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Prof. Robert John (Israel) Aumann of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem holds his granddaughter before a press conference at the Givat Ram campus following the announcement that he won the Nobel Prize in economy. Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski
The year was 1938 and the Aumanns desperately wanted to leave their native Germany. Salvation dangled in the form of US visas, available for passport holders who swore they wouldn't be a burden on their new country and passed a test of basic American terms and concepts.
Robert "Yisrael" Aumann saw his parents studying hard and thought he should do likewise. After his parents passed the exam, his mother confided in the consular official that her son had also prepared very diligently and would like to be presented with a test question.
The consul leaned over to the eight-year-old and asked him to name the president of the United States - at the time Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Aumann answered enthusiastically: "Rosenfeld!" The consul burst out laughing. He also granted the boy a visa.
The qualities Aumann displayed at a ripe age - a propensity for hard work, a fierce intellect and a commitment to Jewish values - and has continued to exhibit throughout adulthood, earned him this year's Nobel prize in economics.
An emeritus professor of mathematics at the Hebrew University, he shares the prize with Thomas Shelling of the University of Maryland for, in the words of the Nobel academy, "enhancing our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game theory analysis." Game theory examines how individuals and groups act in a given situation when they have different, and possibly opposing, goals.
With an air of magnanimity and community-orientedness, Aumann says the prize doesn't constitute recognition of his own personal achievements alone. "I feel it is not only for me, but for the whole school of game theory in Israel."
At the very least, there are a lot of local applications for his work, particularly his examination of "repeated games," or long-term relationships.
Cooperation, he argues, can be aided by patience, since "If you have a long-term future relationship, then you can cooperate today, but if you're thinking about today - if you're not thinking about the future - it's not going to work."
He faults Israel for being too impatient when it comes to reacting to the Palestinians. "If you have to have peace now, then it might be difficult to get peace next year," he says. "Maybe in Israel we're trying too hard. We should take it easy. It's true that people are getting killed. The situation is rough, and in the wake of the expulsion it's going to get rougher ... but I think we still have to say ... peace next year is almost as good as peace this year."
"Expulsion" is his term for disengagement, which he strongly opposed, and which he sees as a "disaster" in Israel's efforts to reach peace with the Palestinians is concerned.
"One of the important signals that we were sending to them was, if you are not willing to come to an accommodation with us, then gradually we will establish a bigger presence in the territories." Disengagement, he believes, is "saying that everything is reversible. Tel Aviv is also reversible." He sees Israel's impatience as the culprit that led it to forfeit a major means of pressuring Palestinians to come to an agreement with Israel.
"My son was killed in Lebanon in 1982, so I don't take it lightly when people are blown up on buses. But if we respond too quickly to this, then we're going to have more people blown up on buses at greater frequency."
Grappling with game theory concepts has affected how he views the Middle East conflict.
"To some extent, my political position is informed by my scientific work," he says. "There are other things, maybe deeper [things] than my way of making a living, that informs my political beliefs."
Those beliefs have already invited criticism about his being awarded the Nobel Prize.
An online petition calling for the prize to be rescinded from these "two warmongers" is already circulating. Aumann is vilified for his membership in Professors for a Strong Israel, an organization opposed to "yielding control of any part of the Land of Israel to any foreign entity." Schelling is attacked for a theory that "encourages the coercive use of military force."
"This criminal and dangerous school of thought should not be honored. It should be condemned," the petition declares.
According to the Nobel Foundation, a Nobel Prize has never been revoked and it's impossible to do so.
"Our task is to select the most significant scientific contributions," explains economics professor Jorgen Weibull, chairman of the committee that selects the prize-winners. "We do not consider the political views behind the research."
He notes that, having met Aumann in the past, he was aware "that he had opinions," but stresses that the role of the Swedish Academy of Sciences is "not to be an umpire for what is politically correct or not."
He adds that though the critics assail the political implications of Aumann's research, in fact it provides many insights beyond the political realm, including how to maintain scarce common resources when some groups are tempted to exploit them in the short-term.
Aumann refuses to comment on the petition, though in general he has no qualms about sharing his views - "opinionated" is one of the adjectives frequently attached to this 75-year-old grandfather of 19 and great-grandfather of two.
Despite his impassioned stances, according to his family and friends, Aumann remains open-minded, both in terms of his attitude towards others and of his interests.
"He certainly has strong opinions, which he can defend very skillfully," says his 26-year-old grandson, Yakov Rosen, whose mother is the second of Aumann's five children. But "he's very much a non-judgmental person. He takes everybody as he is."
"He's really a Renaissance man - he's everything," says Berel Wein, the rabbi of the Orthodox congregation in Jerusalem to which Aumann belongs.
Wein describes his neighbor as a Jewish scholar, a gourmet chef and someone knowledgeable on a wide variety of topics. In Wein's estimation, Aumann's got "the whole package. You don't often see that in one person."
Wein could have added mountain climbing and skiing to the list.
"He works very hard all day - he works very hard at everything he does," says Rosen. "When we [his family] hike with him, he doesn't give up. He keeps going. He displays more stamina than a lot of the younger people."
(Occasionally, the unusual combination of pastimes yields a special payoff, such as the time he and Rosen climbed to the Annapurna base camp in the Himalayas in 1997. Suddenly the door to their cabin flew open and a man announced in Hebrew, "I heard there's a Jew here!" The man wanted to lay tefillin [don phylacteries], and Aumann obliged.)
