The June 4 Lines

Gershom Gorenberg

Barack Obama likes to change what history means, and that’s a very good thing.

Today, for instance, marks 42 years since the Six-Day War began. Ever since then, the term “June 4 lines” has referred to the  on-the-ground border between Israel and its Arab neighbors on the eve of the war – not the lines marked on maps, but the lines marked by forward military positions. On the Syrian front, for instance, the actual positions lined up with neither the pre-1948 international border between Palestine and Syria, nor with the 1949 armistice agreements. The small distances on the ground make for big problems in peace negotiations.

As of yesterday, however, June 4 means something entirely different. It now refers to the day on which Barack Obama chose to speak in Cairo. “June 4 lines” henceforth mean the line of thinking that the president laid out for reconciliation between the U.S. and the Muslim world, and along the way, between Israel and the Palestinians.

His message to us was very, very basic Obama: First, I acknowledge your history. Second, it’s time each of you recognize the other’s side history, that you stop thinking that somehow by admitting the other’s side suffering you’ll erase your own. And now that you’ve acknowledged history, stop holding on to it as if electricity were running through it, as if your hand can’t let go. Move forward. Turn history into history – the text explaining how we got here – and stop treating it as an ever-repeating present. This is what he told Americans about race when he was campaigning for president. Now he’s telling it to us and our neighbors:

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust… Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation… They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable…

For decades, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive..if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.

OK, so  the president gets up in a hall in Cairo and cogently, concisely tells the Muslim world that Holocaust denial is wrong morally, and self-defeating as well. And then he turns and tells Israel: your trauma should not blind you to what has happened to the Palestinians, which is “intolerable.” Quietly and calmly, like a psychologist trying to get two very upset people to reframe their past so they can move on.

I have some friends who think that Obama’s speeches are fomulaic: on one hand, on the other hand. Wrong. This isn’t a rhetorical formula, it’s a thought-out view of the world and of political action: Empowering people, getting them to break out of despair, requires getting them to think of the past in a different way. What Obama is doing is a mix of cognitive psychology and the wisdom of his community organizing guru, Saul Alinsky – though as president rather than street organizer, Obama is a lot more polite in his language as he tells people that they should stop making excuses for  leaving things as they are.

Obama also told the Palestinians that their own violence was defeating their struggle, and posed the counter-example of the civil-rights struggle in the US.  Yes, as some critics have noted, parts of Obama’s history were off: The South African liberation struggle included violence. Nonetheless, he was right about the message. Palestinian advocates of non-violence – Sari Nusseibeh, Sami Awad, Nafez Assaily, the organizers in Bilin who have never quite gotten the method across to local teens – should take courage from this.

And of course, Obama drew another June 4 line, a line in the sand: No settlement construction:

The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

The wording here is either a bit sloppy, or deliberately ambiguous. He’s saying construction must stop. Is he also saying that settlement as such must end, that settlements must be evacuated? I suspect that settler leaders heard it that way. For once (it had to happen), they’re right. The president is telling them that he opposes not just the next house, but the entire enterprise.

I would have been happier if Obama had devoted more time to his effort to reframe history. Alas, he was trying to do a lot in one speech. The democracy advocates are upset that he didn’t say more on democracy – though as Michael Cohen writes, Obama did dramatically shift the American position: “The President is saying that the United States will welcome ANY peaceful and law-abiding government.” It could be Islamist. It could be socialist. It doesn’t have to work just like America’s. It has to be accountable, respect human rights and be willing to give up power if it loses the next election.

The problem with trying to convince people to look at history differently is that a lot of them don’t want to. Ex-Knesset speaker Dahlia Itzik said that, “The equation that the US President formed between Israel and the Palestinians is very disturbing.” Itzik, remember, is in the centrist opposition, so she tried to put her miscomprehension politely. Arye Eldad, from the right, said that “Obama drew a shocking parallel between the destruction of the Jews of Europe and the suffering that Israeli Arabs brought upon themselves.” There are too many things wrong with this sentence to list. But the underlying problem is: Obama wants Israelis and Palestinians to be able to see history twice, to see it as having two faces.

