When the Yom Kippur War Broke Out, Two Psychologists Rushed to the Frontlines

Nov. 29 2016

In 1969, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky—both professors of psychology at Hebrew University—began an enduring collaboration (and close friendship) that would lead them to do pioneering research in understanding how people process information to make decisions. Kahneman eventually won a Nobel Prize for his work, which Tversky probably would have shared had he not died a few years beforehand. When the Yom Kippur War began in 1973, the pair immediately made their way from California to Israel, where they reported for duty at the IDF’s “psychology field unit.” Not content to sit in an office devising questionnaires, the pair grabbed rifles, jumped on a jeep, and set off for the Sinai Peninsula. Michael Lewis describes some of what they did there:

Danny [Kahneman] . . . had a gift for finding solutions to problems where others failed even to notice that there was a problem to solve. As they sped toward the front lines, Danny noticed the huge piles of garbage on the roadsides: the leftovers from the canned meals supplied by the U.S. Army. He examined what the soldiers had eaten and what they had thrown out. (They liked the canned grapefruit.) His subsequent recommendation that the Israeli army analyze the garbage and supply the soldiers with what they actually wanted made newspaper headlines. . . .

He also somehow found his way to the Israeli Air Force. Fighter pilots were also dying in unprecedented numbers because of Egypt’s use of new and improved surface-to-air missiles provided by the Soviet Union. One squadron had suffered especially horrific losses. The general in charge wanted to investigate, and possibly punish, the unit. . . .

Danny explained to the general that he had a sample-size problem: the losses experienced by the supposedly inept fighter squadron could have occurred by random chance alone. If he investigated the unit, he would no doubt find patterns in behavior that might serve as an explanation. Perhaps the pilots in that squadron had paid more visits to their families, or maybe they wore funny-colored underpants. Whatever he found would be a meaningless illusion, however. There weren’t enough pilots in the squadron to achieve statistical significance. On top of it, an investigation, implying blame, would be horrible for morale. The only point of an inquiry would be to preserve the general’s feelings of omnipotence. The general listened to Danny and stopped the inquiry. “I have considered that my only contribution to the war effort,” said Danny.

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More about: IDF, Israel & Zionism, Psychology, Science, Yom Kippur War

The Proper Jewish Response to the Pittsburgh Massacre

Nov. 21 2018

In the Jewish tradition, it is commonplace to add the words zikhronam li-vrakhah (may their memory be for a blessing) after the names of the departed, but when speaking of those who have been murdered because they were Jews, a different phrase is used: Hashem yikom damam—may God avenge their blood. Meir Soloveichik explains:

The saying reflects the fact that when it comes to mass murderers, Jews do not believe that we must love the sinner while hating the sin; in the face of egregious evil, we will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We believe that a man who shoots up a synagogue knows well what he does; that a murderer who sheds the blood of helpless elderly men and women knows exactly what he does; that one who brings death to those engaged in celebrating new life knows precisely what he does. To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.

But the mantra for murdered Jews that is Hashem yikom damam bears a deeper message. It is a reminder to us to see the slaughter of eleven Jews in Pennsylvania not only as one terrible, tragic moment in time, but as part of the story of our people, who from the very beginning have had enemies that sought our destruction. There exists an eerie parallel between Amalek, the tribe of desert marauders that assaulted Israel immediately after the Exodus, and the Pittsburgh murderer. The Amalekites are singled out by the Bible from among the enemies of ancient Israel because in their hatred for the chosen people, they attacked the weak, the stragglers, the helpless, those who posed no threat to them in any way.

Similarly, many among the dead in Pittsburgh were elderly or disabled; the murderer smote “all that were enfeebled,” and he “feared not God.” Amalek, for Jewish tradition, embodies evil incarnate in the world; we are commanded to remember Amalek, and the Almighty’s enmity for it, because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained, the biblical appellation refers not only to one tribe but also to our enemies throughout the ages who will follow the original Amalek’s example. To say “May God avenge their blood” is to remind all who hear us that there is a war against Amalek from generation to generation—and we believe that, in this war, God is not neutral.

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More about: Amalek, Anti-Semitism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays