Jacqueline Lee Kennedy Onassis (nee Bouvier, 1929-1994) was an American socialite, writer, photographer and book editor who ranks as one of the most popular and recognizable first ladies in American history. She was beloved by the American public for her devotion to her family; her dedication to the historic preservation of the White House; the campaigns she led to preserve and restore historic landmarks and architecture along with her interest in American history, culture, and arts; and, perhaps most significantly, for her charm, grace and style. During her lifetime, she was regarded as an international icon for her unique fashion choices, but she did generate negative press for her preference for French designers and her epic spending on her wardrobe.
Although her goal to found a National Department of the Arts went unrealized, she did contribute to the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which were launched during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency. She also initiated a Congressional bill establishing that White House furnishings would remain the property of the Smithsonian Institution rather than the property of departing ex-presidents, and she founded the White House Historical Association and the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, established the position of a permanent Curator of the White House, and created the White House Endowment Trust and the White House Acquisition Trust.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in French Literature from George Washington University in 1951, Jackie worked for the Washington Times-Herald as an inquiring photographer. She met Congressman John Kennedy a year later at a Washington dinner party and, after he was elected senator in 1952, the couple wed on September 12, 1953. After JFK’s assassination, she married Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis in 1968 – which proved controversial and lost her some public support. After Onassis’s his death in 1975, she worked as a book editor in New York City, first at Viking Press and later at Doubleday.
Although Jackie was of Anglo-Irish and French ancestry, some commentators – including her cousin and step-sibling, Gore Vidal – asserted that Jackie’s mother, Janet Lee, was Jewish (which, of course, would mean that Jackie was Jewish). Vidal claims that Jackie’s grandfather changed the family name from Levy to Lee to become a vice president of the J.P. Morgan bank, and Jackie herself did not clarify things by concocting her own narrative about her grandfather, claiming that he was a Maryland-born veteran of the Civil War (in fact, he was born in New Jersey in 1852).
In any event, the “Lee-Levy” story is sheer hokum, but the myth persists among antisemites and right-wing extremist websites (they are really entertaining to read) as evidence of a Jewish worldwide conspiracy. Ironically, Jackie did have a Jewish granddaughter – Rose Kennedy Schlossberg, the daughter of Caroline Kennedy and Jewish artist Edwin Schlossberg – so while Jackie was not Jewish, she was actually a “bubbe” (in much the same way that Donald Trump is a “zaydie.”)
Several members of the Bouvier family, including Jackie’s aunt Edith Bouvier Beale, married into Jewish families. Family members maintained several important business relationships with Jews, among them her father, John Vernou Bouvier III, a successful Wall Street stockbroker who worked closely with several Jewish investors.
Members of the Bouvier family have also publicly spoken out about the Holocaust and its legacy, including Lee Radziwill, Jackie’s sister, who in a 1994 Vanity Fair interview discussed the impact of the Holocaust on her family. She discussed the lasting trauma suffered by her husband, Prince Stanislaw Radziwill, a Polish nobleman who was imprisoned in a concentration camp during World War II. Jackie’s brother, James Auchincloss, was involved in several efforts to commemorate the Holocaust and to promote Holocaust education, including serving as the chair of the New York City Holocaust Memorial Commission and helping to create the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park.
However, there have been allegations and controversies involving relationships between various family members and certain Jews. One notable example is the controversy involving Jackie’s brother, Hugh Auchincloss, Jr., who was accused of antisemitism in a 1986 New York magazine article, which alleged that he had made several antisemitic remarks and had excluded Jews from various social events. [He denied the allegations, and several of his friends and acquaintances spoke out in his defense.] In another instance, in the films Grey Gardens, Jackie’s aunt, Edith Bouvier Beale – who ironically, and as discussed above, had married into a Jewish family – was portrayed as referring to Jews as “kikes.” [Edith was known for making outrageous and provocative statements, but it is not clear whether she in fact uttered these words.]
