Posted by: lisoosh | Jul 25, 2006 6:40:45 PM

To add to what Lisoosh said- remember that there are also many Israelis who don't go into "the territories" for reasons which have nothing to do with being nervous about safety: That's a whole other discussion about red lines and where to cross them...

And as for safety mathematics, everyone to their own madness: If I had a pound for every person who tells me they worry that I work in East Jeru- when they themselves hang out in overcrowded, exposed areas which make me personally far more nervous- I'd be a *very* rich woman.

Posted by: PP | Jul 25, 2006 8:31:06 PM

And as they digest this new and puzzling data, they just might be coming to question their statistical definition of relative safety.

During the bombings, the people in Kiryat Shemona and other former Katyusha targets found themselves in the unfamiliar position of being relatively safe, and no longer the objects of concern from their friends and relatives elsewhere. If anything, they were afraid to leave (especially by bus) because it meant going through Afula and other high-risk spots.

Posted by: JSinger | Jul 25, 2006 8:39:11 PM

couldn't have said it better myself. a real pet peeve of mine is the buses thing. i will never get that.

Essie i think you hit it right on the button.

Posted by: Tonny | Jul 25, 2006 9:07:46 PM

Indeed, the buses thing is just... totally over me. After I went bus-riding in Israel, and nothing happened to me, and I came back to the United States, some of my friends were amazed, explaining that most American Jewish parents wouldn't let their kids ride buses. My argument was that "Israelis ride buses every day; where I had to go, the only other way to get around would be tremping." Well, you can imagine their reaction to that! So now I know that if I ever need to persuade someone reluctant to get on an Israeli bus I'll have to ask them: "Would you rather tremp?" *Rolling eyes*. In short, I agree with this post completely. One should take precautions, of course, and if one sees suspicious behavior or suspicious objects, one should report them, but other than that, there's no precaution against living, not even staying in your own house .

Posted by: Irina | Jul 25, 2006 11:18:55 PM

People on the Lebanese border faced risk long before the settlements of Yehuda & Shomron became an issue. The bomb shelters of Kiryat Shemona have seen lots of use long before this.
It is brave to live in the Hulda Valley. Stand on the Golan Heights and look down into the Kibbutzim and Yishuvim down below. think of Syrian gunners before 1967.
I would say that the remark about tree lined streets and cool Gush Etzion air, and "nice" settler children sounds a tad defensive. Also, a massive generalization, as if all the citizens of Haifa have one political point of view.
I wholeheartedly agree with what lisoosh said.

Posted by: Jersey Boy | Jul 26, 2006 1:02:05 AM

It's still quite difficult for me to draw these safety lines. The risks people associate with living in Israel are exaggerated to a certain degree by various entities, and yet the danger seems very real. The last time I was in Israel, I felt pretty safe most of the time (I'm just a worrier, so I got nervous once or twice for no real reason). However, some trips/locations/routes still seem somewhat unsafe in comparison to others. It just seems a little brash to me to just plunge ahead without taking any safety-related factors into consideration...

Posted by: tnspr569 | Jul 26, 2006 5:45:42 AM

The things one has to deal with in Israel right now are just plain scary. I have to wonder, if my family lived there, would we be holding on to the "higher math" pretty tightly? Anyway, as always, an interesting post.

Posted by: Seattle | Jul 26, 2006 7:02:27 AM

Gil... With all due respect, I think it is you have missed the point and selected the most extreme analogy to reinforce your argument. I was not suggesting that Israelis throw caution to the wind and walk blindfolded into traffic. But I am saying that many of the red lines we have drawn in order to preserve the illusion of safety are constantly being redrawn.

Zahava... As usual you have managed to say what I meant better than I did.

Drew... True... these red lines we draw for ourselves are not at all rational. that was my central point.

PK... I agree completely. I would much rather wander around Hevron or Jerusalem's old city than go to Harlem late at night. But I have friends who go to concerts at the Apollo theater on 125th street several times a month and think I'm a racist scaredy-cat for hesitating to go 'up town'.

Matlabfreak... You are a notable exception to my surprise. :-)

Essie... as the saying goes, 'Man plans and G-d laughs' (sounds better in Yiddish).

Sarah... 'boring' is not a word I would use to describe the north just now... but I got your point. :-)

Lisoosh... I slept on my reply to you and am prepared to be less confrontational than I would have been yesterday. No, I do not think I was being patronizing at all. I think 'Jersey boy' nailed it when he said my post sounded a bit defensive. There is a big difference. You see, while not a majority by any means, there are right wing religious folks in places like Haifa and Karmiel. However there are almost no secular lefties in the settlements, and this lack of first-hand experience with religious settlers does tend to surprise many people when they finally find out we (and our communities) are more than the sum of the negative stereotypes they have been harboring in recent years. I know you tend to jump in as devil's advocate without necessarily wanting to come off as reactionary... which is the only reason I waited to respond to you.

PP... Yes dear, we know of what you speak but that is a discussion for another day. :-) Let us agree for the sake of today's post that anyone who would be philosophically opposed to setting foot in the territories probably would not allow themselves to be housed in Efrat... even under present circumstances. Therefore the people who inspired today's post do not fall into this category. Not saying that you don't have a point... just that your point does not relate fairly to this post.

JSinger... See? Red lines everywhere you look! :-)

Tonny... I hope you didn't take my post to be critical of people's decisions. Everyone has a right to decide for themselves where and when they feel safe. I have many friends who would not visit us in Efrat (even today) because it crosses outside their comfort zone. I have never (to my knowledge) ever made them feel awkward about this limitation they have placed on themselves.

