Well, not that fast: in the weeks before the Israeli pre-emptive strike there was at least a little time for argument—and for agitation. Along with several thousand American university teachers, I signed a statement calling on the US government to take immediate action to end the Egyptian blockade of the Straits of Tiran. But mostly in those weeks agitation was less central in my life than anxiety.
Anxiety is very important in understanding the argument for pre-emption. The closing of the Straits and then the Egyptian army's occupation of the Sinai, supposedly a neutralized area and a buffer zone, produced real fear in Israel. The bombastic threats to Israel's existence broadcast from Cairo aggravated the fear, which spread by a kind of contagion to Jews in the Diaspora.
Israel could not afford to lose a war. The state was too new, too vulnerable, too precarious; everyone believed that its existence was at stake. The existence of Egypt was not.
Pre-emption is justified by what the law books call an "imminent threat." Preventive wars, by contrast, are fought against distant, speculative threats. They require the long view, and they have to be defended to skeptical citizens who have no immediate reason to be afraid. They know that there are other things to do, short of war. A preventive attack is, to my mind, almost always indefensible. Pre-emption has a very different timeline; it is most clearly justified when the attack doesn't require a lengthy defense. The danger is immediately recognizable—and one of its signs is fear.
For some weeks in 1967 I was running around the United States giving speeches against the Vietnam War. I was an activist in Vietnam Summer, an effort to produce anti-war community organizing in American cities (my own city was Cambridge, Massachusetts). I had a standard speech, sharply critical of the war and even more critical of the conduct of the war. And then, suddenly, I was also speaking in defense of the Israeli pre-emptive strike against Egypt. It took many months to construct the anti-Vietnam argument. The Six Day War required a more immediate response. Those of us in the political field, so to speak, had to take a stand, for or against, very fast.
Professor Michael Walzer is Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study and served as co-editor of the political journal Dissent for more than three decades, retiring in 2014. As a professor, author, editor, and lecturer, Walzer has addressed a wide variety of topics in political theory and moral philosophy: political obligation, just and unjust war, nationalism and ethnicity, economic justice and the welfare state. Among Walzer’s 27 books include Just and Unjust Wars (1977), On Toleration (1997), and Arguing About War (2004).