In A Tribute to Courage (1964), Jackie discusses her visit to Germany and her encounter with a group of Holocaust survivors, whom she emotionally described as “living witnesses to a world gone mad.” She called for greater efforts to prevent such atrocities from ever happening again and noted the importance of never forgetting: “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
Jackie did not often speak out publicly regarding her views on Israel, but she made several public statements in which she supported the Jewish people and noted their contributions to American society. For example, visiting Israel as a journalist for the Washington Times-Herald in 1951, she wrote several pieces about her experiences and impressions of the country. In one article, she wrote about the importance of the nascent Jewish State to the Jewish people, writing that “Israel is the only land in the world where the Jew can feel sure he is among his own kind, where he can breathe freely and speak his mind without fear.”
In a 1962 speech at the United Jewish Appeal luncheon, she praised the Jewish community for its charitable work and dedication to improving the lives of others. In a 1967 letter to Rachel (“Bunny”) Mellon, a wealthy Jewish philanthropist and close friend, she wrote, “I pray that Israel will exist forever and that her neighbors will finally come to recognize her right to exist.” When asked about the Middle East conflict by French Journalist Jean-Claude Hurel during a memorable 1970 interview, Jackie exhibited great sympathy for Israel’s plight: “I think it’s a great tragedy. The Israelis will have to keep defending themselves, but it is very difficult to do when you are surrounded by enemies.”
In a 1964 correspondence to a Jewish friend, she wrote, “I admire and respect the Jewish people and their traditions and feel a kinship with them.” Her respect for Jewish traditions included her and the president hosting a Passover Seder in the State Dining Room at the White House on April 13, 1961. The event was significant not only because it was the first of its kind but also because it reflected the First Couple’s outreach and support of the American Jewish community, which had been a strong supporter of his presidential campaign. The Seder was attended by about eighty people, including JFK’s cabinet, Jewish leaders and their families, and other notables, including Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg.
However, one of Jackie’s best-known statements about Israel, which generated significant controversy in its wake, was her response to a reporter’s question during her 1962 trip to India. Asked about her impressions of Israel, she replied “What impressed me most about Israel was that there were no private homes, everything belonged to the government, and the people shared it.” Besides being demonstrably false, many Israelis and Israel supporters were deeply concerned, particularly at a time when the Cold War with Russia and the spread of communism were dominant political and social issues, that Jackie had misrepresented the Jewish state and its values to the world.
An apologetic First Lady later explained that she had merely meant to praise the spirit of cooperation and shared sacrifice among Israelis that she had witnessed personally and that she did not in any way intend to make a political statement regarding Israel’s government or political system. Given the totality of her record on Israel and Jews, it is reasonable to accept her explanation and apology as genuine.
In an alleged transcript of conversations released in 2011 by the Kennedy Library, Jackie made antisemitic remarks during a 1963 phone conversation with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a close personal friend, when she was said to have commented that all the problems of the United States were caused by “the Jews.” However, the authenticity of the transcripts has been broadly challenged by commentators and historians, who argue that they were likely edited or, at best, taken out of context. Again, given the totality of what is known about Jackie, the kind of person she was, her strong advocacy for inclusiveness and tolerance, and her known views on Jews and Israel, it simply defies credulity to accept the “transcripts” as authentic.
During her time as First Lady, Jackie had several notable interactions with Jews, including with close friends and acquaintances. Among them was David Ormsby Gore, a British diplomat and close friend of the Kennedys, and Rachel Mellon, mentioned above, and her White House staff included Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a noted historian and speechwriter, and Sorel Etrog, a Canadian sculptor who created several works for the White House. During her final years, Jackie lived with (they were never married, but were inseparable) Maurice Tempelsman, a Yiddish-speaking Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and a diamond merchant and financier whom she knew as early as the late 1950s, even before she met JFK.
In addition to her personal relationships, Jackie was involved in promoting Jewish culture through her work as First Lady. She hosted a reception for American Jewish leaders at the White House in 1962, where she praised their contributions to American society.
