Commentary Magazine


Born on the Fourth of June

On June 4, 1989, parliamentary elections in Poland gave Solidarity 99 out of the 100 seats they were allowed to contest. For those who still doubted it—and there were many—the vote illustrated the utter illegitimacy of Communist rule in central Europe. Five months later, the wall came down in Berlin. Two years after that, the hammer-and-sickle was lowered, hopefully for the last time, over the Kremlin.

Also on June 4, 1989, soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army seized control of Tiananmen Square in Beijing from the students who had been occupying it for the previous several weeks. The result, in that case, was the death of hundreds, maybe more, the imprisonment of thousands, the reconsolidation of hard-line Communist Party rule and the emergence of China not as a nation tracing a slow but steady course toward freedom but as a new form of dictatorship, one that sought to harness the energies of private enterprise to the ambitions of despotism.

What’s in a date? It was surely coincidental that two epochal events took place on the same day. Yet sometimes coincidences can illuminate deeper truths. In these cases, they remind us of the brittleness of tyrannical regimes, but also of their brutality; of their susceptibility to sudden collapse, but also of their capacity for endless slaughter; of their inner weakness, but also of their will to power.

Above all, they remind us that tyranny is a scandal—not a scandal in the sense of Watergate, or of Eliot Spitzer’s socks—but in the sense of being a gigantic lie hiding in plain sight, a lie that seeks to violently compel others to submit to its claims or else participate in them. As with any lie, it is sustained only to the extent that it is believed. And, as with any lie, it is undone the moment one person—whether that’s Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Natan Sharansky or Václav Havel or Liu Xiaobo or Ayaan Hirsi Ali—stands up and says: It is not so.

And so the fourth of June ought to be a date to mark in our calendars. It is a reminder that a core democratic task is to preserve the capacity to be scandalized by tyranny: wise enough to fear it, bold enough to resist it, persistent enough to expose it, and idealistic enough to believe it can be brought down.

Yet there aren’t the only fourths of June from recent history that ought to matter to us. There is also the fourth of June, 1967. It was a Sunday, the day before the Six-Day War broke out between Israel and the Arab countries surrounding it. It was the eve of battle, the moment of decision.

On the fourth of June, 1967, Israel—deploying 275,000 troops, 200 combat planes, and 1,100 tanks—faced off against combined Arab armies that fielded nearly twice as many troops, more than four times as many planes, and nearly five times as many tanks.

On the fourth of June, 1967, the commander of the Egyptian army, Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, told Ahmad Shukeiri, the founder of the Palestine Liberation Organization, “soon we’ll be able to take the initiative and rid ourselves of Israel once and for all.”

On the fourth of June, 1967, Israel had not received emergency military aid promised by the United States; nor had the United States mounted a promised international armada to break Egypt’s blockade of the Straits of Tiran; nor had Israel gotten any relief from France, which just then decided to turn on the Jewish state with an arms embargo; nor had it gotten any diplomatic relief at the United Nations, which had instantly capitulated to Egyptian demands to withdraw peacekeepers from the Sinai.

On the fourth of June, 1967, a divided Israeli cabinet met to decide what to do. One minister urged his colleagues not to go to war without an ally. Another insisted Israel needed a more clear-cut casus belli, even if it meant sending an Israeli ship on a suicide mission through the blockaded straits. Even David Ben-Gurion, no longer prime minister but still politically influential, felt Israel was acting in too much haste.

On the fourth of June, 1967, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko summoned Israel’s ambassador in Moscow to warn him that the Soviet Union would not brook “Zionist aggression” and that it was prepared to interfere on behalf of its Arab clients. As Gromyko was delivering that warning in Moscow, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol received a letter from Lyndon Johnson, who wrote to “emphasize the necessity for Israel not to make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities.”

And yet, despite this litany, it was on the fourth of June, 1967, that Israel chose to strike—and strike first. “They will condemn us,” Yigal Allon, the labor minister, told his cabinet colleagues. “And we will survive.”

All of this should sound familiar to us today—the threat to Israel’s existence, the political divisions within the country, the muddle of U.S. policy, the global opposition to Israel, Israel’s fear of being blamed for starting a war. And yet the gap between what the fourth of June, 1967, ought to mean to the world and what much of the world takes to be its meaning appears to be a bottomless chasm.