And many of the people to whom he is speaking are either cognitively incapable of that, or very desperately committed to living in one version of the past. They don’t want to be empowered to change their situation.

Obama, as a student of Alinsky, knows how attached people are to their rationalizations. He knows one speech won’t change all attitudes. It’s a beginning. It’s the June 4 line.

15 thoughts on “The June 4 Lines”

  1. Yes, I can see it now, all those Muslim Imam’s and preachers who have, throughout the Arab world, in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Gaza, the “West Bank”, Jordan, etc, etc, who have been teaching that Jews are “decendents of monkeys and pigs” and that the “Jew’s rejected Muhammed”, and that Israel is a Jewish plot to take control the Arab world, are now going to say “you know, Obama and his mentor Saul Alinksy don’t like what we are teaching, we had better stop it because it isn’t nice”. I can’t wait ot see this happen. The first test will be Sunday in the Lebanese elections. We’ll see how well Obama’s message goes over.

  2. Y Ben-david: On Lebanon – i agree it will be a test. Hopefully the hezbollah/christian alliance wins, then proceeds to govern as it promised. Which I, for one, trust they will – judging from Hezbollah’s leadership actions they seem to be highly pragmatic and genuinely committed to lebanon as a state for all its citizens – sunnis, druz, shiite and christian. Now, if only Israel were so…..even if only in words!

    But what will you and your ilk do when your boogey-man-de-jour fails to show up for the showdown of your imagination? who’ll you invent next?

    Oh yes, there’s always Ahmadinejab – but who knows – he too might lose….and then, the only remaining ghost of days long past will be — Nethaniahu? Rabbi Friedman of Chabad (the jewish version of fire breathing Imams, if there ever was one…).

    Maybe you should start listening to the winds of change, for a change….

  3. “Your ilk?” YBD, don’t you love being part of an “ilk”? Sounds like a disease, but of course, the comment was an ad-hominem attack designed to denigrate your position, so it can be ignored as facile and irrelevant.

    I happened to like a lot of Obama’s speech. I think, for once, I agree with Gershom — the basic message is “it’s time to move on…acknowledge your pain and losses but don’t let them blind you from moving forward, because people of good will can move forward.”

    Of course, YBD makes a valid point here that there are a lot of people NOT of good will in places like Gaza and Iran, who are still enunciating a very genocidal agenda (which some commenters here are prone to overlook since it doesn’t fit their own ideology).

    As for Hezbollah — it is an Iranian funded, IRG-trained and backed army. If it wins on Sunday, you can kiss democracy good-bye in Lebanon. Obama’s words were precisely for terror organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas: “elections alone don’t make a true democracy.” Paying lip service to democracy, then gunning down the opposition after you’re in office and imposing your dictatorship does not make you a “democracy” and Hamas sacrified whatever little legitimacy it had in so doing. You can expect Hezbollah to do likewise–their goal is Shi’ite control over Lebanon, and an Iranian front on Israel’s northern borders. The Sunnis, Druze and Christians of Lebanon are numerous enough that, unlike the Christians of Gaza who have to endure rape, torture, firebombing and murder, they will fight back—and the Second Lebanese Civil War will be under way. I’m amazed anyone could be so naive, or perhaps politically invested, as to believe any politician’s campaign rhetoric…especially Hezbollah’s, given their stated goals of Shi’ite dominance and eradication of Israel.

  4. I make no excuses for the sick rhetoric YBD cites–and as a Muslim I think it’s utterly illegitimate, junk theology based more on ideology and politics than religious tradition or spirituality–but I think he is mistaking secondary factors for primary ones. Culture and religious belief plays a role in some prejudices, yes, but to assume those to be independent of (or more influential than) the conflict itself in generating this ugly phenomenon is sorely mistaken, I think. It’s not all that different from opining that Israelis’ fears and/or prejudices against Arabs are based more on the Talmud than obvious real world contemporary events (e.g., suicide bombings). Perhaps an argument can be made there, but it’s seriously counterintuitive. Whether Arabs or Jews are involved, nothing changes in peoples’ hearts or minds while bombs are falling or homes are being bulldozed, and Obama’s proposal seems to me to be a plausible path out of this vicious cycle.

