Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari fears plans for a judicial overhaul in his home country could end independent media and imperil elections through an inundation of new laws.
“The fear is that if they take over the Supreme Court they will turn Israel into a dictatorship,” Harari said.
Last week, Israel’s embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached an agreement with his National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to postpone his coalition’s judicial legislative plan for this session of parliament. The controversial plan would overhaul the country’s judiciary and has led to mass protests.
Speaking with Fox News Digital, Harari, the bestselling author of “Sapiens,” noted that the U.S. has an entire government system built on checks and balances, from Congress to the president and the Supreme Court to the rights of all 50 states. On the other hand, Israel only has the Supreme Court as a mechanism to check the power of the coalition.
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An aerial photograph showing protesters outside Israel’s parliament on March 27. (Israeli Knesset)
Harari said to imagine a situation in which the Democrats have a slight majority in the House of Representatives and intend to pass a law that forbids American citizens from owning a firearm. This legislation would have to pass the filibuster then, the Senate and the president’s desk. Such a law could also be challenged in various courts.
In Israel, with a small majority, the coalition could pass an “extreme undemocratic law” and leave citizens without any recourse should the government successfully neutralize or handicap the court.
“We don’t have a constitution, we don’t have a Senate, we don’t have a federal system and now the government is trying to take over the Supreme Court,” Harari said.
With the passing of these judicial overhauls, Harari said the ruling party would wield power to control elections by changing established rules. He noted that the government has already discussed passing laws that discriminate against non-Jews, Christians and Muslims, secular people, women and the LGBTQ community.
“They can close down independent media. They can disenfranchise entire populations,” Harari said.
For example, the coalition has already passed a law instructing patients and visitors in public hospitals to keep Jewish dietary laws during Passover, even if they are not Jewish. Harari said he anticipates security guards may check the belongings of those entering hospitals to ensure they follow the new mandate.
“If you’re Christian and you’re staying in a public hospital, you cannot eat bread. This is not some futuristic scenario. This is already passed,” Harari added.
On March 26, Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, signaling the prime minister’s commitment to the overhaul plan. Gallant had criticized the judicial legislation, claiming that divisions in the country threatened to weaken the military. His termination led to mass protests and rare unity among business leaders and unions. Harari recalled how industry executives began clapping for union workers after they announced they would go on strike.
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Israeli historian and “Sapiens” author Yuval Noah Harari warned that the judicial overhaul plan in Israel could turn the country into a dictatorship if passed. (Fox News)
“What we saw in the last few weeks is amazing because this is not a left versus right wing. This is not secular against religion,” Harar said. “The resistance movement is made from people of all different sections of Israeli society.”
While the Israeli government has paused the judicial legislative plan, Netanyahu has said he intends to resume the push in a few weeks. Harari said the resistance is ready to resume protests and strike at a moment’s notice.
“What we’re telling the Israeli government is very, very simple: Don’t tread on us,” Harari said.
To maintain the core tenants of a democratic society, Harari said it is essential to ask what mechanism limits the power of the government. If, for example, the government tried to pass a law that would shut down television networks and newspapers they don’t like, what legal structure would prevent such an eventuality?
“We have been asking the people in the Israeli government this question exactly. What is the mechanism that would protect free press? You know what they replied? They have only one answer: Trust us,” Harari said.
The Israeli historian said such a frightening response was indicative of every dictator in history and served as a “huge warning signal” that democracy may be in jeopardy.
“When we think about establishing a dictatorship, we think about tanks firing in the streets, but as we know from history, lots of dictatorships have been established by governments signing papers behind closed doors and by the time people understood what was happening, it was too late to resist,” he said.
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Harari also said the judicial overhaul could affect academic freedom, noting that academic success is built on the ability to research and publish freely, even if it is something the government may not like.
The judicial overhaul plan has already hurt business and education in Israel. Some research students that planned to come to Israel on scholarship have canceled their plans and high-tech sector business leaders have had second thoughts on local investments.
Harari says these issues could set Israel back in terms of academic, scientific and technological achievement.
“As we saw from the COVID-19 pandemic, you don’t want to take a vaccine produced in a dictatorship because you don’t trust that the authorities there, if the vaccine is say, harmful, would really publish it,” he said. “But in a democracy, you have greater trust because you know that even if the government wants to hide something, the freedom of the academy and the freedom of the press guarantees its publication.”
The turmoil in Israel could also have regional and global implications, given Israel’s status as a major power in the Middle East.
“If they get their hands, unrestricted control, of this kind of power, they could destabilize or actually set fire to the entire Middle East. And this will eventually come to the door of the United States,” Harari said.
In Israel, the ruling coalition argues that judges engage in legal activism and frequently overrule the executive and legislative branches. Opponents of the reform measures see a decreased level of checks and balances on government power if a judicial overhaul is enacted.
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Harari says that criticism of the Supreme Court is worth discussing but suggests the proposed overhaul is akin to taking the last brake off a moving car. Instead, Harari said there should be talks about installing new brakes before discussing removing the final protective measure.
“If you don’t like the present system of the Supreme Court, that’s fine,” he said. “There are alternatives to it, but just neutralizing the Supreme Court without installing an alternative system of checks and balances—this is the road to disaster.”