Five years ago, on the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War, the Economist published an editorial arguing that the war was “one of history’s pyrrhic victories….A calamity for the Jewish state no less than for its neighbors.” One has to marvel at the mental gymnastics required to come to that conclusion. You have to ignore everything Israel did to avoid the war, including beseeching King Hussein of Jordan not to join in, and you also have to ignore Israel’s immediate—and immediately rejected—offers to return the Sinai and the Golan Heights, as well as its efforts to establish an autonomous Palestinian authority in the West Bank.

You have to suppose that it is somehow “pyrrhic” that Israel remains a sovereign and prosperous state today, 45 years later, whereas it took the Romans a mere four years to make the original Pyrrhus’s victory proverbially pyrrhic. You have to deny that history’s losers typically aren’t given a second bite at the apple—just ask the East Prussians, or the Mexicans of San Diego, San Antonio, and Santa Fé. You have to think that the trade-off between France’s Mirages and America’s Phantoms, or between soft European support and hard American backing, was a bad one.

Above all—and this is the decisive point—you have to believe that the confidence and self-respect Israelis gained in the wake of the Six-Day War was prideful and sinful, and that the possession of political power ill befits the Jewish people, and that weakness is the only sure token of virtue.

Yet that is precisely how so much of the world has come to see the war. Thus, the day when the Jewish state had its back to the wall is now regarded as the last day Israelis could hold their heads high—because they weren’t occupying someone else’s land. The day when Israel stood behind borders that tempted its neighbors into war is now regarded as the day to which history must rewind—those notorious 1967 lines—in order to achieve a lasting peace. The day when Israel achieved one of the most unexpected military victories of the 20th century is now regarded as Israel’s original sin, the moment it began its descent into ethnic chauvinism, international ostracism, and national suicide.

Triumph: Israeli army paratroopers (L-R) Zion Karasanti, Yitzhak Yifat, and Haim Oshri stand beside the Western Wall after capturing it, June 7, 1967.

How did this come to be? How did the meaning of the fourth of June get turned on its head?

One answer—and a powerful one—is that excuses for hating Jews are surely one of the world’s inexhaustible resources. It may be highly convenient to treat the Six-Day War as the moment Israel went rotten, but it’s an argument that can be sustained only by amnesia, ignorance, or bad faith. Israel was hated be fore the fourth of June as much as it was hated after the fourth of June. And you can be sure that, in the event that Israel withdraws from the last inch of “occupied” territory, the hatred will not abate, but only shape-shift into some other form.

A second answer is that history never gives us the counterfactual, the what-might-have-been. It’s always possible to argue that things might have turned out much better for the Jewish state if only it had stayed its hand before the war, or if it had acted otherwise after it.

Even so, it’s amazing how anyone can make the case that Israel suffered a “calamity” as a result of the Six-Day War. In 1967, the country had a per capita GDP of $1,500. Today the figure approaches $30,000. In 1967, support for Israel could barely muster 80 or so signatures in Congress. Today pro-Israel legislation routinely gets near-unanimous support in both houses. Since 1967, Israel has been deemed guilty of the sin of occupying a notional country called “Palestine.” In 1967, Israel was “Palestine.” Is Israel really so much worse off today?

But there is another answer, a deeper one, which perhaps can explain not only why the meaning of June 4 has been twisted, but a few other mysteries as well. And that’s the morality—the false and dangerous morality—of pity.

On the fourth of June, 1967, there were excellent reasons to side with Israel. It was a democracy besieged and assaulted by tyrannies. Its maritime rights had been violated by Egypt’s closure of the Straits of Tiran; international law was on its side. It had compelling reasons to believe it was under mortal threat. It made no territorial demands on its neighbors, much less call for their destruction. It was a net contributor, scientifically and culturally, to the march of civilization. Simply put, the Israelis were the good guys.

Yet the reason usually cited for sympathizing with Israel that fourth of June is that it was the underdog—the proverbial 98-pound weakling versus its big bullying neighbors. And this was true, albeit only partially true, because Israel quickly demonstrated that it wasn’t such a weakling after all.

