Friday, August 16, 2013

Israeli scientific research isn't dependent on Europe

Professor Yisrael Aumann, Nobel laureate in economics, sits down with Israel Hayom to discuss peace talks, European boycotts and the Arab Spring: "Israel should say that it needs no favors, and make up the science budget in place of the Europeans."

Dror Eydar..
Israel Hayom..
16 August '13..

It's late in the evening, and the lights are on in the Aumann household. Professor Yisrael (Robert) Aumann, Nobel laureate in economics, sits at the table with a student, a young doctor from Haifa's Technion. They are studying a mathematical problem, and the paper in front of them has equations scribbled all over it. Such is life for a rabbi ("I'm a young man of 83," he tells me) and his student on a cool, clear Jerusalem night.

But around them, the storm rages. Europe issued guidelines that seek to cut the Israeli academic world off from any relationship with Israel's heartland: Samaria, Judea and east Jerusalem. Even the Golan Heights. No financial grants will be given to Israeli scientists who have any connection with Israel over the Green Line. While the guidelines are still preliminary and the agreement has not yet been signed, the outcry of Israeli academia is being heard in the corridors of government.

The academics fear the loss of budgets for research and the cancellation of scientific cooperation between Israel and the Europeans. Foreign Ministry officials have told university heads that instead of putting pressure on the Israeli government to accede to the European dictates, they should put pressure on Europe, which will perhaps get them a softened version of the agreement.

Some well-known parts of the Israeli media have used the story to threaten the public with another tsunami, one of a series that has hit us over the past few years. This time, the tsunami is in the field of science.

The conflict between Israel and Europe has new manifestations and episodes. Quite a few powers are stirring the political pot; some of them hope for a buildup of European pressure to the point of a general boycott that will force Israel to give up the country's heartland. As one of the world's foremost experts on game theory, Aumann has a position on the issue both in terms of his behavior during these conflicts and as a high-ranking member of the scientific community in Israel and worldwide. Not surprisingly, his stance is different from the voices we've been hearing this week.

The urgent issue is the campaign of hysteria over the so-called end of Israeli scientific research. What's your opinion?

"First of all, the document isn't entirely clear to me. While its spirit is obvious, the devil is in the details. The paper is written in a formal manner, and we need to see whether we can deal with the conditions there in other, clever ways."

Let's talk about the principle of the thing before we start being clever.

"There are two approaches to these things. One is practical. Can we live with these guidelines? Various rumors are going around. Someone told me that although Jerusalem is on the list, they promised to treat it with benign ignorance. I don't know whether that's true. Many things depend on the facts. I knew a woman who, when she went to the grocery store, would sometimes come back and say about a certain item, 'I didn't buy it because they wanted twice what the supermarket charges.' I'd ask, 'What do you mean, twice as much?' She'd answer, 'Every supermarket charged one shekel, and they wanted two.' Then I'd say, 'All that fuss over one extra shekel?'

"The question is: Twice what? What's the absolute sum? People have the impression that the large sum that's been mentioned in connection with the European budget is for one year. But actually, it's for five years or more. We should know the exact sum. Once we look into the details, we may find that the amount of money at issue is fairly negligible.

"The scientific cooperation doesn't depend on money. It doesn't depend on grants. On the contrary. The grants depend on the scientific cooperation. Here at the Center for the Study of Rationality, we had long-term cooperation without European money. The money doesn't create cooperation, so it doesn't look like it will be affected."

Aumann's manner is calm even when I mention things that should be upsetting -- not just to him, of course, but also to the entire institution of higher education. This is how he responds to Hebrew University Professor Shai Arkin's statement that severing research relationships would damage the universality of Israeli research and make it provincial:

"I don't share those concerns. It seems to me that there was good cooperation with the Europeans and the Americans before, and it will go on afterward, too. The Europeans aren't threatening to sever scientific connections. Scientific connections aren't money. I had a case where I had a close scientific connection with one of the European researchers. He visited us in Israel often. One day, he joined the boycott of Israel. We were shocked and acted in a way that resulted in him losing more than we did. We continued to thrive. Now it's different. I'm afraid of what could happen if we give in."

What do you mean?

"We're opening a door here for worse things to happen -- for there to be no scientific cooperation at all. The next stage could be a threat that if we don't leave Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem now, a scientific boycott will be declared against all of Israel, not only on the institutions in Judea and Samaria. The thought that concessions bring calm is inaccurate. If we agree to a boycott of Judea and Samaria and don't resist it, thinking that we'll be left alone if we consent, we'll get the opposite result.

"The thing is that the people who are shouting that it's bad for Israel's scientific community are the same ones who have it in for Judea and Samaria anyway. So they're not exactly acting out of pure intentions toward Israeli scientific research. I admit that this applies in the reverse situation, too -- as far as people who support living in Judea and Samaria, as I do. The question is not entirely political, but politics are involved, at least partially. Most of the people who are terribly worried about the future of Israel's scientific research are on the left side of the barricades anyway, and those who aren't so concerned hold different political opinions."

Is Israel's scientific research dependent on Europe?

"Israeli scientific research isn't dependent on Europe. Still, scientific cooperation with Europe, and mainly with the United States, is an important factor. But that's scientific cooperation; we're not getting any money from the Europeans. Incidentally, cooperation isn't important just to us, but to them too."

What's your suggestion for Israel?