Irina... as I told Tonny, this is a big fear for many people and we can't pooh-pooh them for it. Remember, some people who got on buses didn't get off under their own power. You can't argue with that.

Jersey Boy... Re: Defensive... guilty as charged. I admit that I am a tad defensive about the way people view this part of the country.

tnspr569... I didn't say people shouldn't take precautions. I was just pointing out that most precautions we take are more to put our mind at ease than to actually keep us out of harm's way.

Seattle... One could say the same of many big cities in the world. Dangers to life and property exist all over the world... even in the most civilized places. We just assign a higher risk to things that frighten us more... without regards to whether statistically that danger is greater than something (such as urban crime, smoking, traffic accidents, etc.) with which we have made our peace.


Posted by: treppenwitz | Jul 26, 2006 9:34:29 AM

*grins* I was hoping someone would tell me that my sample size was too small... but I guess Jews really are bad at statistics. ;)

Ender

Posted by: matlabfreak | Jul 26, 2006 10:47:30 AM

Why are the words "west bank" and "territories" in quotes?

Has the map - or Olmie's opinion - changed?

Posted by: Ben-David | Jul 26, 2006 1:35:08 PM

Matlabfreak... I wasthinking abotu stating the obvious but that would make me sound less like I got your joke. :-)

Ben-David... Because while I don't subscribe to those terms, the supposed speaker in this scenario does.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jul 26, 2006 1:39:58 PM

of course they do, it just gets to me that they think they're not safe in those certain places, like a bus. it doesnt happen so often, Thank God, that a bus explodes. and so if its like that, why not take a bus? if the odds are like that, then maybe theyre greater that one would die crossing the st (specially in israel!), or falling down the stairs ch"v.

Posted by: Tonny | Jul 26, 2006 2:57:23 PM

Upper Manhattan is a lot safer now than it was a decade or two ago. I was actually at an Idan Raichel Project concert at the World Famous Apollo Theater.

Posted by: Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) | Jul 26, 2006 4:01:49 PM

Thought you would sleep on it. I know that there are lots of misperceptions among other Israelis about settlements, reading through a few hard right wing blogs recently it struck me that the misperceptions and disrespect go in two directions. Cliche it may be, but there is a severe lack of communication between the two groups and communication is a two way street.
I know it is your blog, but can I suggest a different, warmer way to say what you said above:

"Our settlement is hosting refugees from the North during the current crisis. Many of them have never been to this neck of the woods, except during army service, and our compatriots were surprised by how peaceful it is and how safe they feel"

Posted by: lisoosh | Jul 26, 2006 5:42:19 PM

Actually I was quite angry when I wrote the first comment.
I lived in the North for a while and have a lot of friends there. Many are old time socialist Zionists. They made Aliyah in the 60's and 70's when that didn't mean a house, a car, telecommuting to the US and a sal klita. It meant giving up everything, a cramped apartment, a bus pass and space in a bomb shelter. They've travelled the country hundreds of times, hiked most of it and can tell you every bible passage attached to every hill and plant. They've raised children, speaking only Hebrew so that they would feel a true connection to their new homeland. They've lost friends family and even children in Egypt, Lebanon and the Territories and yes in malls and buses at home. They've served in the army, faithfully and loyally protecting their country.
And yes their vision for the country among left wingers at least, is different from a religious Zionist. They'll teach Hebrew in poor Arab neighbourhoods because of a belief that a country should be for all of its citizens and many vote Meretz because they see Israels position in the Territories in a different way.

For every bored housewife in Tel Aviv with too much money and too many clothes there is another person who has given their life to build the nation.
Maybe someone has come in the past few years, looked around and decided that they don't like what they did with the place. Fair enough, can't all agree. But without many of these early zionists, citizens all, there may not have been a place to come to.
And they deserve respect.

Posted by: lisoosh | Jul 26, 2006 7:00:48 PM

Actually I was quite angry when I wrote the first comment.
I lived in the North for a while and have a lot of friends there. Many are old time socialist Zionists. They made Aliyah in the 60's and 70's when that didn't mean a house, a car, telecommuting to the US and a sal klita. It meant giving up everything, a cramped apartment, a bus pass and space in a bomb shelter. They've travelled the country hundreds of times, hiked most of it and can tell you every bible passage attached to every hill and plant. They've raised children, speaking only Hebrew so that they would feel a true connection to their new homeland. They've lost friends family and even children in Egypt, Lebanon and the Territories and yes in malls and buses at home. They've served in the army, faithfully and loyally protecting their country.
And yes their vision for the country among left wingers at least, is different from a religious Zionist. They'll teach Hebrew in poor Arab neighbourhoods because of a belief that a country should be for all of its citizens and many vote Meretz because they see Israels position in the Territories in a different way.

For every bored housewife in Tel Aviv with too much money and too many clothes there is another person who has given their life to build the nation.
Maybe someone has come in the past few years, looked around and decided that they don't like what they did with the place. Fair enough, can't all agree. But without many of these early zionists, citizens all, there may not have been a place to come to.
And they deserve respect.

Posted by: lisoosh | Jul 26, 2006 8:33:52 PM

I don't at all mean to be dismissive. I guess what I'm trying to say that when acts of terror are completely random and can happen anytime, anyplace, one certainly should be careful, but trying to avoid certain places isn't really very logical... beecause there's no guarantee that the attack won't happen in a completely different place instead. Besides, there are times (such as during the height of intifada) when the chances of an attack occurring on a bus, or any place else are significantly higher than during more peaceful times.

Posted by: Irina | Jul 26, 2006 9:53:25 PM

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