Fact Check: John F. Kennedy Wrote That 'Palestine Was Hardly Britain's to Give Away.' Here's the Context

fact check: john f. kennedy wrote that 'palestine was hardly britain's to give away.' here's the context

Abbie Rowe/Wikimedia Commons

Claim:

Former U.S. President John F. Kennedy wrote in a 1939 letter to his father, "Palestine was hardly Britain's to give away."

Rating:

Correct Attribution (About this rating?)

Context:

The quote does not fully encapsulate Kennedy's views. He wrote in the same letter he had become "more pro-British" during his visit to Jerusalem as "the men on the spot are doing a good job here." He called the British proposed solution at the time theoretically "just and fair" but did not think it would work. On the Israel-Palestine crisis, he wrote: "I have never seen two groups more unwilling to try and work out a solution … than these two groups."

 

In May 2024, as Israel continued its military operations in Gaza, a number of social media posts claimed to share former U.S. President John F. Kennedy's views on the history of the Middle East crisis.

Many posts on X claimed that Kennedy once stated, "Palestine was hardly Britain's to give away."

The purported quote did indeed come from a letter a young Kennedy wrote to his father in 1939 after he made a trip to Palestine, as seen in the archives of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. However, it did not fully encapsulate his views of the British and their role in the relatively new crisis at the time. We rate this claim as "Correct Attribution" but will add necessary context below.

Writing to His Father

Kennedy, who was 21 at the time of his visit, was writing to his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to London, who had sent his son on a study tour around Europe and Palestine. The elder Kennedy, according to Israeli news outlet Haaretz, had been following talks between the British government and Zionist and Arab leaders in London in the late 1930s, on future policy in Palestine. The discussions yielded no results and the British issued their own 1939 White Paper, which Kennedy went on to analyze.

The letter contains Kennedy's assessment of the crisis in the region, and begins with a summary of the history of the conflict. He stated he wanted to share his "impressions" of Palestine, addressing his father, "though you undoubtedly, if I know the Jews, know the 'whole' story." According to Haaretz, Kennedy was insinuating the troublesome nature of Zionist lobbyists.

Kennedy described how the British government made separate but vague promises to both the Jewish and Arab people, through the McMahon letters and the Balfour Declaration, that contradicted each other. He then stated his objection to the White Paper: "It theoretically presents a good solution, but it just won't work."

The White Paper planned to create a new independent government within 10 years. Its provisions stated immigration quotas for Jewish people arriving in Palestine, restrictions on land sales to Jewish people and constitutional measures to create a binational state under Arab majority rule that recognized that two peoples or nations resided within it and provisions to protect the rights of the Jewish minority.

Kennedy summarized the objections made by Arab and Jewish groups to the White Paper and concluded that it would just not work because neither group wanted it to work. The Arabs, he wrote, rejected it because of the vague timeline for implementation and as it allowed the continued influx of Jewish people in the region. The Jewish people, he wrote, saw the end to their Zionist dream of a state, their continued status as a minority group and an end to donations they received from abroad. Privately, he noted, the Arabs objected because the plan did not allow for the return of their exiled mufti, their political and religious leader, who was in Syria. The Jewish side objected, Kennedy wrote, because they wanted "complete domination, with Jerusalem as the capital of their new land of milk and honey, with the right to colonise in trans-Jordan."

The only solution, he wrote, was to "break the country up into two autonomous districts giving them both self-government" and keep Jerusalem as an "independent unit."

About the British

On the subject of the British, Kennedy appeared to be sympathetic to their position in the conflict. He wrote about his experiences in Jerusalem and how it made him more "pro-British" (emphasis ours):

At present, situation still seems to be difficult as far as outrages and bombings. There were 13 bombs set off my last evening there, all in the Jewish quarter and all set off by Jews. The ironical part is that the Jewish terrorists bomb their own telephone lines and electric connections and the next day frantically phone the British to come and fix them up. Incidentally I have become more pro-British down there than I have been in my other visits to England as I think that the men on the spot are doing a good job. This roughly, in fact very roughly, is an outline of the situation.

He concluded the paragraph with an indictment of both the Arab and Jewish groups: "I have never seen two groups more unwilling to try and work out a solution that has some hope of success than these two groups."

He described the "sympathy" of the "people on the spot" — perhaps referring to diplomats — with the Arabs, where the aforementioned quote in the claim emerges. He wrote (emphasis ours):

This is not only because the Jews have had, at least some of their leaders, an unfortunately arrogant, uncompromising attitude, but they feel that after all, the country has been Arabic for the last few hundred years, and they naturally feel sympathetic. After all, Palestine was hardly Britain's to give away. The question is further complicated by the fact that both groups are split among themselves.

The above excerpts from his letter indicate a largely sympathetic view of the British role in the conflict. He described their White Paper as a solution that would not be implementable, and called for two separate countries with their own governments.

As a politician, Kennedy was largely pro-Israel, affirming his commitment to U.S.-Israel ties while a senator in 1960. Analysts, however, said he managed to maintain cordial ties with the Arab world, and reportedly tried and failed to solve the Palestinian refugee crisis.

Sources:

Apter, Lauren Elise. Disorderly Decolonization : The White Paper of 1939 and the End of British Rule in Palestine. University of Texas, Austin, 2008, https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/items/8411da90-1489-43e1-85a5-3759ba2cfd2c. Accessed 16 May 2024.

"Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry - Appendix IV." Avalon Project, Yale Law School. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/angap04.asp. Accessed 16 May 2024.

"JFK's History with Arabs and Palestine." Majalla. https://en.majalla.com/node/304821. Accessed 16 May 2024.

"Letter Written to His Father Following Trip to Palestine, 1939." JFK Library. https://www.jfklibrary.org/asset-viewer/archives/jfkpof-135-001. Accessed 16 May 2024.

"Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the Convention of the Zionist Organization of America, New York City, August 26, 1960." JFK Library. https://www.jfklibrary.org/archives/other-resources/john-f-kennedy-speeches/new-york-ny-19600826. Accessed 16 May 2024.

Segev, Tom. "JFK in the Land of Milk and Honey." Haaretz, 19 Oct. 2012. Haaretz, https://www.haaretz.com/2012-10-19/ty-article/.premium/jfk-in-the-land-of-milk-and-honey/0000017f-f427-d487-abff-f7ffcb540000. Accessed 16 May 2024.

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