Fifty Years After JFK’s Assassination, Have We Learned Anything?

The key to a better future may lie in the distinction between how Jews mark tragedies and how American society does so.

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It’s November 22, 1963. I am almost 11 years old, a sixth grader at the Kensington-Johnson Elementary School in Great Neck, New York. My mother picks up my friend David and me from school early. We drive home in our green Ford sedan and stop in the driveway of our home. We sit there for a while, listening to the radio of the unfolding news of the president’s assassination. I’m young, but I understand what’s going on. I have been inspired by President John F. Kennedy; in particular, his message of taking personal responsibility to make America and the world better for ourselves and future generations.

Five years later, it’s 1968. I am now a teenager. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated and two months later Senator Robert “Bobby” Kennedy is too. King’s oratory, his “I have a dream” speech, and Bobby’s clarity of moral vision galvanized me. Both men’s empathy for those less fortunate, for righting inequality, motivated me to want to become a better human being.

It is now decades later. I am a man, a father and a rabbi. In the aftermath of these assassinations, I reflect on the world that ensued without them. Violence at the national level has continued with an attempt first on the life of President Gerald Ford and then on President Ronald Reagan. As the security around public figures has tightened, schoolchildren, government workers, shopping mall customers, and far too many other victims have all become random target practice for shooters with automatic weapons. What was once unimaginable has become the new horrific norm.

Had these three great leaders lived, history - America’s in particular - could have been different: kinder, perhaps, more open and understanding. I believe our loss is immeasurable; because of who these leaders were, their ideas, their compassionate visions of a better world, and how they inspired a generation, speaking to each of our hearts.

The assassins, who turned our optimism to despair were all driven by destructive hatred. President John F. Kennedy was killed by a disillusioned communist, perhaps as part of a conspiracy. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed by a southern racist. Robert Kennedy was killed by a Christian Arab who wanted to stop him, a year to the day after the Six Day War, from sending 50 bomber planes to Israel.

Tragically, our response to these acts provided no opportunity for a different or better future. We, the American people, disassociated ourselves from the crimes. The American ideal is the melting pot and these people don’t melt. They are loners. They are all somewhat “off.” They aren’t us. They are the “other.”

Documentary director Michael Moore was quoted by TMZ at Los Angeles International Airport, after Paul Ciancia opened fire on Transportation Security Administration workers there on November 1, killing one and injuring several other people:

"Nothing changes ... it's the country we live in," Moore said ... "Legally purchased gun, bullets."

"There's a reason why this doesn't happen in Canada, in Ireland, in France ... they have the occasional craziness, but it's not on a weekly or monthly basis."

"I think the NRA they got it half-right when they say 'Guns don't kill people, people kill people.' I change it to 'Guns don't kill people, Americans kill people.'"


Judaism has an answer.

In the Torah, when a person is found murdered outside of the city and the perpetrator is unknown, the elders of the community are required to make a declaration that “our hands have not spilled this blood” (Deuteronomy 21, verses 1-9). The notion that these sage leaders are under suspicion is almost absurd. The 16th century commentator The Maharal of Prague explains that the murder might not have happened had the victim been escorted, that when we accompany a stranger along his way, G-d affords us all an extra measure of protection. True leadership means taking responsibility when evil happens and taking steps to prevent reoccurrence; in this case, showing the way and providing extra care for the other.

After two days of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we celebrate a Fast Day, Tzom Gedaliah. The refraining from eating and drinking is neither a diet after two days of feasting, nor preparation for Yom Kippur. After the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and burned the First Temple, he appointed a Jew, Gedaliah, as governor of the new province of Judah. Yishmael ben Netaniah, for political reasons, assassinated Gedaliah. Over 2,000 years later, we remember with fasting and introspection. Of all the righteous murdered throughout Jewish history, why do we focus on this event and why during a time of personal tshuva, reflection and return?

I believe the answer is that, as with the unattended victim, there is communal responsibility that is integral to the process of internal reflection, correction of sin, which is a precondition to preventing future evil; in this case, acts of violence.

On November 5, 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jew. In the aftermath of the Oslo Accords, Israel was polarized left and right, with extreme threats, Jew against Jew, with words that should never be spoken. At the time, the assassin, Yigal Amir, and the political right camp that nurtured him were blamed. But, over time, a different response evolved because we as a nation were ashamed. The tone of public discourse that once incited hatred and violence across Israeli society was toned down and turned toward tolerance and understanding.

In America, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Presidents Day celebrate birthdays with public holidays. In Judaism, we mark the yahrtzeit, the day a person dies. In Hebrew, yahrtzeit is a yom hazikaron, remembrance day. The 12th of Marchesvan, the Hebrew date of Rabin’s assassination, is Yom Hazikaron le-Yitzhak Rabin. On it, we as a country remember his life, but also reflect on the cause of his death and, in its aftermath, our communal responsibility to make Israel a more civil and compassionate society. The Jewish ideal is, as stated in the Talmud, “All Israel is responsible for one another” (Tractate Shavuot 39a).

Dr. Beverly Gribetz, principal of the Tehilla – Evelina de Rothschild public high school for girls in Jerusalem, describes the observance of the day and the message:

“For the last few years we have hosted a panel discussion which has emphasized listening to different points of view - either in the political or religious sphere. We invite women in public life so that the girls can see role models who hold significant positions and who can argue an opinion while listening respectfully to ‘the other’.”

I am not so naïve as to reduce the solution to the complex problem of gun violence to talking respectfully. But, it’s a start for all of us, beginning with our leaders, to feel shame and take responsibility. We need to create and practice a common language of compassion; to really listen and give a voice to the other, particularly our children.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.

A December 2, 1963 issue of Newsweek Magazine shows the cover featuring coverage of President John F. Kennedy's assassination.Credit: AFP

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