JFK in the Land of Milk and Honey

The 21-year-old Kennedy left Palestine more pro-British than when he arrived.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

In March 1939 the Kennedy family attended the coronation ceremony of Pope Pius XII. Joseph P. Kennedy was then the U.S. ambassador to London, and his son John a student at Harvard University. Following the ceremony, the father sent his son off on a study tour of Europe and also Palestine.

Ambassador Kennedy had followed the London talks between representatives of the Zionist movement and of the Arab world in the late 1930s; the discussions did not yield any results and Britain decided to impose an arrangement of its own on the two sides. It took the form of the White Paper, issued on May 17, 1939.

President John F. Kennedy would later recount that he was in Palestine on that day. He was then just shy of his 22nd birthday, and at the end of his tour, he sent his father a four-page letter, which has been posted on the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library website: "[Y]ou undoubtedly, if I know the Jews, know the 'whole' story," JFK wrote, apparently insinuating the troublesomeness of the Zionist lobbyists, while attempting to give his father a comprehensive picture of the situation.

He begins by detailing the historic background of the conflict, and adopts in full the thesis regarding the country that was promised twice: once to the Arabs, in the famous McMahon letters, and once to the Jews, in the Balfour Declaration. Both were vague documents that contradicted each other.

The Jews had bought 15 percent of Palestine's lands. That was in Kennedy's opinion a bad investment from an economic standpoint, because the return was minuscule; for their part, the Arabs were naturally afraid the Jews would dominate the country, both numerically and economically. Both sides did not agree to the 1937 partition plan proposed by the Palestine Royal Commission, and thus emerged the White Paper policy, which was supposed to establish a binational state in Palestine within a decade.

His visit to Palestine led Kennedy to reach a clear conclusion: that a binational state "just won't work," because the Arabs and Jews do not want it to work. He explains: The Jews see the Zionist dream collapsing and fear a halt in the donations they receive from abroad. The Arabs reject the White Paper plan because the timetable for its implementation has been left open, and because it does not prevent a continued influx of Jews. But these and others are merely the formal objections, Kennedy writes. Both sides do not make public their real reasons, he adds: The Jews want complete control of the Land of Milk and Honey, with Jerusalem as their capital. They want to settle in Trans-Jordan as well. The Arabs object to the scheme because it does not permit the mufti, who had been abroad since 1937, to return from exile.

Theoretically, the British plan is just and fair, Kennedy writes his father, but what is just and fair is less important than what can actually be implemented. He says he had never seen two groups more unwilling to work out an agreement than the Jews and the Arabs. The problem is further complicated by internal disagreements among the Jews and among the Arabs alike. Among the Jews there are ultra-Orthodox, who reject all compromise, and there are others who aspire to a very liberal country - with an "almost communistic form of government."

As for the Arabs, JFK explains, most are fed up with the whole business, which is making their lives hell economically, but the mufti's standing is so strong that no arrangement is imaginable that does not ensure his return. An impossible situation has been created. Only one way is open to the British: Wait a while, announce that they did their best, and then impose on Palestine an arbitrary partition into two autonomous entities; Jerusalem would remain an independent unit.

The letter does not bear a precise date, but it is possible to guess when Kennedy was in Jerusalem because during his last night there, he informs his father, 13 bombs went off in the city. He writes that this was the work of Jewish terrorists and was intended to damage the telephone lines. He may have been referring to the underground Irgun militia's operation on June 8, 1939. He saw an ironic aspect to it: "The Jewish terrorists bomb their own telephone lines and electric connections and the next day frantically phone the British to come and fix them up."

Kennedy left Palestine more pro-British than when he arrived: "The men on the spot are doing a good job," he writes in the letter, adding that most of them are sympathetic to the Arabs. This occurs "naturally" not only because unfortunately some of the Jewish leaders display arrogant and uncompromising positions toward them, but also because the British feel that for centuries this has been the Arabs' country and they have no right to give it to someone else.

It would appear that Kennedy's first visit to Palestine shaped his basic positions on the Israeli-Arab conflict. In 1947 he supported the UN partition plan, and when it seemed like the United States was backing away from it, he scolded President Truman. A few months before Israel declared independence, John Kennedy's brother Robert visited Palestine; he came as a journalist and summed up his impressions in a series of articles.

JFK came for a second visit in 1951, as part of a delegation of members of Congress. He was lavish in his praise of Israel. Involvement in politics had taught him to say whatever his Jewish constituents in Massachusetts wanted to hear. He backed the provision of financial aid to help the country absorb new immigrants, condemned discrimination against Jews in the Soviet Union and later, following the Sinai Campaign, opposed the American threat to impose sanctions on Israel. As president he carefully navigated his way between Gamal Abdel Nasser and David Ben-Gurion - and heard gripes from both of them.

March 1939, a 22-year-old John Kennedy and father leave for Paris. Credit: Getty Images



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