Stanford professor is first sabra to nab genius grant

He is among the 29 recipients of the 1998 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, which were announced Monday.

Though the $265,000 grant will allow him to do more archival research abroad, Greif said the award's prestige and recognition are even more significant than the money.

"When you work in academia, it's quite lonely. You work by yourself largely. It's less interactive than other businesses or types of work," he said Tuesday morning in a phone interview from his Stanford office.

"This gives you the feeling of being part of the broader community."

MacArthur awards are among the most coveted in America. No one can apply for them. Instead, an anonymous panel seeks out potential recipients. The money comes with no strings attached to its use.

The grants aren't well known among most Israelis, Greif said, but in academic circles it's a different story. By Tuesday, he'd already received numerous congratulatory e-mails from Israeli colleagues.

Greif, a 42-year-old Tel Aviv native, studied Jewish history and economics at Tel Aviv University before moving to the United States 13 years ago.

As an economic historian, a major focus of his work has been the 11th-century Maghribi traders, or the Jews from Arab countries who crisscrossed the Mediterranean Sea and kept detailed business records. About 1,000 of these documents have been uncovered.

"Maghrib" is Arabic for "west," and generally refers to the Muslim world in Spain, North Africa and Egypt.

Though other scholars have studied them, Greif believes that more can be learned from the Jewish traders, who spoke Judeo-Arabic, a dialect of Arabic written with Hebrew letters.

"That's one of the reasons I have worked on them. This is a great historical source and to a large extent still unexplored," he said.

In his work, Greif has compared the Maghribi traders to those from Genoa who later dominated the seas.

What makes his research unusual is its practical application.

He is trying to understand how economic systems, such as capitalism, evolved over time in different places and how that knowledge applies to nations today.

Greif uses a mathematical theory about decision-making called the game theory to analyze how beliefs, institutions and social ties that seem randomly connected are actually linked to a culture's norms.

For example, he said, it's important to understand why the former Soviet Union's economy failed and how to help the region move from socialism to capitalism.

Governments once believed that all they needed was the infusion of cash or machinery to get their economies going. But Greif said many Third World countries failed to develop despite a large injection of money after World War II.

In some countries, he said, the money ended up in the pockets of the political elite or was wasted on worthless projects.

"In Israel," Greif said, "it was much less the case."

According to the foundation, Greif's research has led to a "greater understanding of the institutional evolution and the conditions that lead to social conflict or cooperation."

Though Greif is a native Israeli, his parents were immigrants. His mother, who was strongly Zionist, immigrated with her family to pre-state Israel from the Ukraine area between the World Wars. His father came to Israel from Bulgaria in the 1950s.

Greif earned two bachelor's degrees at Tel Aviv University — one in economics and the other in the history of the Jews and the land of Israel. He went on to earn a master's degree there in the latter subject.

Greif came to the United States in 1985 for doctoral work in economics at Northwestern University. In 1989, he joined Stanford's faculty. He is now an associate professor of economics.

Though he describes himself as a secular Jew, his family belongs to Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. His wife, Estee, has taught classes at the Reform synagogue. His three children, ages 3, 12 and 14, attend religious school there.

Greif plans to use the grant to take time off from teaching and do more archival research in Italy and Israel. The extra money will allow his family to accompany him. Because of family considerations, Greif has curtailed his research abroad in recent years.

He doesn't know if or when he'll move back to Israel.

"It's always a hard question. There is always a part of you that is in Israel," Greif said, adding that he now has roots here, too.

Most of the MacArthur Fellows are Americans. According to the foundation, Greif is the first Israeli native to receive the award in its 17-year history. Another recipient lives in Jerusalem. But David Shulman, a 1987 winner who teaches at Hebrew University, is an Iowa native.