A great champion of Israel throughout his professional life, Robert F. Kennedy supported Jews and the Jewish State from an early age. While a student at Harvard, he dared to challenge Father Leonard Feeney, an influential Jesuit priest and Jew-baiting demagogue who had written that it is impossible “for an individual Jew to scrap his hateful heritage and cleanse his cursed blood.”
When an upset Bobby heard Feeney characterize Harvard as a “pest hole” for Jews who, he warned, “are trying to take over this city,” he discussed his concerns with his father – the infamous anti-Semitic Joseph Kennedy – who pulled strings and arranged for Bobby to meet with Archbishop Richard Cushing to discuss his concerns. RFK’s audacity played an important role in Feeney’s expulsion from his Order and his ultimate excommunication from the church in 1952.
Then, as a young 22-year old reporter for The Boston Post, RFK visited Eretz Yisrael during the last days of the British Mandate and became an admirer or the Jewish people there and a fervent supporter of their dreams for a Jewish State.
His four reports, which were prominently displayed on the front page of The Post from June 3-6, 1948, were accompanied by an editorial note that it was part of a series of accounts “on the Palestine situation written for The Post by Robert Kennedy, Harvard senior and son of the former ambassador to Great Britain,” and that “[y]oung Kennedy has been traveling through the Middle East and his first-hand observations, appearing exclusively in The Post, will be of considerable interest in view of the current crisis.”
Kennedy’s four reports were titled:
- “British Hated by Both Sides: Struck by Antipathy Shown by ‘Arabs and Jews’” (June 3).
- “Jews Have Fine Fighting Force: Undying Spirit, Unparalleled Courage” (June 4).
- “British Position Hit in Palestine: Seek to Crush Jewish Cause Because Not in Accord” (June 5).
- “Communism Not to Get a Foothold: Jews Guard against Red Agents in Guise of Refugees” (June 6).
RFK arrived in Eretz Yisrael at a chaotic and very dangerous time, with the British about to leave and Arab armies, with British support, preparing to attack. At one point, he was arrested, blindfolded, and brought to Haganah headquarters by soldiers who thought he looked suspicious and who, after apologizing, warned him to steer clear of the streets.
Nonetheless, he established his headquarters in Tel Aviv, for which he expressed great admiration as a city that had quickly grown “from a small village of a few thousand inhabitants to a most impressive modern metropolis of over 200,000.” After riding with a Jewish convoy bringing supplies to Jerusalem, then under siege, he had occasion to visit with the “small Orthodox community” about which he notably commented in one of his Post articles – an important insight for today, even 70 years later:
They wanted no part of this fight but just wanted to be left along with their Wailing Wall. Unfortunately for them, the Arabs are unkindly disposed toward any kind of Jew and their annihilation would now undoubtedly have been a fact had it not been that at the beginning of hostilities the Haganah moved several hundred well-equipped men into their quarter.
Visiting various kibbutzim, which RFK characterized as “self-sustaining States within a State,” he was intrigued by kibbutz life and its model of communal living, “with the result that all but the sick and infirm are able to devote their talents to the common cause.” Despite the personal danger to him, as described by the Haganah, he made a point of speaking with local residents wherever he traveled, including Holocaust survivors, who stirred him deeply and emotionally.
Kennedy reported that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, who have “an undying spirit” and “have truly done much with what all agree was very little,” will “fight, and fight with unparalleled courage.” He characterized Jewish aspirations for a Jewish homeland as “already a truly great modern example of the birth of a nation with the primary ingredients of dignity and self-respect,” and described how the Jews, with their backs to the sea and facing threats of international Arab armies and a Muslim religious crusade dedicated to their destruction, nonetheless manifested “101 percent morale” and faith in their right to their own land.
He concluded that if “a Jewish state is formed it will be the only remaining stabilizing factor in the near and far East,” and, dismissing fears that Israel might turn communist as “fanatically absurd,” he prophesied that the United States would soon “be looking to a Jewish state to preserve a toehold in that part of the world.”
