As early as 1947, Israel had a powerful supporter in Washington, DC. One wonders what JFK would say now about the Middle East and American foreign policy as AIPAC holds its annual policy conference in DC this week despite yet another snow storm here. In a speech delivered in June, 1947, Kennedy is credited as saying, “[a] just solution in [the middle east] requires the establishment of a free and democratic commonwealth in Palestine, the opening of the doors of Palestine to Jewish immigration and the removal of land restrictions, so that members of the people of Israel who desire to do so, may work out their own destiny, under their chosen leaders, in the land of Israel,” June 14, 1947, JFK speech. To Kennedy, the issues were clear: the establishment and success of the Jewish state was not only the right thing to happen, it was supposed to happen.
JFK’s first trip to the region was in 1939. He returned after being elected to the United States Congress. “I returned in 1951 to see the grandeur of Israel,” he recalled during a speech in 1960. “In three years this new state had opened its doors to 600,000 immigrants and refugees. Even while fighting for survival, Israel had given hope to the persecuted and new dignity to the pattern of Jewish life. I left with the conviction that the UN may have conferred on Israel the credentials of nationhood, but its own idealism and courage, its own sacrifice and generosity, had earned the credentials of immortality.” JFK speech, NY, NY, Zionists of America, 26 August 1960.
JFK recognized a “special relationship” between the US and Israel, ended an arms embargo enforced by Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S Truman between the two nations and allowed the first arms sale to Israel, MIM-23 Hawk missiles. While running for president, JFK offered his frequently-seen optimism and hope for the future: “Israel will endure and flourish,” he said in 1960. “It is the child of hope and home of the brave. It can never be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom.”
But acknowledging the competing interests in the middle east, and even amongst the Arab nations, JFK warned of outside influences as an impediment to lasting peace. “Peace in the middle east is not one step nearer reality today than it was 8 years ago,” JFK said, “but Russian influence is immensely greater.” A president whose brief administration was punctuated by Cold War face-offs with the former Soviet Union in Cuba and Berlin, for example, Kennedy was committed to the non-proliferation of nuclear testing and an ending of the arms race. As Iran seemingly moves forward with its nuclear ambitions, one can only hope that Kennedy’s optimism for the “immortality” of the Jewish State was not misplaced.