In June 1961, just a few months after JFK took office, Jackie became the first First Lady to visit Israel when she arrived as part of a wider tour of several countries in the Middle East and Europe. After being received at Lod Airport in Tel Aviv by Prime Minister Ben Gurion and his wife, Paula, she traveled to Jerusalem and was a guest at the historic King David Hotel. She met with several Israeli officials and dignitaries, including President Zalman Shazar, Foreign Minister Golda Meir, and Jerusalem Mayor Mordechai Ish-Shalom, and she visited several religious and historical sites, including the Western Wall, Masada, and Yad Vashem.
Interestingly, it was the two latter sites that most captivated her. At Masada in the Judean Desert, she was deeply impressed by the history and symbolism of the Jews’ first-century stand and their rebellion against the Roman Empire; she later commented, “I was deeply moved by the heroism and sacrifice of the Jewish defenders.” At Yad Vashem, she had a visceral emotional reaction, writing in the guestbook “May the people of the world learn to live together in peace.”
During her visit to Judaism’s most sacred site, Jackie wore a headscarf and approached the Wall with great reverence and, following the old tradition, she placed a note in the cracks between the stones, which was reputed to have contained a prayer for peace and a plea for G-d’s blessing for her family. It was reported in some sources that the note was later discovered and transferred to Israeli authorities, but that has never been confirmed and, in any event, the actual contents of the note have never been made public.
Throughout her visit, Jackie expressed admiration for Israel and its people. In a press conference, she praised Israel as “a very brave country” and described her impressions of the Jewish State as “a sense of history, a sense of vitality, a sense of progress.” She also spoke about a desire for peace in the region, commenting, “I hope that someday there can be a reconciliation between the Arabs and the Israelis.”
Over and above her official engagements, Jackie made it a point to spend time with ordinary Israelis, including children and soldiers. Particularly taken by Israeli children, she later wrote in her diary, “I have never met such delightful children.” The First Lady’s warmth and charm won over many Israelis and was deeply appreciated by the Israeli government, and her visit, which helped to strengthen ties between the United States and Israel, remains an important moment in the history of the relationship between the two nations.
Jackie returned to Israel, where she checked in to the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv, for the dedication of Beit Hatefusot (the Diaspora Museum) in Tel Aviv in 1978. Accompanied by Karl Katz, a founder of the Museum, she went on to visit various kibbutzim, to meet Jewish students, and to explore various sites in Eretz Yisrael. According to Katz, Jackie knew her Scriptures very well and required no instruction regarding the biblical and historical significance of the places she visited.
Jackie participated in a March 23, 1966, tree-planting ceremony in the Jerusalem Forest which was attended by a large crowd of Israeli officials and dignitaries. In an event widely covered by the Israeli press, Jackie, assisted by JNF officials, used a small shovel to plant a young sapling in the Jerusalem soil. The JNF dedicated a plaque to her which reads “To Jacqueline Kennedy, who planted this tree in Jerusalem in memory of her husband, President John F. Kennedy.” The tree, which still stands today, is known as the Kennedy Memorial Tree and is visited by thousands of people each year.
On the April 5, 1965, correspondence exhibited here, Jackie writes on her black-bordered mourning stationery to thank a correspondent for his account of the ground-breaking ceremony of a vocational school in Acre named for the late president:
I do want you to know how very grateful I am for the time you devoted to writing me all about the ground-breaking ceremony of the vocational school at Acre, Israel, which will be named for President Kennedy.
How honored the President would have been by this tribute and it means a great deal to me knowing that his friends were able to be present for this special occasion.
Your account was certainly a most interesting one, and I have asked that your letter, along with the Bibles, be saved in the Library so that there will be a permanent record of this memorial ceremony to President Kennedy.
The John F. Kennedy School, a public elementary school in the Old City of Acre dedicated in 1967, is a bilingual school (Hebrew and English) whose goal is to promote coexistence between Jewish and Arab students and to provide a high-quality education to students of all backgrounds. The school, which has attained international recognition for its innovative approach to education and for its successful promotion of coexistence between Jewish and Arab students, has received numerous awards. My research has yielded no evidence to suggest that Jackie ever visited the school.