Last week marked the centenary of J.F.K., the 35th president of the United States. Because of his life being cut short by an assassin, because we choose to remember his 1,037 days as president as a twentieth century Camelot, it behooves us to take a look at his life in relationship to Israel.
While so many American Jews of today’s generation have come to expect our President to involve himself in the Middle East, particularly by standing behind Israel as well as attempting to initiate some sort of peace plan, it ought to be kept in mind that similar efforts have been in place for well over half a century.
J.F.K. launched two (unsuccessful) initiatives aimed at brokering peace between Israel and its neighbors; this was before Arab claims over east Jerusalem, the West Bank and “refugees redux.” J.F. K. sent personal letters to the heads of all the Arab governments, offering the services of the United States as an “honest broker” to help them establish peaceful relations between themselves and the then-nascent Jewish State. J.F.K. also dispatched emissaries to seek a solution to “one of the key obstacles to peace,” the refugee problem.
Jewish attachment to the “shmatte business” (literally rag business, but also covers the clothing trade and the textile industry) served Israel well. Back in the late 1950s, Israel began to construct a nuclear power plant in Dimona, a city south of Be’er Sheva. It was one of Israel’s “best kept” secrets, known to all including the American government. (Yes, Americans spy on Israel and vice versa.) When confronted by the (outgoing) Eisenhower administration, Israel explained that the site was a textile plant. The Kennedy administration was neither mollified nor amused. Instead, Israel’s Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion was denied an invitation to the White House (J.F.K. met with Ben Gurion at the Waldorf Astoria) in May 1961. The Kennedy administration was not prepared to turn a blind eye. In a personal letter dated May 18, 1963, J.F.K. issued the following ultimatum: “Either Israel allows American inspectors to visit the site, or Israel finds itself totally isolated politically.” Within a month, David Ben Gurion resigned from the position of leadership; within half a year, J.F.K. was felled by an assassin. To be sure, the United States would continue to pressure Israel, but with a new Prime Minister (Levi Eshkol) and a new president, “the times, they were a-changin’.”
Most American Jews believe that L.B.J. was the first president to sell arms to Israel. While L.B.J. was truly magnanimous in seeing to it that Prime Minister Eshkol was able to check off all items on the “shopping list” when he visited the United States in January 1968, it was J.F.K. who agreed to sell Israel Hawk surface-to-air missiles in August 1962. Dismissing advice from the State Department that the sale of Hawks might trigger an arms race in the Middle East, the President followed the recommendation of the Department of Defense, that selling the Hawk missiles to Israel would offset recent deliveries to Arab states by the Soviet Union.
The Hebrew word Yad is a homonym. In addition to the well-known meaning “hand,” yad also means memorial. (I will give them… yad vashem – a memorial and a name far greater than sons or daughters could give. Isaiah 56:5.) On July 4th 1966, Yad Kennedy, the Kennedy Memorial in the shape of a felled tree, was dedicated in memory of the slain president. My impression is that Yad Kennedy is typically not on the itinerary of most American tourists to Israel. But it should be – especially this year. I can think of no better way of recognizing the centenary of the birth of this nation’s 35th president.