I was thinking about this teaching today. Every week I try and do one of the tours in Eyal Meiron's excellent book "Jerusalem: A Walk Through Time." Totally coincidentally (?) I picked a tour today that included Ammunition Hill. I didn't realize the coincidence until I got there, and started the tour, and realized that today was June 5 — the exact same day that the Six Day War started in 1967. The exact same day that the battle for Jerusalem started. The day before the battle for Ammunition Hill.
In May of 1967 Gamal Nasser was making very bellicose noises toward Israel:
"Preparations have already been made. We are now ready to confront Israel. They have claimed many things about the 1956 Suez war, but no one believed them after the secrets of the 1956 collusion were uncovered – that mean collusion in which Israel took part. Now we are ready for the confrontation. We are now ready to deal with the entire Palestine question."
Nasser was doing more than giving speeches. He was making physical preparations for war:
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) from the Sinai Peninsula in May 1967. The peacekeeping force had been stationed there since 1957, following a British-French-Israeli invasion which was launched during the Suez Crisis. Egypt amassed 1,000 tanks and nearly 100,000 soldiers on the Israeli border and closed the Straits of Tiran to all ships flying Israeli flags or carrying strategic materials, receiving strong support from other Arab countries (source Wikipedia).
Nasser's acts were clearly hostile, and Israel was bracing for an attack.
On June 5, the Israeli government decided that instead of waiting for the Egyptians to attack, they would launch a pre-emptive attack against the Egyptian Air Force to gain an advantage in the war that seemed inevitable. That morning the Israeli government sent a message to Jordan that if they stayed out of the war Israel would not attack them. At 0745 Israeli jets launched a massive attack against the Egyptian Air Force, effectively wiping out the Egyptian Air Force. Later that morning, Jordan decided to support Egypt, and the battle for Jerusalem started. Armon Hanatziv, the nearby neighborhood where one of the synagogues I belong to is located, was captured later on this day.
In 1967 I was 12 years old. Looking at the young faces of the soldiers killed — many of them just 6 or 7 years older than I was then — I silently saluted their bravery, felt remorse for the lives cut short, and thanks for the fact that their sacrifice made it possible for me to live here today. If Israel had lost that war in 1967, there would be no Israel today.
So what's the connection between June 5 and Iran? On June 5, 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive attack against Egypt. It was clear they were preparing for war; they had engaged in hostile acts; Israel decided to follow the Talmudic dictum, "if someone is coming to kill you, rise up and kill him first." Good advice, especially if you are a small country surrounded by strong enemies.
There are many people saying we should do the same thing against Iran. A pre-emptive strike before they can acquire nuclear capabilities.
There are several problems with this logic. Iran of 2009 is not Egypt of 1967. Iran's acts are in no way comparable to Egypt's acts. Despite Ahmadinejad's bellicose rhetoric, Iran is not making any physical preparations to attack Israel. He is not amassing troops or cutting off Israeli shipping.
That being said, I do believe the military option should be "left on the table." Negotiating without the background threat of military action would be relatively ineffectual. But that's what it should be — a threat, not a real plan. An attack on Iran would be very difficult — far more difficult than the attack on Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor in the '80's — and therefore much likelier to fail. And succeed or fail it would undoubtedly result in a rain of missiles on Israel from Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas. Despite (or maybe because of) last week's civil defense drill, when we dutifully shuffled into a "protected room" in the office next door, I don't really feel prepared for missiles landing on our heads.
The Talmudic advice is still applicable today — but you have to be very careful and very wise in knowing just when is that time when someone is "rising up to kill you." Acting prematurely can be just as bad as acting too late.