November 22, 1963: The Day LBJ Sent Emissaries to Kill All the Jews in the World

At my Jewish school in L.A., the news of Kennedy’s assassination sparked mass hysteria in anticipation of what was sure to follow: a pogrom against the Jews.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

I was 10 when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot, and like many other people around the globe who are old enough, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing on that fateful day: sitting in a fifth grade class at a Jewish elementary school in Los Angeles, where pandemonium soon broke out.

Our teacher walked in, teary eyed and ashen faced, mumbling the words “terrible” and “crazy” and “Kennedy” and “shot”. Then one of her colleagues burst into class, stepped up to our teacher, hugged her and started sobbing her own unintelligible sentences. Realizing that something truly terrible must have happened, our teachers’ wails soon infected each and every one of the 30-odd boys and girls in the class. In a few short minutes, the entire room was engulfed in an ungodly howl that remains permanently etched in my memory.

I was an Israeli child living temporarily in the U.S., and was possibly less prepared for the mass Jewish hysteria that quickly overtook the entire school. Outside the door, grown ups were running up and down, shouting, crying, setting the scene for a dramatic climax which may have been a prank, for all I know, or the product of an unusually feverish imagination:

“Lyndon Johnson has already sent emissaries around the world to kill all the Jews,” someone shouted, and utter mayhem broke out. We knew that there was nowhere to hide, no chance of escape.

Of course, most of us had no idea who Lyndon Johnson was, nor why, exactly, he would want to start his tenure as president by killing all the Jews. Our resident class know-it-all immediately volunteered that the incoming President was from Texas, information that was somehow accepted as reason enough. Given that the world had obviously gone crazy and that everyone knew that Jews were always the first to suffer, it didn’t seem too farfetched to freak out over an approaching Johnsonian pogrom.

Our parents were rushed to school to pick us up and mine told me later that the sight of frantic and shrieking Jewish children streaming out into the street was no less frightening than the news reports coming out of Dallas. But when I looked at the usually bustling Beverly Boulevard in West Hollywood, I could see that we Jewish kids weren’t alone: cars were parked at odd angles in the middle of the street, their drivers sitting in them listlessly, listening to the radio, while others stood on the sidewalks, bawling their eyes out, mumbling words, seeking solace.

It was like a scene from one of our favorite science fiction movies, “The Day The Earth Stood Still” and even if my own parents were in denial, it was clear to me that life as we knew it was over.

Kennedy, after all, was our unanimous hero and absolute king. Soon after arriving in the U.S. a few years earlier, I was swept away by my Jewish schoolmates’ unabashed worship of the young, suave, sophisticated and non-Waspish Kennedy who was adored by their parents’ as well.

In those days, fifth grade boys were well versed in current events, relatively speaking, especially after the previous years’ incessant nuclear drills, before the Cuban missile crisis, in which we were assured by our teachers that hiding under wooden desks in class is a foolproof way of withstanding both the blast of an atomic bomb and the after effects of its nuclear fallout. Kennedy, we all knew, had stood up to the Soviets and saved the day, and now we he was gone.

My next memories are of watching the live broadcasts of Kennedy’s moving funeral in Washington and, more significantly, of my mother holding her hand to her mouth and gasping as we both witnessed Jack Ruby murdering Lee Harvey Oswald on live television. It wasn’t clear what had shocked her more: the killing itself or the fact that it was somehow taking place in our living room at the exact same time that it was unfolding at police headquarters in Dallas.

Many millions of words have been written in the past 50 years by the learned and the less learned about the momentous impact of Kennedy’s assassination on Western civilization and the course of human history. My conclusions, however, were clear and straightforward and have stayed with me for life: 1. Nothing should be taken for granted 2. Terrible things can and do happen and 3. They are kind of exciting to watch (and report on).

And apologies, of course, to LBJ, who turned out to be quite a good friend of the Jews.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev

President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson walk in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, Nov 22, 1963.

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