While RFK attempted to present the facts dispassionately and to reflect the views of both sides to the dispute, he conspicuously failed because he apparently could not mask his admiration for the Jews and sympathy for their plight. He could not hide how impressed he was by the “new Jews” of Eretz Yisrael who, unlike their American counterparts, had become an immensely proud and determined people.
Tellingly, albeit in an unpublished remark, he even went so far as to criticize American Zionists for “making speeches” instead of coming to Eretz Yisrael to fight for the Jewish homeland. In contrast, he reported on such episodes as Arabs proudly telling him about their plans to poison Jerusalem’s water supply and to annihilate every living Jew.
After expressing his admiration for the important contribution made by the Jews of Eretz Yisrael to the Allied war effort, he effectively debunked the very idea of British neutrality. He ended the series with a heartfelt plea that “[t]he United States through the United Nations must take the lead in bringing about peace in the Holy Land.”
Having never forgotten his early impressions of the nascent Jewish state, RFK continued his strong support for Israel. He played an important role in the decisions of his brother’s administration to send Hawk and anti-aircraft missiles to Israel, to increase economic aid to Israel, and to help develop the plan to use the Jordan River to irrigate the Negev. As Senator from New York, he was instrumental in pressing President Johnson to sell Israel 50 F-4 Phantom jets after the French froze the sale of Mirage planes following the 1967 Six-Day War.
In this lovely letter written on his Senate letterhead and dated June 12th, 1967, immediately after the Six-Day War, RFK demonstrates his continuing strong support for Israel’s nationhood and security:
“Thank you for your views about the War in the Middle East. The cease fire is a welcome event, but we must go to the heart of the matter, and insure Israel’s right to be, to exist as a nation, secure from invasion, and we must assure free passage of ships of all nations through the Gulf of Aqaba and the Suez Canal.”
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After winning the California democratic primary, which many pundits insist to this day would have launched him to the presidency, Bobby Kennedy was shot shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a Palestinian living in the United States.
He died the next day, making him arguably the first American victim of modern Arab terrorism (as opposed to Islamic terrorism – Sirhan was a Palestinian Christian), and redirecting American political life in incalculable ways.
Even to this day, there exists a wealth of conspiracy theories regarding RFK’s murder (RFK’s son, Robert Jr., has become a recent backer of the “second shooter” theory). The media at the time, though, generally portrayed the killing as just one more manifestation of an increasingly violent American society and a deteriorating political landscape (Martin Luther King had been killed just a month earlier).
For example, the New York Times called the murder “a wholly irrational act,” other papers called Sirhan “a madman,” and many media outlets identified him simply as “a Jordanian man.” A notable example of media perfidy was an editorial in Le Monde, severely criticized by then-Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, which suggested that there was only “symbolic value” in the fact that Kennedy by assassinated by “an Arab nationalist” [sic] on the first anniversary of the Six-Day War.
However, the fact that Sirhan murdered RFK on the first anniversary of the start of the Six-Day War was no mere coincidence, though the media overwhelmingly failed to report that RFK’s support of Israel was Sirhan’s motive for the assassination. The East Jerusalem-born killer was enraged after viewing an article in The Pasadena Independent about RFK’s reporting from Eretz Yisrael in 1948. He later testified at his murder trial that he had viewed Kennedy’s election favorably until that moment, when he had learned from the article that RFK’s support for Israel was not merely an expedient position taken by a political candidate but, rather, that “he was supporting it from all the way from its inception in 1948.”
Angrily recalling being one of the hundreds of thousands of “Palestinians” displaced during the War of Independence (even though the term historically referred to Jewish residents of Eretz Yisrael), and furious that “Kennedy” was somehow singularly responsible for supplying arms to Israel, he wrote in his diary that “Robert F. Kennedy must be assassinated before June 5, 1968.” When Sirhan was apprehended after committing the heinous murder, The Pasadena Independent article was found in his pocket.
The Arab response to Kennedy’s murder was perhaps best stated by M.T. Mehdi, then secretary-general of the Action Committee on American-Arab Relations, who explained that Sirhan’s actions were entirely appropriate because “he was defending himself against those 50 Phantom jets Kennedy was sending to Israel.”