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  • Statisticians’ Ambition:Governmentality, Modernity and National Legibility
  • Anat E. Laibler (bio)

Most work on the history of statistics has located statistics as a tool of the state and has shown how the tool is used to invent society. My case study shows this happening, but it also shows something of the reverse process as well—how the state is used by the discipline of statistics. In fact, paradoxically, my case shows how the Central Bureau of Statistics contributed to the emergence of a statistical scientific community that could present itself as dissociated from politics. The empirical focus of the paper is on the establishment of the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) and on its first major operation—the first census and the general registry of the population; and deals with the social and political implications of central services of national statistics in the context of Israeli society. In that context, three groups went through a significant transformation: Most Palestinians were excluded from the new Israeli citizenry; Beduin-Arabs were subjugated to the jurisdiction of the state, while Mizrakhim—Jews from Muslim countries—were grouped as the Simmelian "stranger" of Israeli society. These implications resulted, though not solely, from the way the statistical gaze was applied in those days.

The time is 1948, a year in which the State of Israel was established as the modern nation-state of the Jewish people. A few months prior to that event, a state agency for the centralized production of national statistics was created. Called the "Central Bureau of Statistics," the agency, following its name, centralized all the statistical activities of the state under its roof and administered to the needs of the emerging public administration. The first major project undertaken by CBS was the population census, which was conducted in November 1948. The characteristics of this census were as follows: It was conducted during the height of the War of Independence. During seven hours of curfew, military and security personnel proceeded [End Page 121] to canvass every Israeli household and register all its citizens. The census was carried out jointly with the General Registry of the Population, which was authorized to create files containing personal details on all the residents of the country. These files have been consistently used by the CBS for their statistical analyses of Israeli society since 1948, and have regularly been updated ever since by the Ministry of the Interior. As a result of the census, the collected demographic data were gathered into one central database. Based on that information, all the residents in Israel were issued identity cards that they were required to have on their person at all times. Each card had its own identity number and identifying photograph. It became the document required for participating in numerous civil activities, such as voting in the first general elections and receiving the compulsory food ration slips, which were distributed in 1948.

The centralization of statistical activities, the way the first census was conducted, and the constant scrutiny of Israeli citizens contradict the fact that the first census and the statistical measurements in general have almost never been disputed since the formation and activation of the CBS. Not only that, as I will show later, even critical accounts of Israeli society have overlooked the role of the CBS in its structuring. These observations raise several questions: What were the conditions that enabled the CBS to gain such power and status? What where the conditions through which the CBS gained, in the words of Latour, the status of a system of water pipes that functions as a vehicle, as a means of transportation from "society" (the natural phenomenon) to the public discourse; a status that could silence the existence of controversies and by which statistical facts are no longer driven by people, but by their inner inertia to move?1 The answer to these questions is based on the conjunction between the uniqueness of the Israeli case and the role statistics plays in processes of nation-building- and state-formation. In the following section I will argue that statistics, in general, has three faces—modernity, Governmentality, and national legibility. It is also important, however, to say that these claims...


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pp. 121-149
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