But it’s hard to make a defensible case for siding with the underdog based on underdog-status alone. Was Saddam Hussein hiding in his spider hole a better man than he was in his palaces? Were the allies in 1945 less deserving of victory than they were in 1942? Was Israel’s cause less right on June 12, right after the war, than it had been on June 4? These are the kind of nonsense propositions you are bound to wind up with if you make moral judgments based on underdog- or overdog-status alone.

The instinct to side with the underdog arises, at least in part, from the guilty pleasure of pity—the feeling of superiority that the sensation of pity almost automatically confers. Pity, it turns out, is not a form of sympathy, or empathy, or a genuinely humane concern for the misfortunes of others. On the contrary, pity is really a form of self-congratulation, an act of condescension, a sublimated type of narcissism. Little wonder, then, that the politics of pity should thrive in what the late Christopher Lasch called our culture of narcissism.

Consider the ways these politics plays out in our lives today. Remember that headline in Le Monde from September 12, 2001—“Nous Sommes Tous Américains”—“We Are All Americans”? Le Monde’s editorial pity lasted just so long as the wreckage of the Twin Towers smoldered in the ground, and then it was straight back to bashing the hyperpuissance. Or take the condemnation of the United States, by outfits such as Amnesty International, for the killing of Osama bin Laden. Poor Osama, defenseless before those marauding SEALs!

Yet nowhere do the politics of pity play out more vividly than when it comes to the Palestinians. How is it that, at least on the left, the Palestinians have become the new Chosen People? Part of the answer surely lies in the fact that Palestinians, uniquely, are the perceived victims of the Jewish state, and therefore another vehicle for castigating Jews. If you believe that Jews can do no right, you’re probably disposed to think that Palestinians can do no wrong—especially when they are attacking Jews.

But that’s not the whole answer. People who really aren’t anti-Semites or knee-jerk enemies of Israel nonetheless are disposed to make all kinds of allowances for Palestinians that can only be explained by the politics of pity. How many billions in international aid have been given to the Palestinians, and what percentage of those monies has been squandered or stolen? How often have Palestinians made atrocious political choices without ever paying a price for them in terms of international regard?

The reason Palestinians don’t have to earn global sympathy by showing themselves worthy of it is that they are the perceived underdogs and are therefore automatically entitled to the benefit of every doubt. And it is because “caring” for the Palestinians flatters the vanity of their sympathizers. I don’t think the world really loves the Palestinians. But, as the late Donna Summer might have said, it does “love to love” them. Being pro-Palestinian, as that term is typically used, is not a testament to compassion. It is, more often than not, an act of self-love. It’s moral onanism.

Dogs of war: Israeli tanks advance toward Egyptian positions in the Sinai, June 4, 1967.

In recent years, friends of Israel, and many Israelis as well, have sought to reengage the world’s affections by trying to portray Israel as the real underdog—in other words, to enter a contest of victimhood with the Palestinians. This, too, is an effort, albeit a misguided one, to get back to the fourth of June.

Today, no visiting dignitary in Israel is allowed to leave the country before making the obligatory visit to Sderot, the hard-hit town near the Gaza Strip. No promotional videos by Jewish-American groups can avoid some touching exposition about how their money has been spent to help Sderot and its people. When Barack Obama visited Israel as a candidate in 2008, he famously said that if his daughters had to face what the children of Sderot do, he would want to do something about that, too. And it was largely on that basis that American Jewry decided that Obama “got” Israel.

Am I alone in finding this Sderot fetish vaguely obscene? Nobody should gainsay the courage of the people who live there. Nor should anyone doubt that Sderot is a reminder of how Palestinians fight and what Palestinians have chosen to do with the Strip they made their own after Israel ended its presence there in 2005.

But whatever else it is, Sderot should not be turned into advertisement for Israel in its bid to make itself more popular. On the contrary, Sderot is an indictment of Israel for its longstanding failure to stop the attacks from Gaza. The foremost responsibility of any government is the safety of its citizens. It was bad enough that Israel allowed more than three years to pass between its withdrawal from Gaza and Operation Cast Lead, in which Israeli forces entered Gaza again to degrade the Palestinian terror machinery. Much worse was the all-but-official Israeli policy to milk Sderot for pity value.