  5. An observation re the settlement statement:

    “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”

    Please note the difference the inclusion of the word “continued” makes to this statement. It has to be assumed that the use of the word was carefully considered.

  6. My biggest problem with the speech was this line: “the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”

    The implication is very clear – Israel only exists because of antisemitism. He’s, in effect, denying the Jewish people’s desire for self-determination for self-determination’s sake, and ignoring the long history of Jewish independence (which, of course, ended with the Romans).

    There is a big difference between saying Israel was only able to be established because of the Holocaust (wrong, but that’s a different discussion) and saying that events leading up to Holocaust are the reason for the “aspiration for a Jewish homeland.”

  7. To LB #9:

    BINGO. I had the exact same thought after hearing this. If it were only for antisemitism, why not send all the Jews to the north pole? Why Eretz Yisrael? Because the land of Israel is the cradle of Jewish civilization. It is where the Hebrew language developed and where a Jewish national identity formed. This has no basis in religion whatsoever (i.e., Critics like to sardonically say that Jews believe Israel is theirs because God “said so”). No – the connection to the land is linguistic, cultural, and historic. The Shoah was indeed immensely influential upon the development of the state, but it is not the reason for the state as such. Obama sent precisely the wrong message in this case.

  8. To LB #9
    Well, no – Jewish independence ended some 5-600 years earlier (depending on when you’re counting from) with the Babylonians. Although Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Israel, it remained part of the Persian Empire until it was conquered by Alexander (who, in Jewish historical memory) was a Good Guy. There was a relatively brief period of independence after the Maccabean revolt, but the Hasmonean dynasty became so corrupt that the Romans were *welcomed*.
    The point is not just that your chronology is off; it’s that until the advent of modern Zionism, non-messianic political independence as such was not, in fact, a huge value in Jewish thought.

  9. The point that you are missing is that, with respect to the Holocaust as well as modern “jihad,” anti-Semitism is not rooted in territorial disputes or reasonable arguements.

    “On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.”
    — Is that really all they want? A homeland? Pardon me if I sound a bit skeptical, but I must wonder why, if all the Palestinian Arabs ever wanted was a homeland, have they historically turned down every offer for a homeland, from the partition plan in 1948 to Ehud Barak’s offer of 98% of the West Bank??? And returned these offers with violence…

  10. JJG – 1. No, sorry. Hasmoneans were independent. Corruption has brought down many a sovereign entity – doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. By the way, they were not in existence for that much shorter of a period than the first time around there was a united Jewish kingdom. From the beginning of King Saul’s reign until the breakup under Rehavam – 112 years. Hasmoneans – 66 years. In the grand scheme of things not an enormous difference.

    2. So? People thought it would just fall into their laps, then people (mostly secular) decided to act on it. That doesn’t mean the desires stemmed from antisemitism.

  11. bat – I am very tired of hearing people talk about barak’s generous offer. First off it was not 98% but 92% since 8 % was reserved for existing Jewish settlements. Furthermore, the entire Jordan Valley was considered an Israeli military zone and off limits to Palestinians even though it was part of their 92%. There was a vague suggestion that maybe in 25 years Israel might return the Jordan Valley. The Jordan valley is 20% of the West Bank further reducing the Palestinian state to 72% of the west bank. This is further reduced since Barak proposed much of East Jerusalem would be under Israeli control except heavily populated pockets of arabs would have autonomy.

    However, the big kick in the pants was Israeli control of all borders, airspace, sea space, airwaves, water would be under Israeli control. It means everything and everyone coming in or out of the Palestinian “state” would be subject to Israel’s approval. The offer was laughable.

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