Yuval Noah Harari

We will not allow a dictatorship in Israel

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We will not allow a dictatorship in Israel

Yuval Noah Harari

TEL AVIV – We are in the midst of a historical hurricane. This hurricane stirs in us not anger or hatred – but fear. We’re anxious, we don’t sleep at night, we are simply terrified. And this is perfectly OK. There are moments in history when fear is the most sane reaction. There are moments in history when fear is necessary to propel us to action.

Today we have an excellent reason to be afraid, and we have an excellent reason to act. Don’t let anybody fool you: What this government is carrying out is not a judicial reform, it is an anti-democratic coup. This is exactly what a coup looks like.

Coups are not always carried out with tanks in the streets. Many coups in history were carried out behind closed doors with pens and papers, and by the time people understood the meaning of what was written in those papers – it was too late to resist.

History is full of dictatorships established by people who first came to power through legal means. It’s the oldest trick in the book: first you use the law to gain power, then you use your power to distort the law. When examined together, the laws this government is currently legislating have one simple meaning (and you don’t need a Ph.D. in law to get it): If these laws are passed, the government will have the power to completely destroy our freedom.

Sixty-one members of the Knesset [the Israeli parliament, with 120 members] could pass any racist, oppressive and anti-democratic law they think of; 61 members of Knesset could also change the electoral system, to stop us from replacing the regime. When we ask the leaders of this coup what will keep the power of the government in check under the new regime, and what will protect basic human rights, they only have one answer: “trust us.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu, Justice Minister Levin, MK Rothman, chair of the constitution committee, we do not trust you! You’re tearing to shreds the contract that has somehow held our society together for 75 years, and then you expect us to trust you?

We don’t trust you, because we know very well what you want. You want unlimited power. You want to shut us up and to tell us how to live, what to eat, what to wear, what to think and even who to love.

But you don’t understand who you’re dealing with. Israelis are not good raw material for making slaves [The enslavement of the ancient Hebrews is a core part of Jewish holy texts, remembered especially at the festival of Passover]. We Israelis are stubborn, we’re free-spirited, and nobody has ever managed to shut us up. We will not allow you to turn Israel into a dictatorship.

So what will happen over the coming weeks?

They will go on trying to pass their dictatorial laws. They will also go on calling us “anarchists” and “traitors,” and exploiting or even initiating extreme events in order to suppress the resistance. On our side, we will continue to protest, and to make sure that the Supreme Court judges have both the popular backing and the determination to strike down these dictatorial laws.

And what if the government refuses to accept the ruling of the Supreme Court? Then we enter a constitutional crisis. A constitutional crisis in uncharted territory, devoid of clear rules and laws. Who will the police take orders from – the government or the court? Who will the Shin Bet and the Mossad take orders from? Who will the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) obey? And the most important question of all – what will the citizens do?

The opinion polls are clear:

A large majority of Israelis oppose what this government is doing. But polls don’t stop dictatorships. History teaches us that the last and most important line of defense in every democracy is you, the citizens.

Democracy is a deal, according to which citizens must respect the government’s decisions, on the condition that the government respects the basic liberties of the citizens. When one side breaks the deal, the other side doesn’t have to go on fulfilling its part.
When a government tries to establish a dictatorship, citizens are allowed to resist.

This is a historical test for the citizens of Israel, and if we fail it, we will not be given a second chance. We must raise our heads now – or keep our heads down for the rest of our lives. We must raise our voices now – or keep our mouths shut for the rest of our lives. This is the time to protest, to shout – and also to stand still.

For example, as a university professor, I hope that as long as this anti-democratic coup goes on, all academic establishments in Israel will go on strike. We must, of course, continue to support our students in these troubled times, but this is the moment to halt all regular courses, and teach only about democracy, human rights and freedom.

If some of us find it difficult to go on an official strike, I am convinced that as Israelis, we will find creative ways to drag our feet and to ignore orders. Each one of us can throw a little wrench in the gears of the anti-democratic coup.

Finally, as a typical Israeli, since I was given the microphone, I would like to take this opportunity to send some personal messages. To Esther Hayut, chief justice of the Supreme Court, and to Gali Baharav-Miara, the attorney general, you have been entrusted with one of the most difficult and most important missions in the history of Israel. This is a huge responsibility, but also a big privilege. This is your moment to make history.

Don’t hesitate and don’t back down: protect our freedom.

To President Herzog and to the heads of the opposition parties – safeguard our freedom, and don’t compromise on it. When a tiger comes to devour us, we cannot negotiate a compromise whereby the tiger will only eat half of our body. To reserve IDF soldiers who are considering what they can do – don’t serve dictators! Your contract is with Israeli democracy, not with its undertakers.

To the IDF, the Shin Bet, the Mossad, and the Israeli police – if the moment of truth comes, make the right choice. Go down in history as the protectors of the citizens – not as the servants of despots.

To all the demonstrators and to dozens of other protests throughout Israel – I just want to say I love you.

And last but not least, I want to convey a clear message from all of us to Netanyahu, Levin, Rothman and their colleagues – true, you have 64 fingers in the Knesset, but that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to shove these fingers anywhere you like. Keep your hands off our freedom.

Stop the coup – or we will stop the country. Θ

Yuval Noah Harari is a historian and the author of “Sapiens,” “Homo Deus” and “Unstoppable Us.” This is an excerpt from a speech he gave in Tel Aviv this month.

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