Thursday, May 25, 2006


Game Theory Nobel Laureate Says Israel’s
Leaders Are Not Playing the Game Correctly
Sharon Hes and Susan L. Rosenbluth

The Jewish Voice and Opinion - May 01, 2006

When Prof Robert (Yisrael) Aumann says the Palestinian Arabs are not irrational when they send their young men and women to kill themselves—and as many Israelis as possible—in suicide bombings, he is relying on game theory, a discipline he knows something about. In December 2005, the professor of mathematics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem was awarded the Nobel Prize for his expertise in the field, which examines how individuals and groups act when they have different, and often opposing, goals.

“The definition of rationality is to do the best you can to advance your interests. The ‘martyrs’ know where they are going, and to blow yourself up for ‘the public good’ is not irrational when you see you can achieve your goals by doing it. And they are achieving them. When the Israeli government expels Jews from their homes, we are allowing the Palestinian-Arab ‘martyrs’ to achieve their goals. The Palestinian Arabs are playing the game rationally and we better understand that if we in Israel respond to acts of terror as we have been, we are encouraging those acts of terror and we will see more of
them,” he said.

Dr. Aumann, 75, made his remarks last month at the One Israel Fund dinner in Manhattan. Established in 1993, the One Israel Fund provides humanitarian and security assistance to Jews living in Yesha, the communities of Judea and Samaria as well as the former residents of the Jewish communities of Gaza.

Most Traumatic

Dr. Aumann said the evacuation of all Jewish communities in Gush Katif, Gaza, and four sites in Northern Samaria, made last summer “the most traumatic” of his 50 years in Israel.

His game theory analysis of the expulsion, he said, was the strategic side of the error made by the Sharon government, but equally severe, he said, was the moral side, “which has nothing to do with game theory.”

“It is morally repugnant to throw anyone—even Jews— from their homes,” he said.

Yeshiva Trained

Born in Frankfurt, Germany, Dr. Aumann fled to the US with his family in 1938, two weeks before Kristall-nacht. After graduating from the Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshivain NYC (where he did so poorly in math, his teachers advised him to consider auto mechanics) and City College, he received his master’s and doctorate in mathematics
from MIT.

His 1955 doctorate on the then-mathematically esoteric subject of knots has, to his surprise, evolved into an issue that is now of interest to scientists studying the way DNA gets tangled in a cell, sometimes leading to cancer.

After leaving MIT, he joined a small group at the Forrestal Research Center, attached to Princeton University, where he realized that a strategically important issue, concerning a squadron of aircraft, a few of which were armed with nuclear weapons, could be addressed with game theory.

“The rest is history,” he said.

Honored in Israel

He made aliyah 50 years ago, in 1956, and joined the faculty of Hebrew University.

In 1991, he and some colleagues established the Center for Rationality at the Hebrew University, a unique academic venture in which scholars from 13 different university departments meet every other Friday. The group’s published “Discussion Papers” include “Scoring and Keying Multiple Choice Tests, “The Israeli Constitutional Process” and Dr. Aumann’s own “Musings on Information
and Knowledge.”

In 1994, Dr. Aumann won the Israel Prize for Economics.

Personal Tragedies

Although he did not elaborate at the One Israel Fund dinner, he noted that while the disengagement from Gaza was traumatic, he has suffered other personal traumas since making aliyah.

In 1982, his son, Shlomo, was killed in Lebanon while serving in the IDF’s Operation Peace for Galilee. In his son’s memory, Dr. Aumann published an article in which he utilized game theory to analyze a Talmudic “division problem” dilemma, explaining the rationale for dividing the estate of a late husband to his three wives depending on the worth of the estate as compared to its original value.

At the One Israel Fund dinner, he commented that the date of the event, April 26, was his 57th wedding anniversary, not to his new wife, Batya, but to her sister,
Esther, who died in 1998.

Bringing the Family

In addition to Mrs. Aumann, Dr. Aumann’s remaining four children, 19 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren accompanied him to Stockholm when he received the Nobel Prize together with Prof. Thomas C. Schelling of the University of Maryland.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Drs. Aumann and Schelling had won “for having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game theory analysis.”

To prepare for the trip, two of Dr. Aumann’s relatives traveled to Stockholm a week before the ceremony to arrange for kosher food and rooms on the lowest floor of the hotel, located within walking distance of the synagogue. The hotel had to provide room keys that superceded the electronic doors, which the Aumanns would not use on Shabbat.

