JFK, the Forgotten Zionist

We could use a conservative, ardently Israel-supporting Democrat like JFK today, when his party has retreated so far from his vision.

John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy Wikipedia

The hottest book on John F. Kennedy, as the 50th anniversary of his assassination approaches, turns out to be a biography making the case that the 35th president of America was a conservative — and also an ardent ally of Israel.

“JFK, Conservative” was written by Ira Stoll, a friend and long-time colleague who was managing editor of both the Forward and the New York Sun. I read the book with special interest because even during my own transition to the conservative cause I’ve often described myself as an admirer of JFK’s political views.

Some years ago, the Chicago Tribune quoted me as calling myself a “Kennedy liberal.” I wrote its editor to clarify “that the Kennedy in question was JFK — i.e., I am a hawk on Vietnam, want an activist foreign policy, support the gold standard, favor supply-side tax cuts and believe in aggressive federal support for civil rights short of quotas.”

Had Stoll’s book been at hand, I might have included a reference to a speech the future president gave on June 14, 1947. It was the speech in which JFK announced his conviction that a “just solution [in the Middle East] requires the establishment of a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth in Palestine, the opening of the doors of Palestine to Jewish immigration, and the removal of land restrictions, so that those members of the people of Israel who desire to do so may work out their destiny under their chosen leaders in the land of Israel.”

An email last week from Stoll reminds that when Kennedy ran for president in 1960, his campaign issued a book, “The Strategy of Peace,” containing his foreign policy speeches. “Let it be clear that we will never turn our back on our steadfast friends in Israel, whose adherence to the democratic way must be admired by all friends of freedom,” Kennedy wrote.

Of Mandatory Palestine, he wrote: “The land without a people waited for the people without a land.” Astonishing that Kennedy was using such Zionist language half a year before Partition and a year before the declaration of the Jewish state.

As president, Stoll relates in his book, JFK launched a military build-up of the kind that is frowned upon by Democrats today. He also approved the sale to Israel of Hawk surface-to-air missiles. Stoll quotes the author of a book on the American-Israel alliance under Kennedy, Warren Bass, as describing the sale of Hawks as “perhaps the most underappreciated milestone in the U.S.-Israel special relationship.”

Stoll tells me that “while the Hawk sale has been widely reported, a more secret sale may have been more consequential for Israel’s security.” He learned about it after his book was published via a call from Morris Amitay, a former executive of AIPAC, who, during the Kennedy administration, had been a young American diplomat in Italy when he stumbled upon a shipment of tanks.

Amitay, Stoll says, “mentioned it in a weekly air-gram, and a more senior diplomat called him in and told him to destroy any notes about the matter and forget about it.” Amitay later learned that in 1963 Kennedy had quietly authorized the sale of 400 M-48 Patton tanks to Israel, where the weapons were used to Israel’s advantage in the Six Day War.

That support for Israel, Stoll reports, is vibrant today in both the Kennedy family and the Massachusetts Jewish community that coached the young JFK. On Yom Kippur this year, he says, Robbert Kennedy’s grandson, Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III, talked in synagogue about making a visit to the Jewish state arranged through AIPAC.

Stoll’s book is an important reminder of how much we could use a Democrat like JFK today — to coach the leaders of the party at a time when the Democrats have strayed from the vision of the 35th president. They have become too often tribunes of retreat in a global war in which the foes of Israel and America aim to seize the ground they were denied in Kennedy’s time.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun, published in print between 2002 and 2008 and is now online at www.nysun.com . He is a veteran of the Wall Street Journal, where he was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board. He was the founding editor of The Forward and editor between 1990 and 2000. His books include “The Citizen’s Constitution: An Annotated Guide” and, most recently, “The Rise of Abraham Cahan.”