JFK: a breath of fresh air stifled
‘His career was as brilliant and promising as it was meteoric and short-lived. His advent seemed to usher in a new era flashing a ray of hope to a darkened world. He faced the desperate problems of our age with courage, with youthful vigour, with profound understanding and deep sympathy for the underprivileged, the disinherited and the oppressed.”
So spoke the American Zionist leader, Emanuel Neumann, days after the assassination of President John Kennedy. For Jews of a certain age, that expression of hope and grief has never faded. Today is exactly 50 years since the killing — and we all know where we were on hearing that unimaginable news.
Memorial services were held in synagogues in all parts of Britain. At St. Johns’ Wood Synagogue, the chief rabbi, Israel Brodie, spoke and El Ma’ale Rahamim was intoned. In Israel, the radio played solemn music and schools devoted special assemblies to the life of the president. Israel’s president, Zalman Shazar, and his Foreign Minister, Golda Meir, attended the funeral and the requiem mass at St Matthew’s Cathedral.
A few hours after the assassination, a distraught Jack Ruby who would later kill the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had attended a Friday-evening memorial service at Temple Shearith Israel, in Dallas.
Kennedy’s father, the US ambassador to wartime Britain, disliked Jews, sought to meet Hitler during the Battle of Britain and was regarded as an appeaser and defeatist.
The sons were different. Kennedy’s brother Bobby visited Palestine during the war of 1948 and compared the struggle of the Israelis to that of the Irish in fighting for independence. JFK visited Israel in 1951 and pressed the Eisenhower administration to lift the US arms embargo following the Soviet-Egyptian arms agreement in 1955.
He sought and won the support of US Jews
When JFK decided to seek the presidency, he met 30 Jewish community leaders at Manhattan’s Pierre Hotel who grilled him. Kennedy stood his ground. He was a new type of candidate, intellectual and articulate.
During the election campaign, 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 Muslim can serve in the Israeli parliament – but a Catholic cannot be President of the United States?” This statement communicated — and 82 per cent of American Jews voted for him.
Moreover, JFK asserted the rights of minorities during the civil-rights struggle. The identification of an overwhelming majority of American Jews to end the segregation of blacks in the South was deep and profound – it resonated with the experiences of their parents and grandparents. The day before his assassination, in a message to a Hillel rabbi, Kennedy acknowledged Jewish efforts on behalf of civil rights and racial integration. He also proposed legislation to abolish “national origins quotas” which built in discrimination into the issuing of immigration visas.
Kennedy was also the first American president to appoint an aide, Myer Feldman, to deal specifically with Jewish issues.
Even though recent research has inevitably stripped away the mythology of those times, the power of Kennedy’s acceptance speech rings down the decades and continues to inspire: “The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country… and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”
Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London