Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the Bnai Zion Anniversary Dinner

Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the Bnai Zion Anniversary Dinner

Voice  |  December 9, 2019
“Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather, it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.”- John F. Kennedy

It is a great pleasure to be here tonight in tribute to the fifty years of Bnai Zion and in honor of the special mission of the Jewish National Fund.

It is heartening to spend an evening where the focus is set on works of peace and social improvement — on the courageous and far-sighted efforts your organization has made to alleviate deep human needs. For the years of crisis, through which we have been passing for more than two decades, have left no more bitter heritage than the homelessness and landlessness of millions. Your works constitute one of the great social achievements of our time, combining the highest idealistic vision with the greatest practical vigor. And what work could be more heartwarming or more enduring than the great forest at Jerusalem. Your children and grandchildren, when they visit Israel, will find your monument.

There have always been skeptics scoffing at the possibility of making deserts bloom and rocky soils productive. In this regard, our own history as a nation and Israel’s have many parallels — in the diversity of their origins, in their capacity to reach the unattainable, in the receptivity to new ideas and social experimentation.

In this country, throughout much of the 19th century, warnings were repeatedly proclaimed that mid-America and its plains beyond the 100th parallel could never be settled and made productive. One writer, traveling from Illinois to Oregon in 1839, spoke of the Great American Desert “burnt and arid…whose solemn silence is seldom broken by the tread of any other animal than the wolf or the starved and thirsty horse which bears the traveler across its wastes.” The sterility of the plains, and their implacable resistance to civilizing influence or settlement, were themes of major writers, such as Francis Parkman in “The Oregon Trail” or Washington Irving in his “Astoria.” At best, these writers argued, a kind of nomadic existence could be salvaged from the mid-American land mass, from these “bare” and “wasted” plains with their “level monotony.”

But on the great American Plains — as decades later in the great Palestinian Plains and valleys — determined settlers learned the truth of the epigram that “Rain Follows the Plough.” By 1881, a great Western town builder and scientist, Charles Dana Wilber, was saying: “In this miracle of progress, the plough was the advance messenger — the unerring prophet — the procuring cause.”

These words sound deep resonances in the minds and memories of those who have observed the gradual Zionist fulfillment in Israel. History records several such breakthroughs — great efforts in which spiritual conviction and human endurance have combined to make realities out of prophecies. The Puritans in Massachusetts, the Mormons in Salt Lake City, and the Scotch Irish in the Western territories were all imbued with the truth of the old Jewish thought that a people can have only as much sky over its head as it has land under its feet.

The Jewish National Fund, which for forty-seven years foreshadowed the existence of an independent Jewish state, and assembled long in advance a perpetual trust in land for the Jewish people, symbolizes this magnificent achievement. Just as our own West has sustained progress against the impacts of serious farm depressions, crop failures, credit crises, and droughts, so too, Israel has had to exist on narrow margins of survival, on a constant climate of hostility and outside danger. Yet it has endured and its integrity remains unimpaired, and this success can be in a large measure attributed to the National Fund.

I cannot hope — nor pretend — to solve tonight all of the complex riddles of the Middle East. But I would like to suggest some perspectives which might help to clarify our thinking about that area and to indicate what lines our longer range efforts might take. To do this requires, first of all, that we dispel a prevalent myth about the Middle East.

This myth — with which you are all too familiar — is the assertion that it is Zionism which has been the unsettling and fevered infection in the Middle East, the belief that without Israel there would somehow be a natural harmony throughout the Middle East and the Arab world. Quite apart from the values and hopes which the State of Israel enshrines — and the past injuries which it redeems — it twists reality to suggest that it is the democratic tendency of Israel which has injected discord and dissension into the Near East.

Even by the coldest calculations, the removal of Israel would not alter the basic crisis in the area. For, if there is any lesson which the melancholy events of the last two years and more taught us, it is that, though Arab states are generally united in opposition to Israel, their political unities do not rise above this negative position. The basic rivalries within the Arab world, the quarrels over boundaries, the tensions involved in lifting their economies from stagnation, the cross-pressures of nationalists — all of these factors would still be there even if there were no Israel.

The Middle East illustrates the twin heritage of modern nationalism. In one of its aspects it reflects a positive search for political freedom and self-development; in another, it is the residue of disintegration and the destruction of old moorings. The Arab states, though some have had significantly varying lines of development, have all too often used Israel as a scapegoat and anti-Zionism as a policy to divert attention away from the hard tasks of national and regional development and from special area problems.

…It is sheer delusion to underestimate the cutting force of Arab nationalism or hope to create puppet regimes or pocket Western Kingdoms in that area. This would only intensify anti-Western feeling in the Middle East and imperiled Western relations with all uncommitted states.

…The choice today is not between either the Arab states or Israel. Ways must be found of supporting the legitimate aspirations of each. The United States, whose President was first to recognize the new State of Israel, need have no apologies — indeed should pride itself — for the action it took. But neither should we foreclose any effort which promises a regeneration of a much wider segment of the Middle East.

The Jewish State found its fulfillment during a time when it bore witness, to use the words of Markham, to “ …humanity betrayed, plundered, profaned, and disinherited.”

But it is yet possible that history will record this event as only the prelude to the betterment and therapy — not merely of a strip of land — but of a broad expanse of almost continental dimensions. Whether such a challenge will be seized, cannot be determined by the United States alone. But as we observe tonight the inspiring experience of Israel, we know that we must make the effort — and that we can once again demonstrate that “Rain Follows the Plough.”