It’s already hard to remember, with election fever raging all around us, what triggered this expensive, unnecessary mess we’re now in. I’m talking about the “Jewish State” bill, of course. It wasn’t the only culprit, but it was a big one. What’s most interesting about the Jewish State law is not whether it was a deliberate provocation intended to force a change in government or whether it will return after the next Knesset is formed. Rather it’s that, from an evolutionary point of view, how unsurprising and in some ways even inevitable this bill is.
My thinking comes from Yuval Noah Harari, author of a huge Israeli bestseller called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari is a senior lecturer in the department of history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His book came out in Hebrew in 2011 and stayed at the top of the charts for two years. (It will be published in the U.S. in early 2015.) He also teaches a free online class on the subject which is available on the website Coursera. Sapiens traces the history of humanity from our various homo-ancestors, through the cognitive, agricultural, scientific and industrial revolutions, and on to where we may be going as a species in the near future. I’ve been taking the Sapiens course online and it’s spellbinding – no mean trick given that it’s almost exclusively a series of videos with Harari sitting in an armchair and lecturing to the camera. In the second part of the course, Harari examines how human beings were able to organize into the large complex societies we see today. Written language and the ability to create “imagined realities” (stories we tell ourselves about how the world works) are two critical factors. It’s a third that relates to the Jewish State bill and that has been particularly eye opening for me. In order for human beings to live in groups of more than a few dozen, Harari posits, we have no choice but to divide people up into categories: men and women; different religions, races and tribes; royalty and peasants; “us” and “them.” We don’t do this because we are inherently power-hungry or racist (although there are certainly people like that). Nor is this just some condescension to the weaknesses of early civilizations, something that we will ultimately transcend on the way to an egalitarian future where everyone is equal. No, these hierarches, explains Harari, are essential to our ability to function when you can’t know every single one of your neighbors. For example, if you meet someone new, you can’t spend the time to get to know that person intimately; you need to make some snap judgments, to put that person in a box, so to speak, however limited that may be, so you can move on to interact with the next person. This becomes all the more critical if you want to be able to live together in a village or city with hundreds, thousands or millions of people. Who can you trust? Who can you count on in a pinch? Who’s lazy and interested only in their own advancement? Who’s skilled in mediating arguments? Who would make a good mate? Who’s better at fighting and who’s better at writing poetry? You need to quickly gather these broad if crude data points if the group is going to work together. But no one mind can keep track of so much information. So we create categories. We codify laws and write everything down. It’s a key advantage and one of the cognitive tricks that made humans so dominant, Harari says. This isn’t a necessarily evil activity. When you say “I’m a lawyer” “he’s a journalist,” or “she’s a rabbi,” you’re defining yourself with the expansive strokes necessary for others to grasp your “essential nature” in a word or two, confident that your true friends and family will have the time and interest to get to know the “real” you.Jewish law and practice, in its earliest biblical motivations, was all about creating categories that would allow a tightly defined, culturally distinct society to function. If a stranger wanted to insinuate himself into the Jewish tribe, there were (and still are) a lot of touch points he had to get right. Does he eat like a Jew (and know the rules and minutia)? Does he dress as you’d expect? And most important, is he circumcised? Kind of hard to fake that one. The thing is: a lot of these categories about who’s in and who’s out are “accidents of history,” claims Harari. He brings the example of the caste system in India. According to many historians, raiders from Central Asia entered the Indian subcontinent around 3,000 years ago. They had more sophisticated technology (two-wheel chariots, for example), but they were far fewer in number than the local population which they subjugated. The invaders needed a way to differentiate between those in power and the soon to be subservient masses. So they created “a stratified society in which they occupied the leading positions – the priests, warriors and kings – and the natives were left to work as peasants and slaves,” Harari says in his course. The invaders, then, “fearing they might lose their unique identity and privileged status, divided the population into castes which had different legal status and duties.”Castes determined who you could associate with, who you could marry, what jobs you could hold and where you could live. Over time, these rules and prohibitions became an integral part of Hindu religion and mythology. “In order to convince everyone that the caste system was not a human invention,” the ruling elite presented it as reflecting “a kind of cosmic order whose purpose was to protect society from impurity,” Harari continues.The concept of “impurity” has long been a popular way of oppressing certain segments of society, Harari continues, and we see it in many different religions and cultures (including Judaism). That’s because it’s rooted in a biological reality, where “through a long evolutionary process, people developed a fear of polluting themselves by coming in contact with things that might give them diseases, like rotting corpses or bad food,” Harari explains. But eventually social systems “hijacked these biological mechanisms and turned it against certain groups of people rather than dead bodies.” Eventually, people forgot the historical reasons thousands of years ago for the creation of castes, but the system lives on as the “natural” way of things. Harari’s point: human society can’t function without categorization but most of the hierarchies it creates are almost entirely these accidents of history.I was sharing this idea with a friend recently. “But surely the Jewish people is not an accident,” she countered. “Look how long we’ve survived! Where are the Romans today? Where are the ancient Greeks or Egyptian or Babylonians?”It’s tempting to paint our survival over the millennia as unique, but that’s only because we survived. Had certain Caesars made different political and religious choices, Rome might still be here, and we’d be talking pig Latin about how gladiator culture not Judaism is the historical outlier.Harari’s analysis is both illuminating…and profoundly depressing. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I took John Lennon’s words as my own religious doctrine (even if he was arguing for the opposite). Imagine a world with no countries, no possessions, nothing to kill or die for, he sang. It was the ultimate flat world, where egalitarianism and equality would reign supreme. This, surely, was where humankind was heading.As we wind up 2014, though, Lennon’s vision seems farther away than ever. The need to define who’s in and who’s out has led to countless wars over borders and belief. ISIS is ascendant. Hamas and Hezbollah are unrepentant. And at home, our former government relentlessly pushed a law to further shrink the boundaries of Jewish national identity that inflamed our neighbors, wrecked a coalition and made us question the wisdom of our leaders. And yet, sadly, it is entirely in keeping with this deep human requirement to build walls between people and strengthen divisions. What Harari taught me is that there’s no other way. And as long as we have no desire (or ability) to return to the days of the hunter-gatherer, we will continue to do so. Maybe that’s OK, though. If we accept this as our human reality and we understand why we do what we must do, we can also try our best to mitigate the most harmful hierarchies. And there has been improvement. After all, slavery was abolished in the U.S. Gender distinctions are diminishing. Fascism, despite some very high profile pockets of dubious distinction, is clearly on the global decline.If we still have to create categories, then I want to be in the one that works towards that better future John Lennon was singing about. It may be pushing against tens of thousands of years of evolution, but we can still imagine.Sapiens will be published by Harper in the U.S. in February 2015