Neither his passion for outdoor sports, nor his his vocation as a member of the Hebrew University's Center for the Study of Rationality seem to jibe with his venerable, orthodox image.
IN AN interview conducted by his colleague, Sergiu Hart, last year, Aumann points out that "Game theory says nothing about whether the 'rational' way is morally or ethically right. It just says what rational - self-interested - entities will do."
He also states says that "science is built to satisfy certain needs in our minds. It describes us," while "religion is an experience - mainly an emotional and aesthetic one."
In short, "Belief is an important part of religion, certainly; but in science we have certain ways of thinking about the world, and in religion we have different ways of thinking about the world. Those things coexist side by side without conflict."
As a young man, however, Aumann did experience a conflict between his pursuit of science and his religious studies.
"I underwent a bit of soul-searching when finishing high school on whether to become a Talmudic scholar or study secular subjects at a university," he told Hart. After an exhausting semester rushing back and forth between yeshiva and City College in New York, he realized he needed to focus on one of them. He chose to get a BS in mathematics and then a PhD, also in math, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He continued, however, to maintain a strong connection to Judaism and Zionism, which brought him to Israel.
"The dreams of thousands of years coming to fruition is something beautiful," he says. "That's why I came here. I'm a Zionist; it's very simple."
He arrived with his Israeli-born wife, Esther, in the middle of the 1956 Sinai campaign.
He recalls that the cab driver had to make the trip from the airport to Jerusalem without using his headlights for fear of attracting the attention of Egyptian aircraft.
"I don't think I was frightened - it gives you a lot of adrenaline," he relates - adrenaline he says has "kept up."
It certainly did for the Aumanns during the 1967 Six Day War.
They decided to remain in Israel despite the risks. Aumann stresses that in the weeks leading up to the war, it was by no means clear that Israel would sail to victory in a mere six days. They thought there was "a real possibility that we would be overrun and butchered."
He recounts this episode to illustrate how decisions people make in the midst of conflict can be very different from those they would make from a more disinterested perspective. He is now collaborating on a new model of "games" based on this difference.
In Israel, he immediately came to work at Hebrew University.
He watched as several of his peers - John C. Harsanyi, Reinhard Selten, and John F. Nash, Jr. - in 1994 won the Nobel prize for their pioneering work in game theory. Nash's life was later chronicled in the movie A Beautiful Mind. Many felt Aumann was overlooked and expected that he, too, would win it one day.
"I thought he should have won it  years ago, when Nash and the others got it," Wein says, describing how other Nobel winners would relate to Aumann when he hosted them at his Rehavia home. "They treat him always with awe, so I thought, it's got to happen."
"The first reaction was amazement, [but] the second reaction was, we're not totally surprised," Rosen notes. "We always knew that he was very special and now the world is recognizing it."
For Aumann's part, he acknowledges in an interview for The Nobel Foundation's Web site that in the past it had crossed his mind that he might get the prize. But he said hadn't been thinking about it now because "I gave up on it a long time ago."
In awarding Aumann the prize, the committee cited his work in repeated games. "Robert Aumann was the first to conduct a full-fledged formal analysis of so-called infinitely repeated games. His research identified exactly what outcomes can be upheld over time in long-run relations," the academy said in its statement announcing the 2005 award recipients.
The committee also highlighted his contribution to understanding the role of information - and the lack thereof - in negotiations between parties. Not only can concealing information be part of negotiating strategy, but negotiations run the risk of parties revealing information they might not want to reveal. Aumman gave as an example the clues arms control talks would give about the number of nuclear weapons a country has.
Basically, he says, "It's not easy to understand."
He laughs, "If you could say it in a sentence and a half, I wouldn't have gotten the prize."
"You have to be him to understand him," Wein says. "He lectured in his field in our synagogue, but I don't know if anybody got it."
His grandson, Rosen, is well aware of this problem. He tells of attending a scientific conference in Brazil with his grandfather three years ago, where "many of the lectures I heard were [full of] terms beyond the scope of my understanding of economics and mathematics."
Aumann, Rosen explains, often took one of his grandchildren along with him to conferences after his wife, Esther, died of cancer seven years ago - and before he became involved with his current fiancee, Esther's sister, who, he says, should be his wife by the time he travels to Stockholm to receive the prize on December 10. While initially there was concern that the ceremony would conflict with Shabbat, it won't begin until after sundown Saturday.
The family has always been close, and all but one of his 35 descendents and their spouses plan to accompany him to Sweden: his son, Shlomo, who fell during Operation Peace for the Galilee.
That's when Aumann started growing his trademark beard.
"One grows a beard during the shloshim [first 30 days of mourning], and I think he couldn't really shave it off. He wasn't ready to give up the sign of mourning," Rosen explains.
Rosen notes that Shlomo and Esther are always mentioned at family gatherings of which there have been many lately, including a celebration of Aumann's winning the Nobel Prize.
Rosen points to Shlomo's sudden death, Esther's illness and subsequent death and the difficult childhood Aumann had in Nazi Germany.
"He's managed to come out of all those things strengthened, and to produce a wonderful family and apparently a well-appreciated body of work," he says. "We'd just like him to keep on doing what he's doing."
This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post, Nov. 1, 2005
Hilary Leila Krieger is a writer for the Jerusalem Post.
This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post, Nov. 1, 2005
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