Opinion

Yuval Noah Harari's Problem Is Much More Serious Than Self-censorship

Israeli historian and author Yuval Noah Harari.
Rami Zarnegar

Shortly before he left the White House, then-U.S. President Barack Obama took advantage of the opportunity for a symbolic gesture of reconciliation. In May 2016 he was the first sitting U.S. President to visit Hiroshima, the place where his country dropped an atomic bomb and killed tens of thousands. On the way to the site, while he was still flying with his aides in a helicopter, Obama spent his time in a lively discussion. He couldn't stop talking about the book, "Sapiens," that had inspired him.

"The people who participated in the agricultural revolution didn't profit from it, only their descendants did," he told his aide Ben Rhodes, who recalled this in his memoir of the Obama White House. Rhodes described how the example of the first farmers fired the imagination of the president, who wanted to leave behind a better world.

>> Read more: How Yuval Noah Harari became the pet ideologist of the liberal elites ■  Judaism is not a major player in the history of humankind | Yuval Noah Harari

The anecdote from Japan remains one example out of many of the depth and scope of Yuval Noah Harari's influence. The Israeli scholar's popular books have been translated into many languages, become bestsellers in many countries and aroused interest and curiosity about history among millions. Even the most powerful person in the world used his story when he came to represent the strongest world power. But this week it was revealed that as opposed to Obama and many of his readers, Noah Harari actually does not attribute importance to the stories he tells. When asked to respond, his embarrassing and disgraceful reply was even more serious than the accusation.

A few days ago it was reported that the Russian version of "21 Lessons for the 21st Century," Noah Harari's latest book, omitted criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin in order to enable its publication in the country, by orders of the regime. Noah Harari, who has become an international star in the field of popular history, admitted that the censorship was done with his consent. Although the author has cast himself in the role of a fighter for freedom of expression and a promoter of democracy, his explanation revealed a great deal.

"Occasionally I allow changes to be made in several examples, but not in the general idea," he told Ela Gabrielov of the newsru.co.il website.  He then continued with that approach in an op-ed that he published in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. There, too, he explained that he deals with "ideas," whereas "examples" are a petty matter that can be changed.

Still, it won't hurt to dwell on a petty example. Noah Harari wrote in his latest book about the war started by Russia against Ukraine, against the backdrop of the occupation of Crimea. Because it's just an example, readers of Noah Harari's book in Russian will discover that he is referring to the "annexation" of the peninsula. A petty example; a petty matter.

Now imagine a Russian historian writing about 1967 and the Israeli takeover of the West Bank. The disparity between occupation and annexation is identical to the disparity between far-right politician Bezalel Smotrich and left-wing politician Zehava Galon. Isn't the general idea undermined? Doesn't the example influence the idea? Ultranationalist right-wingers in Russia and Israel will say that it's a "nuance," and Noah Harari will agree: It's only an example; it doesn't detract from the general idea.

The main problem in the case of Noah Harari is that he is a historian. He knows more than anyone that without examples, there is no history. Of necessity, changing the examples changes the narrative. For the readers, the examples are what seizes the imagination and is etched in memory. The first farmers, who worked for the future of their children, are what excited Obama. The idea stemmed from the example, and the example colored the idea.

Good storytellers – and Noah Harari is undoubtedly among the most successful of them – know that the examples construct a narrative and a reality. If the general idea is a puzzle, each example is an important piece. Without it, only a hole remains. That's why it's interesting to see in Noah Harari's defensive op-ed his efforts to stress that the issue has nothing to do with greed. He feels a need to repulse a claim that was barely mentioned – that he is motivated by financial gain. For that purpose, he provided an example: "My books are sold in Iran in pirated editions without my receiving a cent of royalties. I consider that a reasonable price so that teenagers who don't read English will read a book full of ideas about evolution, sexuality and religious tolerance."

If Noah Harari attributes all the importance to ideas, certainly compared to examples and real money, and apparently welcomes pirated translations, perhaps that is where his solution can be found. His self-censorship is not unacceptable on its own, if he really wants to reach new audiences beyond the liberal democracies. The question is when a boundary is crossed and when he is sacrificing those same liberal ideas that he presumes to represent.

Whitewashing the Russian government and positing the president of the United States as equivalent to it (the United States is still a democracy) creates more damage to readers than it contributes to them. How symbolic that the "petty" examples censored by Noah Harari appear in the chapter entitled "Post-Truth: Some Fake News Lasts Forever."