In Israel, nearly everything is steeped in historical significance and symbolism. It seems every tree has a story, especially the millions of trees in the Jerusalem forest surrounding Israel’s memorial to John F. Kennedy.
“The trees here are a gift of man. They are not a gift of nature,” said Avinoam Binder, former emissary in the US for the Jewish National Fund, the organization that planted Israel’s forests. “Every tree you see here was hand planted.”
Starting in the early 1900s, Jews from around the world would donate money for trees — to make the desert bloom, and as a way of claiming lands for the Jewish state that was eventually founded in 1948. In 1958, as a junior senator from Massachusetts, JFK addressed US supporters of the Jewish National Fund and praised them for the tree planting.
“What work could be more heartwarming, or more enduring, than the great forest at Jerusalem,” Kennedy said. “Your children and grandchildren, when they visit Israel, will find your monument.”
Among those “monumental” trees is JFK’s monument, too: 51 ribs of cement, representing the 50 United States plus the District of Columbia, arching up in the shape of a tree trunk. Each cement rib features an American state seal. Inside the building, a bulb flickers like a memorial candle.
The dedication ceremony for the monument, three years after Kennedy’s assassination, made international news.
“On a hill outside the holy city, a memorial to President Kennedy was dedicated by Mrs. Earl Warren, wife of the American chief justice,” says an announcer on a newsreel. “The US National Jewish Fund financed this tribute to the great man who was so tragically stricken down. What better place than this could perpetuate his memory.”
Roughly 2000 people attended the memorial's opening and, over the years, Henry Kissinger, Frank Sinatra, Sharon Stone and a stream of American VIPs and Kennedy family members have passed through.
But what used to be an essential stop on any American’s Israeli itinerary isn’t any more.
President Obama skipped the Kennedy Memorial on his trip here this year. Obama came to remind Israelis that, in his words, the US will always have Israel’s back. What many Israelis and Americans may not remember, though, said historian Shlomo Slonim, is that this policy began with JFK.
Kennedy “was the first to supply anti-aircraft rockets, and this was very crucial to providing support and security for Israel against the possibility of Egyptian and Syrian aircraft attacking Israel at any future conflict,” Slonim said. “He was the first to say that the United States is committed to Israel’s security and defense, and he proved it by his actions and his conduct.”
Today, the imposing Kennedy Memorial is mostly a place where weekend hikers and cyclists finish their trails and take triumphant snapshots. Fifty years after President Kennedy’s assassination, his memorial, and his legacy in Israel, have become an indelible part of the scenery.