Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the B'nai Zion Anniversary Dinner, New York, New York, February 9, 1958

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 gloom 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 100dth 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 dissention 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 nationalist – 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.

One of these problems that of the Arab refugees, which has lain like a naked sword between Israel and the Arab states, is a matter on which the books cannot be closed and which must be further resolved through negotiation, resettlement, and outside international assistance. But to recognize the problem is quite different from saying that the problem is insoluble short of the destruction of Israel, or only by the unilateral repudiation of the 1949 borders, or must be solved by Israel alone. Israel today stands as an example for all the Middle East in spotlighting how economic modernization may be spurred and accelerated against high odds, great physical barriers, and constantly growing population as well as against all Communist blandishments. The growing influence of the Soviet Union in the Middle East and the further diminution of direct Western influence in that area as a whole, we shall in all likelihood have to face as realities. And 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.

Israel, on the other hand, embodying all the characteristics of a Western democracy and having long passed the threshold of economic development, shares with the West a tradition of civil liberties, of cultural freedom, of parliamentary democracy, of social mobility. It has been almost untouched by Soviet penetration. Some of the leadership groups in the Arab states also draw inspiration and training from Western sources. But too often in these nations, the leadership class is small, its popular roots tenuous, and its problems staggering. In too many of the countries of the Middle East, the Soviet model holds special attraction, the more so since the United States and its Western allies have not been able to develop more than tentative and often only expedient policies which hardly come to grips with the root causes of political disintegration and economic backwardness. To countries with relatively primitive or top-heavy economics and low industrial capacity, the Russian and even the Chinese passage to modernity in a generation’s time inspires confidence and imitation – even as does Egypt’s move in less than ten years from a seemingly subjugated state to at least a strategic power. We now know that the Soviet attraction is not grounded on threat or bluster alone, and that there are tensions and a critical restlessness which would exist even if there were not a Communist threat. Communism presents to many in that area the glamour of novelty, the breaking of fresh ground, of seeming to offer a disciplined, coherent, and irresistible answer to the overwhelming problems of economic management and progress.

In this light, a simple military response is not adequate. For, apart from bequeathing to the United States latent anti-colonial resentments, military pacts and arms shipments are themselves new divisive forces in an area shot through with national rivalries, without historic frontiers, without, for the most part, skilled classes and political administrators who can pilot new states through the treacherous tides running through the Middle East.

Military pacts provide no long-term solutions. On the contrary, they tend dangerously to polarize the Middle East, to attach us to specific regimes, to isolate us very often from the significant nationalist movements. Little is accomplished by forcing the uncommitted nations to choose rigidly between alliance with the West or submission to international Communism. Indeed, it is to our self interest not to force such a choice in many places, especially if it diverts nations from absorbing their energies in programs of real economic improvement and take-off. In the Middle East we are moving perilously close to an arms race which, in the long run, will be of benefit to no one. No other area stands more in need of a real disarmament effort. The real mutual advantages for gradual demilitarization rather than buildup are unequalled. Already we have used the area for a pilot test of the United Nations Emergency Force; and this might well be supplemented by a similar international device to regulate arms traffic.

The contours of the outstanding economic and political issues in the Middle East lend themselves uniquely also to a regional approach. The project-by-project, country-by-country pattern of assistance is particularly ill-adapted in this area. The great river basins of the Middle East are international – the Jordan, the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates. And there are other nations in the West besides the United States which can make important contributions in economic and technical assistance. There has been no lack of pointers toward what a regional policy might include – a multilateral regional development fund for both economic improvement and refugee resettlement, the Jordan River multi-purpose scheme, a food pool making imaginative use of our agricultural surpluses, and, as a coordinating agency, a Middle East Development Authority to pool capital and technical aid in that area. This would encourage and provide incentive for realistic and constructive plans and projects, encourage a higher and more diversified level of private investment, and enable Arab leaders to participate in economic planning and administration.

Unfortunately, all these and other plans have so far lacked the active political leadership which can break the paralysis of purpose. Only external Soviet aggression, which is only one danger to the Middle East, has been the subject of high level policy-planning. No greater opportunity exists for the United States than to take the lead in such an effort which could diminish the Internal bickering in that tense and troubled area, and bend new energies to new more promising and more constructive ventures.

Needless to say, such proposals and progress should not be used as veiled techniques for placing new economic sanctions and pressures on Israel. Nor should they detract from our support of Israel’s immediate needs. There is no reason why the United States should not conclude at once the $75,000,000 loan promised through the Export-Import Bank and make it clear that we will not sanction any barrier to free shipping on the Gulf of Aqaba which is an international waterway. 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.”

In his book “One Man’s America”, Alistair Cooke tells the story which well illustrates our point. On the 19th of May, 1780, as he describes it, in Hartford, Connecticut, the skies at noon turned from blue to gray and by mid-afternoon had blackened so densely that, in that religious age, men fell on their knees and begged a final blessing before the end came. The Connecticut House of Representatives was in session. And as some men fell down in the darkened chamber and others clamored for an immediate adjournment, the Speaker of the House, one Colonel Davenport, came to his feet and he silenced the din with these words. “The Day of Judgment is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish, therefore, that candles may be brought.”

Members of Bnai Zion! You who are here gathered tonight deserve thanks - for you have, in truth, brought candles to illuminate your People’s Way.

Speech source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files. Series 12. Speeches and the Press. Box 899, Folder: "B'nai Zion, New York City, 9 February 1958".