Four pages, typewritten. Analytical. Discerning of a situation so complex, not much has changed in 75 years.
John F. Kennedy in Palestine.
On the eve of World War II, the future president visited the tortured little region on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and, just before leaving for Bucharest on the next leg of his journey, penned some thoughts to a father obsessed with every move of his sons. Assessing the volatile situation between Jews and Arabs, against the backdrop of the British Mandate, young Kennedy offered a clear description of what he’d seen, and it served as a first look; 12 years later he would go again, this time with brother Bobby.
The once-obscure letter—now housed at the John F. Kennedy Library—was found after an inquiry, by the late president’s personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, in 1965. In the single-spaced document, Kennedy begins with a somewhat cryptic greeting to his father, former ambassador Joe Kennedy:
“I thought I would write you my impressions on Palestine while they were still fresh in my mind, though you undoubtedly, if I know the Jews, know the ‘whole’ story. It is worth while looking at it in its entirety.”
One can see, from reading the cool reporting style, Kennedy indeed would have made a fine journalist. He often told reporters this was his career of choice, before family destiny pushed him to the pinnacle of power.
Offering a fairly balanced view of the claims of both the Jews and the Arabs for statehood in Palestine, Kennedy left no doubt that he thought the Jews would far out-class the Arabs in terms of agricultural production and industry. Yet he allowed that the Arabs also had legitimate rights in the land. He also noted that the notorious British “White Paper,” limiting Jewish immigration when European Jewry was almost literally being pushed into hell, “just won’t work.”
Kennedy also noted that the Grand Mufti, then in exile in Syria, wanted to return to Palestine but was prevented from doing so. Of course, we now know that dark page from history was close to being read; Husseini’s infamous visit to see Hitler—when both discussed a solution to the “Jewish problem”—came only a few years before Israel was established.
Speaking of Israel’s independence in 1948, it is also worth noting Kennedy’s return trip, in 1951. A very smart investment by their father saw the brothers tour the globe, picking up valuable insights that would serve them well a mere decade later. Although their father was a notorious anti-Semite, the younger Kennedys expressed admiration for the fledgling Jewish state. In a compilation of JFK’s speeches and papers, A Strategy of Peace, published in the pivotal year of 1960, he noted what some have described as heartfelt impressions of Israel:
“Israel is the bright light now shining in the Middle East. We, and ultimately Israel’s neighbors, have much to learn from this center of democratic illumination, of unprecedented economic development, of human pioneering and intelligence and perseverance.
“In 1939 I first saw Palestine, then an unhappy land under alien rule, and to a large extent then a barren land. In the words of Israel Zangwill: ‘The land without a people waited for the people without a land.’ In 1951, I traveled again to the land by the River Jordan, to see firsthand the new State of Israel. The transformation that had taken place was hard to believe.
“For in those twelve years, a nation had been born, a desert had been reclaimed, and the most tragic victims of World War II—the survivors of the concentration camps and the ghettos—had found a home.
“The survival and success of Israel and its peaceful acceptance by the other nations of the Middle East is essential.”
Robert Kennedy had similar good things to say about Israel, and one wonders how the two would have handled America’s role in the Six Day War. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, told the Israelis—then confronted by an existential threat in the form of Egypt and her allies—to essentially stand-down, as America would take care of things for her.
History didn’t play out that way, we now know. In the glimmer offered by the letters and speeches of the thoughtful young man, and later president, we see a true spirit of friendship between America and Israel.
John F. Kennedy saw Israel through a glass, darkly, but one with a ray of light at the end.
The admiration was mutual.