We are gathered here this afternoon to commemorate a notable anniversary in man's eternal quest for freedom. For nearly 8 years ago today a state was born – and a people, rising from the ashes of history's most ruthless persecution, entered upon a new birth of freedom. The state was the State of Israel – and the people were the children of Israel. Today, as the anniversary of that monumental event recurs for the eighth time – Israel, we salute you.
Much is different between the United States and Israel. Our Nation stretches in a great land mass between two wide oceans – the Israelis occupy a beachhead on the eastern Mediterranean. Americans number 165 million – the Israelis less than 2 million. We are the oldest Republic on earth and the youngest people – the Israelis have the youngest republic and the oldest people.
Yes, much is different – but much is the same. For both Israel and the United States won their freedom in a bitter war for independence. Both Israel and the United States acknowledge the supremacy of the moral law – both believe in personal as well as national liberty – and, perhaps most important, both will fight to the end to maintain that liberty.
I join in this salute today because of my own deep admiration for Israel and her people – an admiration based not on hearsay, not on assumption, but on my own personal experience. For I went to Palestine in 1939; and I saw there an unhappy land, ruled under a League of Nations mandate by a Britain which divided and ruled in accordance to ancient policy. And while there I was shocked by a British Foreign Office white paper just issued sharply cutting back Jewish immigration. Yes, as in the days of old, "the glory had departed from Israel." For century after century, Romans, Turks, Christians, Moslems, Pagans, British – all had conquered the Holy Land – but none could make it prosper. In the words of Israel Zangwill: "The land without a people waited for the people without a land." The realm where once milk and honey flowed, and civilization flourished, was in 1939 a barren realm – barren of hope and cheer and progress as well as crops and industries – a gloomy picture for a young man paying his first visit from the United States.
But 12 years later, in 1951, I traveled again to the land by the River Jordan – this time as a Member of the Congress of the United States – and this time to see first-hand the new State of Israel. The transformation which had taken place could not have been more complete. For between the time of my visit in 1939 and my visit in 1951, a nation had been reborn – a desert had been reclaimed – and a national integrity had been redeemed, after 2,000 years of seemingly endless waiting. Zion had at least been restored – and she had promptly opened her arms to the homeless and the weary and the persecuted. It was the "Ingathering of the Exiles" – they had heard the call of their homeland; and they had come, brands plucked from the burning – they had come from concentration camps and ghettos, from distant exile and dangerous sanctuary, from broken homes in Poland and lonely huts in Yemen, like the ancient strangers in a strange land they had come. And Israel received them all, fed them, housed them, cared for them, bound up their wounds, and enlisted them in the struggle to build a new nation.
But perhaps the greatest change of all I found lay in the hearts and minds of the people. For, unlike the discouraged settlers of 1939, they looked to the future with hope. From Haifa to the Gulf of Akaba, from Gaza to the Dead Sea, I found a revival of an ancient spirit. I found it in Israel's gift to world statesmanship, David Ben-Gurion. I saw it in the determined step of soldiers and workers; I heard it in the glad voices of women in the fields; I saw it in the hopeful eyes of refugees waiting patiently in their misery. The barren land I had seen in 1939 had become the vital nation of 1951.
Yes; Israel, we salute you. We honor your progress and your determination and your spirit. But in the midst of our rejoicing we do not forget your peril. We know that no other nation in this world lives out its days in an atmosphere of such constant tension and fear. We know that no other nation in this world is surrounded on every side by such violent hate and prejudice.
Will Israel fall? Will this noblest of all the 20th century's experiments in democracy sink beneath the surface, not to rise again for still another 2,000 years? Part of the answer rests with the United States, the leader of the free world, and the godfather of the infant nation Israel. I shall not now attempt to chart our course in detail. But I shall say, and say again, that this is no time for equivocation or hesitation.
Time for Action Is Now
It is long past time for this Nation and others to make it absolutely clear that any aggression or threat of aggression in the Middle East will not be tolerated by the United Nations or the parties to the 1950 Tripartite Agreement. It is time that we made this so clear, in the U.N. and elsewhere, that no nation would dare to launch an attack. For it is the responsibility of our Government to make certain that neither Israel nor any small nation of the world is left defenseless without arms while neighboring states dedicated to their destruction receive unlimited quantities of Communist arms. It is time that all the nations of the world, in the Middle East and elsewhere, realized that Israel is here to stay. She will not surrender – she will not retreat – and we will not let her fall.
Today we celebrate her 8th birthday – but I say without hesitation that she will live to see an 80th birthday - and an eight hundredth. For peace is all Israel asks, no more – a peace that will "beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning-hooks"; a peace that will enable the desert to "rejoice and blossom as the rose," "when the wicked cease from troubling and the weary be at rest." Then, and only then, will the world have witnessed the complete fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy "Tzee-Yon B'Meeshpat Teepadeh" – "Zion shall be redeemed through justice." And all of us here, and there, and everywhere will then be able to say to each other with faith and with confidence, in our coming and in our going: "Shalom" – peace! Peace be with you, now and forever.
Speech source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files. Series 12. Speeches and the Press. Box 895, Folder: "America Salutes Israel, Yankee Stadium, New York, 29 April 1956".