John F. Kennedy and the Jewish Community

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more post by Marvin, click here. 

That November day, the one we can’t forget, was exceptionally pleasant in Chicago with temperatures in the 60s.  Most of us at Caldwell Elementary went home everyday for lunch, so by 12:45 we were walking back to the building.  Some of us had heard the breaking news, others had not.  On the corner – even as fifth-graders -we began to ask questions that have endured for fifty years – “how could this have happened?”, “what does this mean?”.

This week it seems that every night brings another documentary or drama on the life of President Kennedy and the tragedy of that November.  It is hard to imagine that there is much to add.

But I thought that this might be a moment to reflect on the special relationship between John F. Kennedy and the Jewish community…a relationship that is all the more unusual for the fact that Kennedy’s father was an active proponent of the appeasement of Hitler and widely reviled among Jews as being overtly anti-Semitic.

Anti-Defamation League Award Dinner for President John F. Kennedy, seated at the main table, in Washington, D.C. January 31, 1963. Photo by Cecil Stoughton.
Anti-Defamation League Award Dinner for President John F. Kennedy, seated at the main table, in Washington, D.C. January 31, 1963. Photo by Cecil Stoughton.

It’s estimated that JFK won about 80% of the Jewish vote in the 1960 election.  He had worked hard to cultivate support of the community on both domestic and international issues.  He expressed empathy with the Jewish struggle for a political voice in America which he equated with the Irish American struggle for full political acceptance.

For example, when he was still a US Senator in 1957, here’s how he introduced then Connecticut governor, Abraham Ribicoff to the Massachusetts Democratic Convention:

Exactly one hundred years ago, in the political campaign of 1856, a new element was introduced into American politics – a secret party – secret because its members were instructed to reply, whenever they were asked about the party’s policies, “I know nothing”. But the objectives of the Know-Nothing Party, as it was called, were not secret – it was an anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant organization. It was the party of bigotry and intolerance of the American people. The Democratic Party, I am proud to say, met that challenge head-on – declaring in its convention platform its unending opposition to secret parties and religious and national intolerance, as not “in unison with the spirit of enlightened freedom which distinguishes the American system of popular government.”

Leaving aside the odd reference to the Democratic Party of 1856 as a model of enlightened freedom (the party nominates James Buchanan and it’s platform opposes all “agitation” against slavery and the enforcement of the fugitive slave law), Kennedy clearly sees Jews and Catholics as having common cause in a society where anti-immigrant forces have continually sought to undermine their success.  As president, Kennedy would make some very prominent appointments of Jewish Americans, including former Governor Ribicoff as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and Arthur Goldberg as Justice of the Supreme Court.

Kennedy was also seen as an early and strong supporter of the state of Israel.  I found this photo online of a very young Congressman Kennedy with Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion. and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. taken in Jerusalem in 1951.  While Richard Nixon, was the first President to visit Israel while in office, JFK is the first US President to have visited Israel before taking office.

David Ben-Gurion, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., and Congressman John Kennedy. It was taken in Ben-Gurion's Jerusalem home in early October 1951.
David Ben-Gurion, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., and Congressman John Kennedy. It was taken in Ben-Gurion’s Jerusalem home in early October 1951.

In November 1956, Senator Kennedy came to Baltimore to speak to the annual banquet of the Histadrut Zionist Organization.  His remarks laid out an agenda for more active US involvement in the Middle East:

The future of the Middle East is far from clear. But it is clear, in my opinion, that its future will be based upon the interrelation of these seven factors — its strategic position, its oil, increase in Communist influence, economic and social problems, Arab nationalism, Egypt and Israel. No nation can neglect or forget any of these seven factors in formulating future policies in the Middle East — particularly the United States. There was a time, not so long ago, when our primary concerns abroad were with Europe and the Far East. Even last summer, at the time our policies in Suez were established, the Middle East was not looked upon as one of our primary interests. But now, I hope and I am sure, that view has changed.

As president, Kennedy would substantially increase the scope of America’s support for Israel’s defense.

Fifty years after that unforgettable November day, there has been a lot of revisionism.  It has become fashionable to downgrade the importance of the Kennedy administration and to put more attention on his frailties, as a human being and a leader.  Looking back from the 21st century that’s not hard to do.  But when you remember the reasons why so many people embraced this young president – when you remember what a departure he represented from the world of the 1940s and 1950s – then perhaps the high regard for JFK by the people who actually lived through that era is understandable.

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