Early Cracks in the Reputation of 'Know-it-all' Israeli Philosopher Yuval Noah Harari

His consent to changes in his book’s Russian version seems surprising, but his credibility has been questioned before

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
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Yuval Noah Harari
Yuval Noah HarariCredit: VCG via Getty Images
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

For seven good years it seemed that the Yuval Noah Harari could do nothing wrong. He pressed all the right buttons, with perfect timing. The Israeli philosopher and historian cut his ties with academia in favor of other spheres and soared through them with complete weightlessness. He positioned himself as someone who knows everything: the one who understands where we live, where we came from and where we’re going.

Harari understood the secrets of Silicon Valley and the value of veganism. He was well versed in the agricultural revolution and the industrial one; in every interview he talked about meditation and solitude. He met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but refused to participate in an event at the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles in protest over the discriminatory surrogacy law and nation-state law.

His picture with presidents, foreign ministers, billionaires and other celebrities appeared in distinguished magazines. During these seven years it was impossible to dance at any more weddings; Harari danced at them all.

>> Read more: Prof. Yuval Noah Harari responds to censoring Russian translation of his book

It’s hard to keep this position for more than four minutes, but Harari remained there, in the oxygen-depleted air, for a long time. Three major books of his ideas over seven years is an almost impossible task. Interviews with every leading media outlet and hundreds of appearances on the most prominent world stages could very well be intoxicating. And it reached a boiling point last week, when was revealed that there were differences between the original text of his latest book, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” and its Russian translation.

Prof. Daniel GutweinCredit: Tomer Neuberg

A section of the book describing the lies told by Russian President Vladimir Putin was replaced by a discussion of U.S. President Donald Trump. References to the conquest and occupation of Crimea were omitted. Harari admitted to Alla Gavrilov of the newsru.co.il website, who first reported on the discrepancies, that these changes were made with his permission. Suddenly it turned out that even the know-it-all is capable of cutting corners and sucking up to those in power. And Hariri, who always had a way with words, found it hard to explain why.

But Prof. Shlomo Sand, a historian at Tel Aviv University, thinks the case of the Russian translation is just a symptom of a much more serious problem. He calls Harari’s work simplistic and says he is sometimes even a charlatan – that Harari’s fertile imagination leads him to present hypotheses as the veritable truth.

In an interview with Haaretz, Sand describes his own meeting with Harari’s first book, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”: “The writing swept me away, his imagination flows and is fascinating, but then I came to the part in which he describes the birth of human language as sitting around the campfire and I was very disappointed. I put the book aside and for a long time I didn’t return to reading it. The human language was not created as a need for gossip. This is a statement that is appropriate for someone who sat for too long in the cafeteria. Harari takes hypotheses and presents them as facts. It is appropriate for a storyteller but not a historian.”

Sand says that Harari is trying too hard to please everyone. Sand believes that popular history is a wonderful thing (he has published a few such volumes himself), and that even the greatest historians wrote popular history. But he says that in addition to the simplicity and occasional dissimulation, Harari does not conduct serious historical comparisons and presents empty analogies. “More than he knows how to think, he knows how to imagine,” adds Sand. “These are great insights built on sand. … It is easy to say other historians are jealous of him, but that’s not true. I glad for his success but we must tell the truth.”

Shlomo Sand Credit: David Bachar

Immediately after “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” came out last November, Daniel Gutwein, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Haifa, wrote an eye-opening article in Haaretz (“How Yuval Noah Harari Became the Pet Ideologist of the Liberal Elites,” November 20, 2018). Gutwein wrote: “Having reduced political analysis to pop-psychology diagnoses, Harari asserts, like an oracle, that World War III is not inevitable, but also not impossible. This rather pointless forecast leads him to a conclusion that is more theological than political – that the way to prevent war is through ‘a dose of humility.’”

Gutwein accuses Harari of being intentionally ambiguous. He says that a number of critics of “21 Lessons” highlighted the “vague messages of the book as one of its major faults, but in doing so they missed out on Harari’s real intention: The ambiguity of his claims, namely the weakness of his analyses, serves his political goal – in other words, the state of awkwardness.”

Bill Gates loved it

Harari, a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and one of the students’ favorite lecturers, published “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” in Hebrew in 2011. The English version followed three years later and was a huge success. “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” came out in 2015 and the excitement only grew. There may have been critics here and there who stood up and called him superficial, said he exceeded the limits of his knowledge, cut corners and excessively popularized things, but the numbers were blinding. His books were translated into 60 languages and sold 20 million copies.

But then came 2018, when Harari published the third book in the series, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century.” In this book, which deals with the present, things began to get complicated. After all, the past that the first book discussed is known only to specialists, while the future, the subject of the second book, is a mystery to everyone. The present, however, is a much more problematic story, one filled with stumbling blocks.

