As the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination approaches, 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, Joseph Kennedy, FDR’s notoriously appeasement-minded ambassador to Britain, 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 took a big step forward with Kennedy’s approval of the sale of Hawk missiles to Israel.
JFK 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 IRS Commissioner. Even a strangely large number of non-Jews in the Kennedy 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 the rival, but also heavily Jewish, Amalgamated Clothing Workers.
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 African-Americans, 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 one Jew, Lewis Weinstein, who built a close relationship with Kennedy and who is the source of the second piece of evidence.
Weinstein was born in Lithuania in 1905. He came to America when he was 15 months old, graduated from Harvard and Harvard Law School, served in the army on Eisenhower’s staff during World War II, and returned to become a partner at the Boston law firm of Foley, Hoag, and Eliot. It was there that one day, in the summer of 1946, Weinstein’s partner, Thomas Eliot 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 on, 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 when the American Jewish organizations tried the usual route of having friendly members of Congress contact the State Department, they were rebuffed. 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. Lew 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 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 Tsar 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, and 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 on October 15 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He was managing editor of the Forward and North American editor of the Jerusalem Post.