Because the Nobel Prize banquet has a stringent men’s dress code—black tailcoat with silk facings, sharply cut away at the front; black trousers with two rows of braid down each leg; a white stiff wing collar attached to the shirt with collar studs; white bow tie; and a white low-cut waistcoat—a Swedish rabbi had to bring the mandatory tails to Israel so it could be tested for sha’atnez, the biblically forbidden combination of wool and linen. There are no sha’atnez labs in Sweden.

Tests in Israel found that the tails did contain sha’atnez, and a whole new set had to be ordered from a tailor in Tel Aviv.


Although many Jews have received the Nobel Prize over the years, including seven other Israelis, members of the Orthodox community felt special pride watching on television as Dr. Aumann, wearing a white knitted kippa to match his white beard and starched formal shirt, accepted the honor in economics.

Not all Israelis were happy about the honor bestowed on Dr. Aumann. Approximately 1,000 self-styled Israeli “intellectuals” signed a petition demanding that the Nobel committee withdraw its prize to Dr. Aumann on the grounds that, as a member of the religious- Zionist camp, he is “a warmonger” whose theory supports the communities in Judea, Samaria, and even the now-destroyed settlements in Gaza. They charged he is using game theory to “justify the Israeli occupation and the oppression of the Palestinians.”

The effort was led by Shraga Elam, an Israeli expatriate living in Zurich who has long been known for anti-Israel positions.

Enormous Mistake

Dr. Aumann has never retreated from his position that Israel made an enormous mistake in expelling Jewish residents from Gaza and northern Samaria.

“From a game theory point of view, it was a very bad move. But if I didn’t study game theory, I would also say the same thing,” he said. “It was a bad move theoretically because it sends a signal to the other side that if you apply enough pressure, then we will respond.”

He did not see his theory as being useful to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, which, he noted “has been going on for at least 80 years and, as far as I can see, it is going to go on for at least another 80 years.”

“I don’t see any end to this one, I’m sorry to say,” he said.

Plea for Patience

He told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the “disengagement” from Gaza and Northern Samaria was “a disaster” and he argued for a show of patience on Israel’s part. Continued withdrawals, he said, would lead only to bloodshed because they signal that Israel does not know how to proceed and is “merely taking action for the sake of doing something.”

“The current drive for peace now, not tomorrow, is liable to bring about the opposite,” he told the Knesset.

Calling the Palestinians Arabs “our cousins,” he said they “must be convinced, not that we are desperate for peace, but that we are willing to be patient and live with the current situation.”

Shabbat in Stockholm

Dr. Aumann received his Nobel Prize on Saturday night, December 10, after he and his family had spent Shabbat in the Swedish capital, where they were hosted by the local community. They did not leave for the Nobel Prize ceremony until after the Sabbath had ended. When three stars were visible, vans and cars sent by the King Gustave of Sweden picked up the family and delivered them to the hall.

The Aumann family—men in white knitted kippoth and women in modest evening gowns and head coverings—took up two full rows in the ceremonial auditorium.

For the banquet itself, the Nobel Prize committee had ordered kosher meals for the Aumanns.

At the ceremony that evening, awards were handed out to prize winners in medicine (Australians Barry Marshall and Robin Warren for proving that ulcers were caused by bacteria rather than stress), physics, chemistry, and literature (British-Jewish playwright Harold Pinter, who, ill with cancer, was unable to attend, but sent a prerecorded speech in which he attacked US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair for their roles in the war in Iraq).

Understood Theory

Asked to discuss the issues for which he won the Nobel Prize, Dr. Aumann said that although the mathematical formula behind game theory is complex, the theory is well understood by many people in the course of every day living.

“I do it all the time,” he said. “When I want information from someone official, I always ask their name. I usually forget it immediately, but I want the person to feel responsible for what he is doing.”

At the ceremony, the judges credited Drs. Aumann and Schelling with having shown that when a particular situation repeats itself, the very fact that it does so provides opportunities for cooperation, even between parties to a conflict.

“War is not irrational,” said Dr. Aumann, explaining that military preparedness is the best way to prevent conflict. “During the long, dark days of the Cold War, peace was maintained because airplanes carrying nuclear weapons were in the air 24 hours a day,” he said.

Understanding Incentives

He noted that wars have always been part of the human condition and that his and Dr. Schelling’s ideas represented not a way to deal with the problem, but, rather, “an approach to avoid confronting it.”