"If the agreement is written according to the guidelines that were reported, I suggest we don't sign it. That could also lead to a softening of the agreement. From the perspective of game theory, when you threaten someone, you have to be ready to carry out the threat. One should never make an empty threat. That happens too often here. There's too much talk and little action. When you threaten not to sign, you have to be ready not to sign."

So we shouldn't sign?

"I don't think it's so awful if there's no such agreement. I don't think it will harm cooperation with Europe any more than what's already happening anyway. Today there are Europeans who aren't willing to cooperate with us even with European financial support. Financial support isn't scientific cooperation. They're two different things. There's some connection between them, but in my opinion it's fairly weak. The European left wing could definitely say they're not willing to cooperate even if the governments of the EU states provide financial support.

"As far as I understand the document, it's inappropriate. A boycott like that is inappropriate. We need to say no and see what happens. But we must be capable of carrying out the threat. Still, it's important for me to say that I think the government should cover the deficit itself. In other words, even as it refuses to give in to the European dictate, Israel should say that it needs no favors, and make up the science budget in place of the Europeans."

No place for politics

When I ask Aumann whether Europe has a traditional attitude toward us, he smiles.

"I took my family skiing in France one year. An instructor asked one of my children, 'What do you need those problems with the Arabs for? Why not move to Europe? Here everybody likes you. You'll be able to live in safety.'"

By now, Aumann is bursting with laughter.

So how do you see Europe's part in this story?

"In the context of science, I've had only good and friendly experience with the Europeans. I've cooperated with them many times, including with the scientist who joined the boycott of us. We're still friends on a personal level. Some researchers here have broken off their relationships with him. I haven't. For me, science is above politics. Maybe that's the most basic reason for opposing this document -- because it mixes science with politics. I've learned to distinguish between science and politics both in my private life and in my scientific life. They're two different things.

"The reason we were so strongly opposed to the researcher who boycotted us -- his activity, not his scientific work -- was that he mixed politics and science, which is what the European document does. Science should be universal. Science is welcome wherever it is. Science should be above politics. It should also be above differences of opinion in the field of morals. I've written any number of times that game theory has nothing to do with morals -- in other words, it's neither moral, amoral nor immoral. It's science. It's how people behave."

Does Europe have the right to involve itself in our future?

"Before you complain about Europe, complain about us. Complain about our own organizations, such as the New Israel Fund. What other people do is their own business, but before anything else, I ask what Israel is doing. I don't want to defend them. The complaint that we oppress others isn't appropriate. But even if it were, why are the Europeans so concerned about the Arabs in Israel and not the ones in Syria, Lebanon or Africa? Do they care only about the ones in Israel?"

Is there an alternative to the West?

"There's an economic awakening in Asia -- China, Korea, India, Singapore, Kazakhstan. That's something new. It increases global competition, and competition is good for the economy. I see it as a good thing, not just for Israel but for the whole world."

Do you see it as the rise of a new civilization in place of the one we've known so far?

"I don't want to be that kind of prophet. It's obvious that the Far East is waking up, but it's still too early to talk about the decline of the West. The Chinese asked me what I suggested for them. I said: 'Learn English now so that in another 50 years, the whole world will learn Chinese.' They're not interested in us for nothing. Despite the political difficulties, there are games that we, as a nation, are winning. Israeli scientific research is such a victory. So are Israeli technology and the start-ups -- what the world calls 'the start-up nation.'"

At this stage, with no start-up having come up with an idea that will bring peace, I ask Aumann to tell me, in relation to game theory: How do we play against the Palestinians?

"That's a long story, and this isn't the place to give the details," he says, looking solemn. "You're using the word 'Palestinians.' My wife has a Palestinian identity card (she came to Israel as an infant during the British Mandate over Palestine). We shoot ourselves in the foot when we use the word 'Palestinians' to describe Arabs only. Just as there are Arab Palestinians, there are Jewish Palestinians too, who lived in Palestine before the state was established."

What's your opinion on the prisoner release?

"I think that releasing prisoners could be reasonable, but not as a precondition for talks. It's like they're doing us a favor. Both sides need to be interested in talks. I don't know whether it's wise to hold the talks now, as the entire Middle East is burning. But even if we say it is, there shouldn't be an impression that they're doing us a favor, that we have to pay to have the talks take place at all."

Do you believe that these talks have a chance?

"If the past is an indication of the future, then no. After all, there were talks during which we gave them everything, and they didn't want it. As Abba Eban once said, 'The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.'"

Can the events taking place around us, which are called the Arab Spring, be put into any kind of pattern, or is this simply chaos that requires us to wait?

"The direction of events, as it appears now, is not good for the Jews. Things are heading toward radical Islam. When Mubarak was overthrown, the Israeli street was happy about the Arab Spring. But I said then that we ought to wait. People were surprised at me. Unfortunately, it came true. We got along with Mubarak and Assad. Unfortunately, we can predict the behavior of radical Islam."

In conclusion, what do you think of what's called "Jewish genius"?

"There's something wonderful about the Jewish people. Biology and genetics are part of it, but part of it has to do with the supreme value in the Jewish religion: Torah study. Not just any kind of study, but the study of Torah. 'The study of Torah is equivalent to them [good deeds] all' [Mishna Pe'ah 1:1]. The Jews took that value and applied it to ordinary learning as well, to pure curiosity, to intellectual work that didn't necessary have to do with the Torah. That plays a role as well. It's the sanctified value that passes from parent to child and from generation to generation."


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