Monday, May 26, 2008

Positive Chutzpah in the Name of Education

By my records it has been well over a month since I have given a Chutzpah of the Week award for a positive connotation of chutzpah. So, while it is very early in the week, the positive circumstances behind this particular act of chutzpah compel me to recognize it in the best possible light. The award goes to Professor David Mumford of Brown University, who, along with fellow algebraic theorists Pierre Deligne and Phillip Griffiths, both from Princeton University, won this year's $100,000 Wolf Foundation Prize for Mathematics. As the coverage of this story on Al Jazeera English reports, this is an Israeli award:

The Israel-based foundation was established by Ricardo Wolf, a German-born inventor, diplomat and philanthropist who was Cuba's representative to Israel, where he died in 1981.

Needless to say, Al Jazeera does not specialize in reporting on advances in the world of higher mathematics; and that is where the chutzpah enters the picture. Interviewed about the award by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Mumford made the following declaration:

I decided to donate my share of the Wolf Prize to enable the academic community in occupied Palestine to survive and thrive. I am very grateful for the prize, but I believe that Palestinian students should have an opportunity to go elsewhere to acquire an education. Students in the West Bank and Gaza today do not have an opportunity to do that.

Taking $33,333 from an Israeli foundation and immediately transferring it to Bir Zeit University (the "academic community" that Mumford selected, located in the West Bank) would be chutzpah enough for someone whom Al Jazeera English claims "did not see himself as a political person." However, Mumford used his Haaretz interview to stress the importance of his motives:

The achievements I accomplished in mathematics were made possible thanks to my being able to move freely and exchange ideas with other scholars. It would not have been possible without an international consensus on an exchange of ideas. Mathematics works best when people can move and get together. That's its elixir of life. But the people of occupied Palestine don't have an opportunity to do that. The school system is fighting for its life, and mobility is very limited.

When I visited Israel in 1995, there was a feeling of hope, but that is not the situation today. Education for people in the occupied territories gives them a future. The alternative is chaos. I have tremendous regard for Israel, which is without a doubt a major force in the mathematics world. But unfortunately, the Palestinians cannot take part in this prosperity.

For the record the last time I was in Israel was in 1994 for the 12th IAPR International Conference on Pattern Recognition in Jerusalem. There had been a terrorist bombing on Jerusalem's "Restaurant Row" the day before I arrived. My wife had been nervous about my attending the conference and was determined that I should venture no further than my hotel after that news broke. I cannot say I experienced any strong feeling of hope, nor can I say that things changed very much over the following year. However, while I may not agree with Mumford's perceptions, I certainly honor his intentions and am delighted that he was able to achieve them with an element of chutzpah that managed to penetrate the Israeli press!

1 comment:

labsji said...

Very good to know about the award. Chutzpah award well deserved!