Yuval Noah Harari

They’ve forgotten what it means to be Jewish

For millennia, Jews schooled the world on the rights of minorities. Israel's government has failed to learn the lesson
Yuval Noah Harari speaks at a protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, March 4, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Yuval Noah Harari speaks at a protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, March 4, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

As we celebrate Purim this week, it is a good opportunity to reflect on Jewish history, and on its connection to present events in Israel. For 2,000 years the Jewish people had a noble mission: to teach humanity a lesson about the importance of minority rights. Everywhere Jews lived – in the Persian Empire, in Morocco, in Poland or in the USA – Jews were the champions of minority rights. 

They didn’t have to write books about it or give speeches about it, because their very existence was a lesson that minorities have rights. In countries where 99% of people were Muslims or Christians, a small Jewish minority told the neighbors every day: “People who think and behave differently are also entitled to live here. It is ok to be different, even though we are a minority”.

When 99% celebrated Christmas, the Jews celebrated Hanukkah. While 99% fasted on Ramadan, the Jews fasted on Yom Kippur; 99% went to the mosque, the Jews went to the synagogue; 99% ate pork – and the Jews ate knaidel. Every time Jews said no to pork and yes to knaidel, it was a lesson to the neighboring Cossacks: “The minority has rights, too. Even though there are more of you than of us, we are still allowed to eat what we want, and you shouldn’t tell us how to live”.

It was a very difficult lesson to teach. The pupils just wouldn’t listen. Christian priests, Muslim imams, and extreme nationalists from Hungary to Iran repeatedly screamed at the Jews: “But we are the majority! You are the minority! You have to do what we say!” And the Jews calmly replied: “True, you are the majority and we are the minority, but the minority has rights too. We are allowed to think and act differently from you, and you should respect that”.

The Jewish minority suffered terribly. Jews were persecuted, beaten and murdered, but they didn’t break. They were not willing to surrender to the majority’s will. In 1492 the rulers of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, came to the Jews and said: “We are sick and tired of hearing about minority rights. The majority has decided that you must become like everyone else…or get out of here!” But the Jews persisted. They preferred to leave Spain to other countries, where they continued to teach the lesson of minority rights, hoping that one day, humankind would understand that just because one group is the majority, it doesn’t mean it can do anything it wants.

After 2,000 years of wandering, the professors of minority rights established their own country. And within two generations they forgot everything they tried to teach humankind in the previous two millennia. The current Israeli government is enacting an extremely controversial legal reform, a reform that boils down to one very simple thing: the government would have unlimited power to pass any law it wants, and interpret existing laws in any way it likes, without checks on its power and without protection for minority rights.

A terrifying answer

When the coalition members open their mouths to explain the new regime, out come the voices of Ferdinand and Isabella and the priests and imams and Hungarian nationalists: “We are the majority, so we can do whatever we want. You are the minority, so you must obey anything we say.” People try to explain to them that there is such a thing as minority rights, but the coalition members plug their ears and shout: “But we are the majority! The majority can do anything it decides! Minority rights? We don’t understand what that means.”

In other democracies, the government’s power is checked and minority rights are protected through mechanisms like a constitution, an independent Supreme Court, a federal system, and recognition of international tribunals. The proposed new Israeli regime will include no such mechanism. When asked explicitly what would protect minorities, coalition members have only one answer: The government’s goodwill. Coming from people who have often expressed racist, misogynist and homophobic views, this is a terrifying answer. During a debate in the Knesset on the new legislation, MK Almog Cohen from the Jewish Power party explicitly compared Arab MKs to farm animals. Should Arabs and other minorities in Israel entrust their human rights to the goodwill of Cohen and his colleagues? 

It seems that the current Israeli government has simply forgotten what it means to be Jewish. 

About the Author
Yuval Noah Harari is the author of 'Sapiens,' 'Homo Deus' and 'Unstoppable Us' and a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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