On Humility and Prof. Aumann

Had the unique opportunity to spend two hours with a Nobel laureate this morning, Prof. Yisrael Aumann. Here are my take-aways.

1. Upon entering his office, Prof. Aumann insisted I sit down and asked me if I’d have coffee or tea. It was the beginning of an interview that had no hint of hubris or ego at any point. When asked if he could explain his Nobel-winning research in layman’s terms, he sort of chuckled and said, “I suppose so. I’m not even really sure why they gave me the prize – yeah, I’ve made some contributions to game theory, but others made bigger ones.”
He then flashed a cheeky smile that started deep in his soul and penetrated right through me as he said, “But I don’t think I’ll appeal the decision. I’ve already spent all the money.”
I have rarely, if ever, experienced the depth and power of honest humility as I did this morning.

2. On the white board behind his desk, he had written a quote from President Obama. Now, the professor is well-known as an adviser to the right-wing Jewish Home political party – not exactly of the same political stripe as the former president. But he obviously has enough respect for Obama, and for the wisdom of a particular idea, to keep the quote on the wall.

3. At 89 years of age, the professor comes into work virtually every day (except when he’s delivering a paper overseas). He also continues to hike “a lot”. His office is comfortable, but not fancy or extravagant in any way. He keeps an unassuming bed with a pillow in the corner (he is almost 90; I think he’s entitled to have a nap during the day). The bed looks like he received it from the Jewish Agency when he arrived in Israel in 1956.
See previous point about humility.

4. Asked about the first thing that comes to his mind when he thinks of France, he told two (very funny) jokes about the rather inflated ego of the late French President Charles de Gaulle.

5. Although he was not really asked about politics (the journalist interviewing him specifically tried to avoid it, asking only a tsangential question), Professor Aumann was eager to speak about it. He made no apologies for his assertion that Israel’s judiciary is “running rampant” and must be reigned in. He cited the US Constitution that requires Congress to impeach the president before the president can be charged with a crime and said that Israel badly needs to adopt the same requirement.

I didn’t ask if he thought Binyamin Netanyahu should resign the prime ministership in order to conduct his legal defence. But I have long dismissed Likud/Religious Zionist allegations of unfair treatment by the media/legal establishment out of hand. I don’t see the evidence backing the claim, as well as evidence to challenge the notion.

Now, however, I feel I have to rethink. Professor Aumann is hardly an angry, excitable type, not at all given to “shooting from the hip.” To the contrary: He’s a cool-headed, show-me-the-numbers mathematician. The claim still seems far-fetched to me, but if Prof. Aumann is making it, it’s absolutely something to consider seriously.

6. Asked about the resurgence of Judeophobic attacks in Europe and elsewhere (his family fled their home in Frankfurt in 1938), he said simply that hatred of Jews is “deeply rooted in Western culture.” He recalled being shut out of “eating clubs” as a post-doc at Princeton, as well as an Princeton alumnus holding a sign reading “I Like Eich” at the homecoming parade in 1961 (a reference to both former US President Dwight D. Eisnhower’s “I Like Ike” campaign slogan and to Israel’s trial at the time of Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann). But his recollection of these incidents, or even of the current trends, was devoid of any anger. Anti-Semitism is simply part of Europe – taken to a horrific extreme during World War II, to be sure, but it would be foolish to think that Hitler created anti-Semitism, or that it ceased to exist after the Nazis were defeated. Rather than anger, the professor celebrates the fact that…

7. He has 21 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren and two more due any moment. All live in Israel; nearly all live in Jerusalem. A very far cry from the plans the Nazis had for the Aumann family.


נצח ישראל לא ישקר. עם ישראל חי

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