Was Robert Kennedy killed because he supported Israel?

Historian Colin Shindler looks back at the final years of Senator Robert Kennedy's career as the 50th anniversary of his assassination approaches


Shortly after midnight on 5 June 1968, Robert Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian living in the US, in the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles during his campaign to become president.

Kennedy died the next day – it was the first anniversary of the outbreak of the Six Day war.

In subsequent years, Sirhan Sirhan’s confused explanations often mentioned Kennedy’s support for Israel and the supply of 50 F-4 Phantom fighters to Tel Aviv.

Coming a few months after the murder of Martin Luther King and the killing of his brother President John F Kennedy in 1963, British tabloids captured the widespread anguish with headlines as "Oh no, not again!"

Israeli intelligence services and police quickly prepared a file on Sirhan Sirhan, whose father still lived in Tabiyeh on the West Bank.

Foreign Minister Abba Eban condemned an editorial in Le Monde which implied that the murder of Kennedy by "an Arab nationalist" possessed "symbolic value" one year after Israel’s victory in the Six Day war.

For many American Jews, it was the extinguishing of a man who had been the standard bearer of liberal aspirations – genuine civil rights for black people, an end to the conflict in Vietnam, a war on poverty and inequality.

Unlike many Jews who had turned rags into riches, the Kennedy brothers came from highly privileged backgrounds with little inkling of the struggles of those who daily fought to make ends meet.

For Robert Kennedy, the 1960s was a decade of learning, exploration and of understanding the other. Jews therefore played an important role in this process.

Just out of college, Robert Kennedy went to Israel in June 1948, a few weeks after Ben-Gurion had declared its independence, and wrote several articles for the Boston press. His admiration for the embattled Israelis was clear.

He once wrote: "The Jewish people in Palestine who believe in and have been working toward this national state have become an immensely proud and determined people. It is already a truly great modern example of the birth of a nation with the primary ingredients of dignity and self-respect."

Kennedy looked to his own Irish heritage in drawing a parallel between the Irish struggle and the Jews in 1948.

He quoted those words from the dock of Robert Emmet, the Irish republican hanged for treason by the British in September 1803. Kennedy understood that history was important for both Irish and Jews, as Emmet commented: "The man dies, but his memory lives."

Kennedy had a way with words, often quoting philosophers such as Montesquieu and playwrights such as Aeschylus, which few politicians do today.

In an address to the American Jewish Committee in 1964 about civil rights legislation, he asked them to reflect on racism and the Jewish experience.

'We know that systematic exclusion of Irish or Jews or Italians or of any ethnic group has ended not only because laws changed, but because men's minds did," he said.

Kennedy often had to distant himself from his father’s negative views about Jews.

As US Ambassador in London in the 1930s, Joseph Kennedy’s private correspondence was peppered with antisemitic remarks. Many regarded him as a pro-Nazi appeaser and a defeatist.

When reminded of this, Robert Kennedy would often respond: "Look, I lost a brother and brother-in-law to the Nazis."

His wife, Ethel, pregnant with her eleventh child when her husband was killed, became a renown campaigner for human rights. His daughter Kathleen, a frequent visitor to Israel, was Maryland’s lieutenant-governor between 1995 and 2003.

His assassin Sirhan Sirhan has spent his entire life wasted in prison. His fifteenth appeal for parole was turned down in 2016.

In 1966 Kennedy visited South Africa at the height of apartheid. He spoke out when the norm was silence and told university students: "Each time a man stands up for an ideal or seeks to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

It is these words of inspiration that are carved on Kennedy’s memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

Colin Shindler is emeritus professor of Israel Studies at SOAS, University of London. His most recent book, ‘The Hebrew Republic: Israel’s Return to History’ was published by Rowman and Littlefield

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