Few heads of state anywhere have ever been so accessible to their Jewish fellow-citizens and so informed and concerned over problems involving the Jewish people as was John F. Kennedy, thirty-fifth President of the United States.
President Kennedy sought to surround himself with the most able, the most talented and the most informed aides and advisors. He appointed two Jews to his first Cabinet–the first time that two Jews had ever served simultaneously in the Cabinet. There were Jewish members on his personal White House staff and through them, as well as through other channels, the President kept informed on Jewish and Israeli developments. A member of his staff disclosed publicly that Jewish Telegraphic Agency news dispatches were frequently studied by the President in his desire to be informed of all facets of a given situation.
Mr. Kennedy’s right as a Roman Catholic to serve in the presidency was strongly backed by the American Jewish community. He affirmatively asserted minority rights. Before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, he asked; “Are we going to admit to the world that a Jew can be elected Mayor of Dublin, a Protestant can be chosen Foreign Minister of France, a Moslem can serve in the Israeli Parliament–but a Catholic cannot be President of the United States.”
In line with his desire to appoint officials on a basis of merit, without regard to their religion, Mr. Kennedy named a considerable number of Jews to high office. Among the best known are Arthur Goldberg, first named as Secretary of Labor and now serving as a Supreme Court Justice, and Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, of Connecticut, who served as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.
WAS TO APPEAR AT JEWISH DINNER IN NEW YORK NEXT WEEK
Consistent with his longtime interest in a fair immigration policy, Mr. Kennedy sought revision of the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act and termination of the discriminatory national origins quota system.
Mr. Kennedy received many awards and honors from Jewish organizations. Perhaps the best publicized occasion occurred when the anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith presented him with “America’s Democratic Legacy Award’ on a nationally televised program. He then asserted the role of immigrants of all faiths and origins in building America.
More recently, he sent a warm greeting to Philip M. Klutznick, who had served him as Ambassador to the United Nations. This was on the occasion of a Chicago dinner honoring Mr. Klutznick, former national B’nai B’rith president, on the 120th anniversary of B’nai B’rith. The President wanted to attend the affair personally but could not and asked his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to represent him in Chicago. Mr. Klutznick was one of the President’s close friends.
President Kennedy was to have been the guest of honor at the 18th annual dinner of the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science in New York on December 5.
Only a day before his assassination, the President displayed pleasure with Jewish efforts on behalf of civil rights and racial integration. In his last known message on this subject, Mr. Kennedy told Rabbi Oscar Groner, assistant national director of the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundations, that he felt a national conference of college youth to implement civil rights ideals was “inspiring and useful.” He expressed hope that the rabbi’s experiences would advance the “goals of equal treatment and equal opportunity for all Americans.” Rabbi Groner had helped organize the interfaith student leadership conference on religion and race held in Washington.
WATCHED SOVIET ACTS AGAINST JEWS; DENOUNCED ANTI-SEMITISM
It was for the positions he had held and the measures he had taken on international questions of concern to Jewry, including matters affecting Israel, that President Kennedy was best known to most Jews.
Mr. Kennedy favored American ratification of the United Nations Convention on Genocide and was seeking action by the Senate.
In one of his last meetings with Jewish leaders, Mr. Kennedy told a delegation representing the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. that he was troubled about the rise of Soviet anti-Semitism. Shortly thereafter, he inserted a condemnation of the Soviet enforced closure of synagogues into a speech before the United Nations.
The President was also responsive earlier in his Administration to reports of anti-Semitism abroad. He authorized the Alliance for Progress and Agency for International Development to make known his displeasure of anti-Jewish terrorism in Argentina and Uruguay.
ASSURED AID TO ISRAEL; SOUGHT TO BRING PEACE TO MIDDLE EAST
President Kennedy was deeply concerned over the future of Israel and the question of peace in the Middle East. Although their points of view sometimes differed from those of the President on specific policies, Israelis and their supporters here universally
Mr. Kennedy’s interest in Israel went back many years to his younger days when he visited the land, then mandated Palestine. By his actions as a Senator and a Presidential candidate, even before his election, Mr. Kennedy made clear his support of Israel. He said we will never turn our back on our steadfast friends in Israel, whose adherence to the democratic way must be admired by all friends of freedom.”
Revealing his thinking in 1960, Mr. Kennedy said “the United States has helped Israel–but we have also been the beneficiary…the strongest army in the Middle East is not a pawn to be lightly cast aside.”
In the view he expressed then, it “twists reality” to suggest that Israel is to blame for Near Eastern tensions. He said that “even by the coldest calculations, the removal of Israel would not alter the basic crisis in that area… although Arab States are generally united in opposition to Israel, their political unities have not risen above this essentially negative position.”
Mr. Kennedy contrasted Israel’s progress with Arab decadence, stating that the United States “can itself profitably study what has been done in Israel–particularly in the fields of education and science.”
Mr. Kennedy viewed American-Israel relations as a subject of such close personal interest that he did not rely exclusively on the Department of State, He designated a trusted White House aide, Deputy Special Counsel Myer Feldman, to maintain a daily watch on Israeli developments.
ORDERED SALE OF ANTI-AIRCRAFT MISSILES TO ISRAEL ON LIBERAL TERMS
The Kennedy Administration found itself frequently in the situation described by Maimonides, dispensing a higher degree of charity–the anonymous variety. The White House could not take public credit for many pro-Israel or pro-Jewish actions, disclosure of which might have provoked Arab attacks and complicated American diplomacy in Arab capitals.
President Kennedy preferred to keep the reins on Middle East policy-making as close as he could to the White House. He overrode State Department objections and ordered the sale of “Hawk” anti-aircraft missiles, on liberal terms, to Israel. He took note of the Egyptian build-up with Soviet weapons and publicly deplored the role of ex-Nazi rocket scientists in Egypt.
Following a memorable meeting in New York on May 30, 1961, with former Israeli Premier David Ben-Gurion, Mr. Kennedy told his personal confidantes how deeply impressed he was by Ben-Gurion and the Israeli cause. Mr. Ben-Gurion on that occasion had stressed the danger of President Nasser’s ambitions, the rocket menace and the problem of continued Arab intransigence.
Mr. Kennedy personally intervened with King Saud of Saudi Arabia during the latter’s visit to Washington in the Spring of 1962. The President told the King that the anti-Jewish ban imposed by Saudi Arabia was an American domestic matter in that it discriminated unfairly against a section of American citizenry. It was not just a foreign policy issue linked with Israel when American citizens were banned from a “friendly” nation merely because of their religion, in Mr. Kennedy’s view.
This led to a firm policy this year resulting in the stationing in Saudi Arabia of new American armed force units which included Americans of Jewish faith. Pressures were also brought to bear to get certain Arab states to lift restrictions against visa applicants of Jewish faith.
Under Mr. Kennedy’s direction, loans to Israel were provided by the United States Government at low interest to help Israel’s economic consolidation.
Although some American diplomats urged the President to invite President Nasser of the United Arab Republic to Washington when the latter attended the United Nations sessions in New York, the White House view was that such honor to Nasser was inappropriate. He was never invited.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.