What’s more, it’s the Palestinians who are the real pros at calling attention to their misfortunes, real or invented. Why would Israel want to compete? Toward the end of the second intifada, in 2004, the scorecard of Palestinian to Israeli deaths stood roughly at 3:1. This was an empty statistic that took no account of guilt, innocence, or discrimination in the use of force, but which was nonetheless wielded to some political effect against Israel. But let’s ask the question: Would it have been better if the ratio had been reversed, with three Israeli fatalities to every one Palestinian?

Or, to take another example, would the Israeli cabinet have done better on June 4, 1967, to decide to sit and wait for Nasser to strike the first blow, and to accept several thousand more dead—as Golda Meir would six years later by waiting for the Arab attack that began the Yom Kippur War? What would that have achieved, other than, at best, a more victimized victory?

That would have been perverse. Israel was not founded to serve as another vehicle for showcasing Jewish victimhood, but for ending it. That day may still be very far off. But if the memory of the fourth of June means anything, it’s that statecraft cannot be conducted as a beauty pageant, and that the “benefit”—if that’s the word—of being seen as the righteous victim should count for nothing against the moral imperative of ensuring one’s survival.

This is a lesson that, for better or worse, the world has never let Israel long forget. But it’s also a lesson we here in the United States could stand to learn anew. The fourth of June ought to mean something for Americans as well.

Several years ago, Bill Clinton explained that part of his foreign-policy doctrine might be called the “Can I Kill Him Tomorrow?” theory of international relations—the idea being that if the military option against some particular threat remained viable for another day, diplomacy could still be given a chance to work.

This bit of characteristic moral preening by the former president was intended to demonstrate that the possession of vast power did not tempt him to lose his sense of moral restraint (except maybe with an intern or two). But it also betrayed the great assumption of his generation of baby boomers, which is that the principal task of statesmanship isn’t to make the hard call when it comes to the inevitable choice of evils. It is to postpone—and, with any luck, to avoid—having to make that call at all. It is the idea that politics can be about whatever we want it to be about.

So this was Clinton’s mañana doctrine. Which is how, under his watch, the massacre of thousands in Srebrenica, Bosnia, happened. How the Iraqi crisis was allowed to fester. Why there was no significant response to the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, or the Khobar Towers bombings in 1996, or the East African embassy bombings in 1998, or the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. And that’s how Osama bin Laden easily escaped the half-hearted efforts in the 1990s to capture or kill him.

It’s the same story with the Obama administration today, whose approach has largely been to deal with the world as we would wish it would be, not as it is. In the wish-it-would-be world, a reset would have been achieved with Russia, a grand bargain would have been struck with Iran, anti-Americanism would have been carried away on the breeze of the president’s rhetorical uplift, the Taliban would have been moved to embrace democracy, and we would be greening the industrial economy while moving toward a world without nuclear weapons.

The world as we would wish it to be is not a world in which Syria is bleeding, the Chinese are increasing the rate of annual military spending by a double-digit percentage, the Arab Spring is turning to an Islamist winter, Europe is imploding economically, and Iran is brazening its way to a nuclear bomb. That world is the real world, and it is the world the rest of us inhabit: the world of the concrete fact, the world of the worsening circumstance. It is the world in which decisions are made harder, not easier, by delay, in which delay increases the chances of failure, and of death.

It is a world choked with pity, yet pitiless.

In short, it is the world of the fourth of June—the fourth of June as it really was, and as we should try to remember it. It is the world as we find it when we have given up illusions. But it is also a world to seize.

Seventy years ago, in June 1942, the Nazis took revenge for the killing of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague by murdering the entire village of Lidice, in Czechoslovakia. Edna St. Vincent Millay memorialized that massacre—and its meaning for America—in a poem.

Oh, my country, so foolish and dear,
Scornful America, crooning a tune.
Think, Think: are we immune?
Catch him, catch him and stop him soon!

Those lines were written when it was already too late for Lidice, too late for European Jewry, and nearly too late for the United States. They ought to remind us: Time is rarely on our side. Hard choices can’t be avoided without hard consequences. The world doesn’t wait. Act, act, before it’s too late.

About the Author

Bret Stephens is a deputy editorial page editor and the foreign-affairs columnist for the Wall Street Journal. This article is adapted from a speech he delivered at Commentary’s annual dinner on June 4 at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City.




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