A Nobel Laureate’s Ignoble Savages

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Yisrael (Robert) Aumann won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on game-theory.

When I read the reports about the University of Haifa refusing to grant Prof. Yisrael Aumann an honorary doctorate because of his right-wing views, I remembered reading an interview with him in Haaretz a few years ago. While I started reading it with awe and respect, prepared to acquire tools for building a better future with the help of the man who had won the Nobel Prize for his research into game theory, I finished it very concerned about the prospect of peace in our region.

During the interview Prof. Aumann presented what he called the paradox of the extortionist. Someone offers Reuven and Shimon 1,000 shekels together, if they can manage to agree on how to split the money. Reuven suggests splitting it half and half, but Shimon refuses, saying he won’t accept less than 900 shekels – “take it or leave it.” Reuven says to him: “Be rational. What is the difference between us? Why should you get more?” And Shimon says: “Rational or not, either I leave here with 900 shekels or with nothing. You decide.”

Reuven concludes that he’s dealing with someone who’s irrationally stubborn, and since he himself is rational, he’d rather take the 100 shekels, since that’s still better than nothing.

Aumann then applied the paradox to our region, specifically to the “irrational” Syrian refusal to concede the Golan Heights. But if we examine reality, we find that the one who keeps profiting is Israel. Israel controls Palestinian and Syrian land, and before it returned the Sinai Peninsula it dictated tough terms to Egypt, especially in the military realm. Is it impossible to say, based on the paradox of the extortionist, that the “irrational” Shimon is actually Israel?

Aumann argues that Israel’s problem is that Israelis are the rational ones. If that’s the case, I suggest we get the shelters ready; if Israel is behaving rationally after it has already conquered half of the Middle East, then what will the region look like when it starts going crazy – or, in scientific terms, begins to act “irrationally?”

But worst of all is that the context of the extortionist’s paradox, no matter how you look at it, seems to come from the jungle. We learn from the interview with Aumann that rationalism is behavior that advances a goal, and when interviewer Sami Peretz asks, “In the interest of advancing my goal I could lie to you, threaten you or trick you. Is that still rational?” Aumann replies that indeed, “Rationality is not morality.” This, with all due respect, is a euphemistic description of the laws of the jungle, which civilization tries to suppress through humane laws that do not sanctify having the strong prey upon the weak.

Furthermore, much of mankind has chosen humane laws because even rationally the laws of the jungle do not pay. One need only look at the underworld, a contemporary version of the jungle, to see its members’ distress – threats, jail, and sleeping with a dagger under one’s pillow, lest one confront a stronger blackmailer. Such a jungle has never been good for its inhabitants, whether predators or prey, who in the process lose their humanity. For example, they will load those they call “infiltrators” onto buses and send them to prisons, without trial, without charges, while those watching treat the matter like a film that has no bearing on reality.

On Saturday Nazareth was occupied by tens of thousands of Jews and foreign tourists who had come for the Christmas celebrations. There was no need for game theory, extortion, rationality or irrationality, or any of the other splendid terms from Aumann’s dictionary. The magic words were love of man and faith in the goodness of man – something that melts hearts and brings nations closer.

But if the University of Haifa decides, nonetheless, to award the honorary doctorate to Prof. Aumann, then it would be in recognition of how he has upgraded the laws of the jungle to fit the modern world.

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