Almost a year ago, Bill Gates published an article in the New York Times in which he lovingly reviewed the book, calling it “fascinating” and “sweeping.” But academics and others with more extensive knowledge on such matters – such as Gutwein – were less impressed. Even then, last summer, it seemed you could start the stopwatch and wait patiently for the “bang” moment. It came last week. Someone took the time to compare the Russian translation of “21 Lessons” to the original version. The differences were striking, to say the least.

Yuval Noah HarariCredit: EMILY BERL / NYT

Harari, who sings the praises of silence and practicing meditation and Vipassana at every opportunity, rushed to respond with thousands of words and on every possible front. He published a response on a Russian website, in the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth Hebrew and in Haaretz. In this paper he went so far as to turn his response into a fake interview, presenting himself with questions (which supposedly came from the public) and then answering them in depth. How convenient. With his answers he dives into explanations, juggles words and does everything except say: “I made a mistake.”

“Logical failures”

Until recently, most of Harari’s critics were rabbis and religiously observant professors. Among them was Nadav Shnerb, a physics professor at Bar-Ilan University who is also an ordained Orthodox rabbi and a writer affiliated with the religious Zionist movement. He wrote in the journal Hashiloach that in “Sapiens,” the “chapters that addressed not the past but the present were unprofessional, skewed and to the best of my knowledge incorrect … [Harari] creates a false representation of rock-solid scientific support concerning claims whose connection to history or science is rather thin.”

A look at the reviews of his third book in the British and American press shows a consistent trend of critics who have fond memories of his first two books, but attack the third with determination. For example, Helen Lewis wrote in the Guardian in August 2018: “There are plenty of provocations – why climate change might benefit the Russian economy, how humans could evolve into different species – but the globetrotting, history-straddling scope of Harari’s approach has an obvious drawback, which is that some of the observations here feel recycled. His sweeping statements, breathtaking though they are, can also feel untethered from the intellectual traditions from which they come.”

Lewis compares Harari to another know-it-all historian: Jordan Peterson. She says “both men are treated as general all-purpose Clever People, rather than as academics with a particular specialism. They inhabit the high-altitude world of speaking tours and TED talks, repackaging their books into bite-sized chunks. They also fuse high and low culture, to show they are brainy but also with it.”

Bill Gates Credit: Ian Langsdon/Pool/REUTERS

She concludes: “Ultimately, the smudges and slips of ‘Sapiens’ are forgivable, because it’s a rollicking good read and I suspect it acts as a gateway drug to more academic accounts of human history. However, this book sees Harari enter that class of gurus who are assumed to be experts on everything. The 22nd lesson of this book is obvious: No single member of the tribe Homo Sapiens can know everything. If this new age needs new stories, then we have to let more people tell them.”

In January, Scott Shay wrote in the New York Jewish Week that “Harari writes with flamboyance and vivid turns of phrase and offers many interesting observations and smart details.” However, he continues, “His clever writing almost obscures the logical shortcomings of his arguments. Behind his style of cool logic and balanced evaluations Harari’s message is an incoherent polemic that verges on the nihilistic and bizarre. Sadly, not a single one of Harari’s 21 lessons stands up to serious scrutiny.”

Calum Chace wrote in Forbes in November 2018: “The title of Yuval Harari’s latest best-seller is a misnomer: it asks many questions, but offers few answers, and hardly any lessons. It is the least notable of his three major books, since most of its best ideas were introduced in the other two. But it is still worth reading. Harari delights in grandiloquent sweeping generalisations which irritate academics enormously, and part of the fun is precisely that you can so easily picture his colleagues seething with indignation that he is trampling on their turf. More important, some of his generalisations are acutely insightful.”

Le Monde wrote in January that “Sapiens” is filled with anecdotes and erudition, and purports to be both an enticing enterprise of popularizing the history of our species and a reflection on its significance. Accompanying this pedagogical enterprise are other considerations, which under the guise of science reveal a banal defense of the reigning ideology. Harari tried to provide support for the accepted liberal world view: Everything is relative, there is no absolute truth, a basic human nature exists, intelligence serves as a mask for the emotions that operate it, and so on. It’s possible to understand why they invited him to the Davos summit in Switzerland, wrote Le Monde, but it’s impossible to understand why they take him seriously.

The Economist, meanwhile, was sympathetic in an August 2018 book review: “The book [‘21 Lessons’] is uneven and easy to mock … This is a collection of ideas, not a fully fledged cosmology. But readers who accept these shortcomings can accompany the author as he peers fascinatingly into the future.”

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