“Our research focuses on war and peace. Through game theory, we try to understand a problem and only after we understand it is it possible to try and find a solution to it,” he said.

He said his work was tied to economics because the latter can be summed up in one word: incentives. That, he said, “is the connection between my work and economics.”

Most Moving Moment

Asked at the One Israel Fund dinner to describe the moving part of his Nobel Prize experience, Dr. Aumann said that while he enjoyed receiving the prize from King Gustave, the most emotional moment was when he stepped in front of the Grand Hotel with all the other Nobel winners and looked up. There were seven flags waving, representing Sweden and the six nations of the ten Nobel Prize winners.

“Right in the middle, next to the Swedish flag, the Israeli flag was fluttering in the breeze. That was the most moving moment for me,” he said.

Flag in Danger

But now, he said, that flag “is in danger as never before.” Although he did not dismiss the dangers posed by Iran and other Arab countries and groups, the greater threat, he said, comes from within.

“We can take care of ourselves against the outside enemies, but we do not know what to do from the danger that comes from within our own ranks,” he said.

He refrained from calling Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his supporters, who seek to relinquish most of Judea and Samaria, “enemies.” Rather, he said, they are “well-meaning patriots who think they are doing the right thing, but they are not doing the right thing.”

Dangerous Agenda Shift

The key reason for their decision to withdraw from land, he said, was summed up recently by a former Israeli security chief who spoke at a conference to which Dr. Aumann was also invited. According to Dr. Aumann, the security official told the gathering that the “Israeli agenda has changed from a public agenda that involved sticking together and working to advance the general good of the whole country, to a new agenda which apes that of most Western countries.”

The Western agenda, which Dr. Aumann said the former security chief greatly admired, “is built on individual incentives and looking out for number one.”

“This may be okay for the United States, Britain, and even many underdeveloped countries, but for a country facing existential threats, such as Israel, this is terribly wrong. The security chief applauded this shift, but it is actually something to be very depressed about,” said Dr. Aumann.

Dangerous Fatigue

According to Dr. Aumann, the results of Israel’s recent election, which saw Mr. Olmert become prime minister, is a reflection of this change in Israel’s agenda. “Israelis voted as they did because, as Olmert says, they are tired of serving in the reserves and tired of being killed by terrorists, and they think they can make things better for themselves by expelling Jews from their homes and contracting the amount of land controlled by Israel,” he said.

This fatigue, he said, is “the exhaustion experienced by a mountain climber or a skier who has become stuck in the snow all night; all he wants to do is sleep, but it is the sleep of death.”

“A mountain climber in that position must resist the urge to sleep. He cannot give in to that fatigue, because if he does, he will die. We in Israel are in mortal danger because of that tiredness,” he said.

Praying for Survival

He saw in the supporters of the One Israel Fund the Jewish state’s hope for survival and, he said, for that reason he had agreed to speak at the dinner.

“I made my living from game theory, and was never very involved in communal affairs. I gave tzedaka, went to shul, and was involved with my neighbors, but the One Israel Fund supporters not only give tzedaka, they give of themselves,” he said.

The One Israel Fund honored a number of its supporters at the dinner, but the leaders of the organization managed to surprise Zahava Englard, a long-time trustee who, this year, has been serving as interim executive director. Mrs. Englard, who is making aliyah to the Yesha community of Efrat this summer with her husband, Dr. Arthur Englard, and their four children, was given the One Israel Fund’s Maaleh Yisrael award. In Israel, she will serve as liaison to the trustees from the One Israel Fund’s new women’s division.

Hope and Prayer

Knowing that there is that kind of support in the US is important to Israelis, said Dr. Aumann. “In Israel, we don’t just hear about terror attacks on TV or in the newspapers. In Israel, everyone knows people who have been affected by terror. We all know someone whose children, parents, brothers, sisters, or neighbors have been killed, wounded, or maimed. No one in Israel is exempt,” he said.

Once again reflecting on the danger currently faced by the Jewish state, he said he hoped the Israeli flag would continue to fly “for years and years.”

“But I am not as sure as I once was that this will happen. It is my hope and prayer, but not my prediction,” he said.


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Founded in 1991, we are the largest worldwide coalition of Jewish and Christian organizations, with more than 200 groups representing millions of people dedicated to Israel. Though we have many different backgrounds, we have one common goal: A Safe and Secure Israel.

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