Israeli-Palestinian peace a matter of incentives, says Nobel laureate Aumann
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Israeli-Palestinian peace a matter of incentives, says Nobel laureate Aumann

At a packed Jerusalem event, Robert Yisrael Aumann shares his life story and dissects the conflict using game theory

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Israeli Nobel Prize winner Prof. Robert Yisrael Aumann (right) speaks with journalist Matthew Kalman at a Times of Israel Presents event produced in partnership with Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem, December 12, 2018. (Dana Bar Siman Tov)
Israeli Nobel Prize winner Prof. Robert Yisrael Aumann (right) speaks with journalist Matthew Kalman at a Times of Israel Presents event produced in partnership with Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem, December 12, 2018. (Dana Bar Siman Tov)

In April 1938, two Jewish boys in Frankfurt, Germany, discussed the arrest of their community’s rabbi in the month following the annexation of Austria. Along with only 1 percent of German citizens, their rabbi voted against the April 10 single-question referendum: “Do you approve of the reunification of Austria with the German reich accomplished on 13 March 1938 and do you vote for the list of our Führer, Adolf Hitler?”

In a Times of Israel Presents evening of personal anecdotes and academic explanations produced in partnership with Beit Avi Chai on Wednesday, Nobel Prize mathematician Robert Yisrael Aumann told the packed Jerusalem theater that he and his older brother had agreed that it was proper that the rabbi had been arrested and taken to a concentration camp.

“The rabbi had it coming to him,” he remembered thinking. “He deserved it, because one is supposed to vote yes,” Aumann said, explaining the thought process of his almost 8-year-old self.

“We were two Jewish children in Nazi Germany, so affected by the narrative around them, that we — Jewish children — that’s what we thought!” said a still-surprised Aumann.

In 2005, Aumann received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. The Hebrew University professor is best known for his work on game-theory analysis, which aims to find strategic, mathematical models that lead to solutions to conflicts conducted by rational bodies. Much of the solution, said Aumann, has to do with incentives.

Game theory is used in situations in which the players are interacting and striving toward different goals, said Aumann. It can be applied to almost any area of conflict, from purchasing a house to peace in the Middle East.

Interviewed by journalist Matthew Kalman, Aumann paused and pondered the tougher questions while, with trademark humor, sharing his life story and how he arrived both to his specialized mathematical field and to a young Israel in 1956.

Live!THE TIMES OF ISRAEL & BEIT AVI CHAI P R E S E N T S:Nobel Prize LaureateProf. Yisrael AumannJoin us as Prof. Aumann discusses his life career, groundbreaking research in Game Theory – and how it can shape our understanding of war and peace

Posted by ‎בית אבי חי Beit Avi Chai‎ on Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Aumann recounted how his very religiously observant family fled Nazi Germany just ahead of Kristallnacht and arrived in the United States by sea in a first-class berth.

“We couldn’t take any money, any capital out of Germany,” he said, so the family splurged on its voyage and shipped several items, including a beautiful Steinway piano which is still in the possession of the Aumann family.

Once they reached the shores of New York, however, the parents were forced to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. He said he had a beautiful childhood, both in Germany and in New York.

Israeli Nobel Prize winner Prof. Robert Yisrael Aumann speaks at a Times of Israel Presents event produced in partnership with Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem, December 12, 2018. (Dana Bar Siman Tov)

“We bought cracked eggs, which were cheaper, but they were eggs,” he said with a shrug. “We were okay.”

It was his family’s financial straits that first introduced the future mathematician to game theory. His mother would occasionally bring home treats, such as a candy bar, to be divided between her two sons. Like most normal children, they would complain about the sweet’s division.

His mother hit upon a brilliant plan: Aumann would divide, and then his brother Moshe would choose. That way, neither could complain and Aumann was incentivized to carve up the portions fairly. Like every good Jewish son, he laughed, he owes his success to his mother.

Asked why he is attracted to the field of mathematics, he pondered and said, “It’s beautiful stuff.” He enjoys the precise thinking, he said, calling it “an art.”

A game with severe consequences

After he came of age during the Cold War, much of Aumann’s early work in game theory dealt with strategic thinking about deescalating the arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States.

It was an existentially frightening period and in the 1960s, for example, there was a trend in the US for private individuals to build and stock bomb shelters. The Soviets, he said, saw this as extremely aggressive behavior because they viewed it as preparing for a second strike. Essentially, in Soviet thinking, the bomb shelters meant the Americans would attack and then hole up for the Soviet response.

“Game theory was the backbone of policy in the Cold War period,” he said, adding that former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger had been a professor in the field at Harvard University.

Professor Yisrael (Robert) Aumann (photo credit: Flash90)
Professor Yisrael Robert Aumann (Flash90)

The key, he said, is to maintain a “balance of fear” such that neither side would use their burgeoning stockpile of weapons.

During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, however, that balance was precarious and, said Aumann, “I thought the world would end in three weeks. It was scary stuff!”

Finding a balance of fear in the Middle East

Everybody wants peace in the Middle East, said Aumann; however, proclaiming that desire may actually drive the fulfillment of it farther away. This applies, too, to any “concessions,” such as the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza, in which Israel unilaterally pulled its settlers and troops from the region, which quickly became a stronghold for the terrorist organization Hamas.

“When you shout, ‘peace, peace, peace,’ then it’s a signal [to the adversary] to up the price,” said Aumann. “The expulsion from Gaza — ancient history — was a very very bad move,” he said, and taught the Palestinians that if they put on enough pressure, Israel will capitulate. “We are giving them incentives to press on,” he said.

Israeli Nobel Prize winner Prof. Robert Yisrael Aumann speaks at a Times of Israel Presents event produced in partnership with Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem, December 12, 2018. (Dana Bar Siman Tov)

“The common wisdom — or foolishness — is that making concessions will bring peace. It doesn’t bring about peace, it brings about war — it’s the opposite,” he said. “The expulsion from Gaza has brought all the wars in the Gaza area ever since. We are giving them incentives to keep pressing. We are rewarding their attacks.”

Laughingly agreeing that Israel needs a game theorist statesman, Aumann soberly added that he was asked his advice once by the Israeli government and that for a few years it seemed it was being followed. But then, to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, the government changed course and did exactly the opposite of what he advised, and Israel released 1,027 prisoners in the exchange.

All is not bleak, however. “We’re doing a lot of things wrong and a lot of things right,” he said, adding that Israel must pay attention to the incentives it is offering the Palestinians.

One of the first ways to ensure change, he said, is to stop the Palestinians’ indoctrination of their children to hate Jews enough to sacrifice their lives in order to drive them from the land.

Perhaps remembering his own childhood and how he, a religious Jewish child, fell under the sway of Nazi ideology, he said, “It is deep-seated and has to change. It should have been our first priority.”

The next event from The Times of Israel Presents:

NEVER A NATIVE: AN EVENING WITH ALICE SHALVI

8pm, Tuesday January 15
Beit Avi Chai, King George St., Jerusalem
Tickets 40 NIS HERE

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