Fifty years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Jews in America have little memory of JFK’s Jewish relationships. “JFK and the Jews” had little to do with the Jews, and everything to do with Israel. Looking back at his legacy, as the Nov. 22 anniversary nears, American Jews have good reasons, therefore, to mourn.
The story of JFK and Israel begins with Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower: during the Eisenhower years there was no Israel-U.S. relationship. It was the coldest period in the history of the countries’ ties — and that includes the Carter presidency.
Under Eisenhower, nothing of the full-blown alliance that Israel and the United States have enjoyed for decades — massive foreign aid, arms subsidies, security guarantees, coordination on regional strategy, political support, protective vetoes in the Security Council, positive rhetoric, congressional ardor, respect for the pro-Israel lobby — would develop. The exception, in terms of support for Israel, was congressional support — and Ike didn’t need Congress.
The Eisenhower foreign policy (in fact crafted by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles) — “The New Look,” as it was called — was based on maximum deterrence of Communism. The idea of bolstering friendly conservative Arab states, part of the “Eisenhower Doctrine” of regional pacts to combat Communism, a Dulles favorite, did not include Israel.
Further, Israel’s government was socialist, and it was not clear to anyone that Israel would not tilt in the Soviet direction. (Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in fact bucked his own socialist majority in the Knesset (63 seats out of 120) to align Israel with the West rather than remain “unaligned.”) And there was wariness about Israeli regional motives: Expansionism? Revanchism? Drive the Arabs out?
Eisenhower’s problem was Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser more than it was Israel. Nasser recognized Mao’s China and accepted Soviet arms, a major “no-no” for a Republican administration that had to protect its right political flank. But Ike protected Nasser, not because he loved him, but because he wanted to advance “containment” of the Soviet Union.
Said Middle East affairs analyst Steven Spiegel: “To Eisenhower, the Arabs offered assets — the Arab states were useful for ‘containment’ — while Israel constituted a liability to American interests.”
Further, Ike was a Republican, and Jews had been very visible in the New Deal, and in any case voted Democrat. (Eisenhower’s famous memo to Dulles: “We conduct our policy as if there were not one Jew in the country. They don’t vote for us anyway.” Ike wasn’t wrong.)
JFK in 1960 inherited a mess. He took over from the least sympathetic presidency in American history. The Middle East was a shambles: Britain was useless, Iraq was lost to the West, Egypt and Syria were in the Soviet orbit, conservative monarchs felt exposed and were nervous, Israel was jittery, there were threats of nuclear war — and Egypt and Israel were both in Washington’s bad graces.
With respect to Israel, Kennedy turned it around.
First, at bottom, he was not his father, Joseph Kennedy, around whom always wafted the odor of anti-Semitism. (My mom used to say about Joe Kennedy: “Anybody who was disliked by both the Zionists and the NAACP must have been doing something!”) Second, there was JFK’s brother, Bobby, one of Kennedy’s closest advisers, who had a true affinity for Israel, and who exercised a profound influence on JFK in Middle East affairs. The Kennedy brothers forged more than a relationship with Israel — they forged an alliance.
Once again, it was the State Department, this time under Dean Rusk, which was the problem, a most formidable bureaucratic opponent of rapprochement with Israel, and the most enthusiastic bureaucratic advocate of Egypt. The Middle East issues during Kennedy’s brief administration, 1961-1963, were Nasser, Nasser and Nasser, whom Kennedy detested. Nasser did everyone a favor by getting involved in an absurd war in Yemen — Nasser’s “Vietnam” — which led to a regional war involving the Saudis, and which enabled the U.S. to move closer to an all-out alliance with Israel, an alliance that was marked (to take but one example) by the first major arms sale to Israel.
Finally, and most important in shaping an administration stance on Israel, was a virtuosic analysis of Israeli policy done by the very able Walworth Barbour, Kennedy’s ambassador to Israel. Barbour concluded that Israel was not pursuing a revanchist policy with respect to the West Bank, whatever dreams they might harbor; that the only way there would be a West Bank problem that might trigger Israeli intervention — the West Bank was still part of Jordan in 1963 — would be the arrival of a Nasserite government in Jordan (there was no PLO in 1963); finally, there would be little the United States could do to prevent an Israeli strike if Israel felt that its existence was at stake. (This was in 1963, four years before the Six-Day War.)
The Barbour analysis became the backbone of U.S. policy. While it is true that there were limits to JFK’s friendliness toward Israel — indeed, no U.S. weapons went to Israel in substantial numbers until the Johnson presidency; it was France that was the major supplier to Israel weapons before LBJ — the Kennedy/Barbour construct became the paradigm for U.S. policy.
In sum, four features marked the stance of the Kennedy administration toward Israel:
♦ First, there was a completely new policy with respect to Israel, one that was poles apart from that of Eisenhower/Dulles. The policy had less to do with international geopolitical realities than with personal likes and dislikes, preferences and prejudices.
♦ Second, there were new, informal, decision-making structures in place, with protocols that did not rely on a hostile, “Arabist”-populated State Department.
♦ Third, no new Arab policy was put in place by JFK — other than the abomination of Nasser and the embrace of conservative Arab regimes.
♦ Finally, there was the continued inability to craft an approach toward settling the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But John Kennedy did more than just reach out to Israel; he crafted the first Arab-Israel policy, which entailed a balancing of regional rivalries and American ambitions. It was in this that JFK created the foundations of a U.S.-Israel relationship, which we remember 50 years after his passing.
Jerome A. Chanes, a regular contributor, is a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center, and is the author of four books on Jewish public affairs.