As the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination approaches on November 22, we Jews have our own special reasons to mourn.
The conventional community memory of Kennedy would be enough by itself. JFK overcame the legacy of his father, President Franklin Roosevelt’s notoriously appeasement-minded ambassador to Britain on the eve of World War II, Joseph Kennedy, to build a warm relationship with American Jews.
As Warren Bass recounted a decade ago in his book Support Any Friend, the U.S.-Israel alliance advanced significantly with JFK’s approval of the sale of HAWK — short for Homing All the Way Killer — missiles to Israel.
President Kennedy appointed Arthur Goldberg as labor secretary and then to the Supreme Court, Abraham Ribicoff as secretary of health, education and welfare, and Mortimer Caplin as internal revenue commissioner. Even a strangely large number of the gentiles in his administration had Jewish roots: Speechwriter Ted Sorensen was a self-described “Danish Russian Jewish Unitarian,” while Treasury secretary Douglas Dillon and White House aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr. both had Jewish immigrant grandfathers.
In the closing days of the 1960 campaign, Kennedy held separate rallies in New York’s garment district with David Dubinsky’s International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and with the rival Amalgamated Clothing Workers, which also was heavily Jewish.
In conducting research for my new book, JFK, Conservative, I came across two lesser-known pieces of evidence that shed new light on Kennedy’s positive views about the American Jewish community and the warmth of his relationship with it.
The first was a tape recording of a meeting between Kennedy and American civil rights leaders following the March on Washington in 1963. The Oval Office recording system became famous under Nixon, but it was active in the Kennedy years as well, and it captured some fascinating interactions.
With the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the White House following his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Kennedy launched into a discussion not of the need for federal civil rights legislation, but rather of what blacks could do to help themselves.
“Now, isn’t it possible for the Negro community to take the lead in committing major emphasis upon the responsibility of these families, even if they’re split and all the rest of the problems they have, on educating their children?” Kennedy asked/lectured. “Now, in my opinion, the Jewish community, which suffered a good deal under discrimination, and what a great effort they made, which I think has made their role influential, was in education: education of their children. And therefore they’ve been able to establish a pretty strong position for themselves.”
Kennedy added, “With all the influence that all you gentlemen have in the Negro community … [you] really have to concentrate on what I think the Jewish community has done on educating their children, on making them stay in school, and all the rest.”
For blacks, the president’s advice might have been good, patronizing, beside the point or all of the above. But for Jews, it encapsulated the way Kennedy admired them and saw them as a success story of American immigrant upward mobility.
An example of that trajectory was the Jewish attorney Lewis Weinstein, who built a close relationship with Kennedy and is the source of the second piece of evidence.
Weinstein had been born in Lithuania in 1905. He had come to America when he was 15-months-old, graduated from Harvard and its law school, served in the army on Eisenhower’s staff during World War II, and had returned to become a partner at the Boston law firm of Foley, Hoag, and Eliot.
One day in the summer of 1946, Weinstein’s partner Thomas Eliot, whose grandfather Charles had been president of Harvard, walked into Weinstein’s office and said, “Lou, meet Jack Kennedy.” From this classic Boston political moment — the Brahmin lawyer introducing the Irish Catholic politician to a Jewish partner who could help him raise campaign contributions — an enduring relationship began.
The relationship came into play later when the plight of Soviet Jewry was starting to emerge as a concern for American Jews. And this particular anecdote is at least a partial corrective to the claim in Gal Beckerman’s well-received 2010 history When They Come for Us We’ll Be Gone, that Soviet Jewry “was an issue that John F. Kennedy ignored.”
It is true that American Jewish organizations were rebuffed when they tried the usual route — having friendly members of Congress contact the State Department. The assistant secretary of state for congressional relations, Frederick Dutton, sent Senator Keating of New York a long letter acknowledging that Russian synagogues had been closed and Jewish cemeteries desecrated as part of “the long-term Soviet campaign against religion generally,” but fretting that the American government could not do much about it.
“It is doubtful if further protestations would be helpful to the Jews in the Soviet Union,” the letter concluded.
But that was not the end of the story. Weinstein, as he later recounted in a little-noticed 1985 article for the journal American Jewish History, went to Robert Kennedy and succeeded in having a mention of the Soviet closing of synagogues included in President Kennedy’s September 1963 speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
Weinstein persuaded the president to have Averell Harriman raise the matter with Khrushchev during a Harriman’s negotiating mission to Moscow on arms control. And in a White House meeting with President Kennedy in November 1963, Weinstein, who was soon to take over as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, launched into a plea on the issue.
“You know, it’s getting pretty bad,” Weinstein said. “There are murder trials going on. They call them economic trials, but the defendant is always a Jew. He’s charged with black market [trading] or something else like that, he’s always convicted and executed. They’re murder trials, in which the defendant is murdered and not the murderer.”
Weinstein told Kennedy that Soviet authorities had closed the gates, slowing the flow of Jewish refugees out of Russia to a trickle. And he said no American president had intervened with the Russian authorities on behalf of the Jews since President Theodore Roosevelt had protested to Czar Nicholas II after the Kishinev massacre.
Kennedy replied: “Well, here’s one president who’s ready to do something.”
Kennedy told Weinstein to organize a conference in Washington about the Soviet Jewry issue. The president told Weinstein to schedule the meeting for sometime soon after Kennedy returned from an upcoming political trip to Dallas.
Ira Stoll is the author of JFK, Conservative, published this October by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He was managing editor of the Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post.