Today is the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For my generation, that was the seminal event in our early childhoods. Everyone remembers where they were when the devastating news was announced and that moment is forever embedded in our memory.
At age 8, I was just old enough to understand that something profound and disturbing had occurred. Even now, I still find it hard to believe — and even more difficult to comprehend that five decades have passed since that sorrowful November 22nd. I’ve spent a significant part of my professional career researching the period of the Kennedy Presidency and have produced a number of biographies of President Kennedy in different media, culminating in a full-length retrospective volume in 2010 (the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s election.) Over these years I have learned to appreciate the man and the president – for what he accomplished, how he wielded power, and for what might have been had he not met that cruel fate on a glittering Texas afternoon fifty years ago.
Today, living in Tel Aviv, I reflect on President Kennedy’s relations with Israel.
John F. Kennedy was the first American President with truly strong ties to the Jewish community. In fact, his broad support among Jewish voters helped contribute to his victory. As a young college student, JFK visited Mandatory Palestine in the late 1930s, during a ‘grand tour’ of Europe and the Middle East. He had also experienced Nazi Germany, first-hand, in the year prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. With his father ambassador to England, JFK was living in London when the war began, and helped the survivors of the Athena sinking. His experiences in Europe taught him the dangers of appeasement and inspired him to write his Harvard thesis on “Why England Slept” a thesis that became a bestselling book.
Kennedy, an Irish Catholic who grew up in Boston and ran for office as a Bostonian, was experienced in the challenges of ethnic politics. As a Congressional candidate Kennedy advocated for the creation of the State of Israel. During his years in Congress, both as a congressman and as a senator, JFK often spoke with Jewish and Zionist groups.
Here are links to two of President Kennedy’s speeches: the first, an address at a dinner honoring then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir. The second, at a meeting of the Histadrut Zionist organization two days later. In the first, Kennedy gives Israel a shout out for its willingness to accept as many refugees as wanted to emigrate from Hungary (compared to the significantly smaller numbers of refugees other countries offered to accept.) Kennedy’s deep attachment to Ireland no doubt helped him understand better than most presidents, the Jewish connection to Israel. Kennedy remains, in fact, the only president of the United States to have had a clearly delineated ethnic identity.
During the 1960 election campaign, Kennedy accepted an invitation to speak at the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) national convention, where he delivered a rousing speech in support of Israel; Richard Nixon had declined to attend. In the end, Kennedy’s election margin was paper-thin and was the result of his capturing the vote in Illinois, (a victory he would have found hard to achieve without the support of Chicago’s Jewish community.)
Kennedy’s truncated presidency coincided with a period of relative tranquility in the Middle East. As such, his policies on Israel were never really front-and-center. There were only two main items on the American-Israeli agenda during his presidency. First, was the continued controversy over Israel’s nuclear plant in Dimona. The Americans requested permission to inspect the facility, which Ben-Gurion refused. Second, the Kennedy administration had to address Israel’s request to receive advanced American weaponry (specifically, Hawk anti-aircraft missiles). Israel’s request was granted, making it the first time the U.S. supplied weapons directly to Israel, and opening up a pipeline that has been crucial for Israel’s security ever since.
JFK left behind an unfulfilled legacy of hope and spirit. With Kennedy in the White House everything seemed possible. No task seemed too great for the United States to undertake and no achievement out-of-reach. In his time as president, he issued the challenge that sent the US to Moon, he inked the first nuclear arms agreement with the Russians, and he successfully navigated one of the most dangerous moments in world history during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
John F. Kennedy was human and certainly made his share of mistakes – as a President, and as a man. But looking back over the past fifty years since his passing, I can speculate sadly about all of the “what might have beens”. We will never know. So we will continue to miss the president who was cut down that somber day in Dallas, in the prime of his life and during the prime of his presidency.
Here is a two minute video I originally produced 20 years ago on the tragedy in Dallas.