The senator’s unwavering support for the Jewish state strengthened American-Israeli ties—and ultimately led to his assassination by a Palestinian gunman.
Robert Kennedy speaking at a pro-Israel rally at Madison Square Garden, 1967 / SANTI VISALLI/GETTY IMAGES
In the months between his graduation from Harvard in the spring of 1948 and his enrollment in the University of Virginia Law School in the fall of that year, Bobby Kennedy embarked on an overseas trip at the urging of his father. Through the elder Kennedy’s Boston connections, the 22-year-old aspiring attorney landed a reporting job with the Boston Post. There, Kennedy convinced his editors to let him report from the Middle East on the Arab-Israeli war.
Kennedy arrived in early April and spent a few weeks in war-torn Palestine. From there, he wrote four very vivid and wide-ranging articles. He left Palestine before Ben-Gurion’s May 14th declaration of Israeli statehood and returned through Europe to the United States.
In early June, after Israel was established and diplomatically recognized by the major powers, the articles were published in a series under the byline “Robert Kennedy, Special Writer for the Post.” In the first article, under the headline “British Hatred by Both Sides,” RFK labored mightily to present the arguments of both Arabs and Jews. “There are such well-founded arguments on either side,” Kennedy wrote, “that each side grows more and more bitter toward the other. Confidence in their right increases in proportion to the hatred and mistrust for the other side not acknowledging it.”
In the subsequent three articles, however, RFK and his Boston Post editors no longer attempted to convey an objective view of the competing claims of Jews and Arabs. As the headline on his June 4th article indicates, RFK chose a side: “Jews Have a Fine Fighting Force—Make Up for Lack of Arms With Undying Spirit, Unparalleled Courage—Impress the World.” The article gets directly to the point: “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.” Many similar articles appeared in the American press of the day. The surprising thing about these Boston Post articles was not their pro-Zionist sentiments, but the fact that they had been written by Joseph P. Kennedy’s son.
In the years immediately preceding the 1948 establishment of Israel, there was widespread sympathy for the Zionist cause in many sectors of the American public. As the historian David McCullough noted in his acclaimed biography of President Harry Truman, “In 1948, beyond the so-called ‘Jewish vote,’ there was the country at large, where popular support for a Jewish homeland was overwhelming. As would sometimes be forgotten, it was not just American Jews who were stirred by the prospect of a new nation for the Jewish people; it was most of America.”
Many non-Jewish members of what we might term “the creative class” were supporters of Zionism. Three that come to mind are the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the literary critic Edmund Wilson, and the great entertainer Frank Sinatra. But while sympathy for the idea of Israel was strong, so too was opposition to it. In the 1940s, some Americans with political and cultural clout began organizing against the Zionist cause. They had a variety of reasons: Some were isolationists who did not want the United States entangled in Middle Eastern affairs; others sympathized with the Arab view that Zionism was a new form of European colonialism; and without a doubt, some in the emerging anti-Zionist camp were antisemites.
Among the most influential and strident opponents of such Jewish causes was Joseph P. Kennedy, patriarch and architect of the famed political dynasty. Though he was better known as a politician and a financier than as a member of the creative class, he worked during the 1920s in the Hollywood film industry, and it was there, two decades before the mid-1940s, that he developed and propagated his criticism of Jews and Jewish nationalism.
When he entered the movie business in the mid-1920s, Kennedy presented himself to potential investors as “thoroughly American,” and not “foreign,” a thinly veiled code for “Jewish.” According to Kennedy, Hollywood was run by “a bunch of ignorant Jews.” Bitter that he had not gotten into the industry earlier, Kennedy accused his successful Jewish rivals in Hollywood of having “unethically pushed their way into a wide-open virgin field.”
In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Joseph Kennedy, who had helped FDR in his 1936 election campaign, as the U.S. ambassador to Britain. In London, Kennedy allied himself with British advocates for appeasement and befriended the Nazi-appointed German ambassador, who described him as “Germany’s best friend in London.” When war broke out in September 1939, Kennedy’s call for U.S. neutrality in the European conflict put him increasingly at odds with FDR. Kennedy blamed the “Jew Media” and the “Jewish pundits in New York and Los Angeles” for Roosevelt’s 1940 election victory and for moving toward U.S. support of England in its struggle against the Nazis.
Before he left his post in London, Kennedy made a trip to California. In Hollywood, he invited some 50 studio executives, producers, and writers—almost all of them Jews—to meet with him. During the meeting, Kennedy harangued the assembled group, warning them of the dangers anti-Nazi films posed to “world peace.” According to actor and producer Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who attended the meeting, Kennedy “threw the fear of God into many of our producers and executives by telling them that the Jews were on the spot and that they should stop making anti-Nazi pictures.” Among the anti-Nazi films Kennedy criticized were Clouds over Europe and Confessions of a Nazi Spy, both distributed in 1939, as well as the British thriller Night Train to Munich, which was distributed in America in 1940. President Roosevelt’s decision to ask for Kennedy’s resignation stemmed in part from the account of that meeting supplied by Fairbanks, who was a close friend of the president.
To what extent did Kennedy’s pro-fascist and anti-Jewish attitudes influence his children? Joseph Jr., his eldest son and the first of his nine children, clearly adopted many of his father’s political and social attitudes. Writing from Germany in the spring of 1934, the 19-year-old Harvard student extolled the Nazi regime:
They had tried liberalism, and it had seriously failed. They had no leader, and as time went on Germany was sinking lower and lower. The German people were scattered, despondent, and were divorced from home. Hitler came in. He saw the need of a common enemy, someone of whom to make the goat. Someone, by whose riddance the Germans would feel they had cast out the cause of their predicament. It was excellent psychology, and it was too bad that it had to be done to the Jews. This dislike of the Jews, however, was well-founded … They were at the heads of all big business, in law, etc.
As historian Doris Kearns Goodwin noted, this letter “reveals a certain grounding in antisemitism that can only have come from his family background.” Joseph Jr.’s attitude about Germany did not change over the course of the 1930s. And in 1940, he helped found the Harvard Committee Against Military Intervention, an affiliate of the America First Movement. His father approved.
The idea that the descendants of Joseph P. Kennedy were cursed has long had a hold on the imagination of some American Jews. According to a story circulating among some Hasidic groups, a curse was placed on the antisemitic Kennedy patriarch by a group of Hasidim who had an ugly encounter with him aboard an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic from England to the U.S. It was the fall of 1939 and the Hasidim were fleeing the Nazis. Ambassador Kennedy was traveling to the States on this same liner. When he saw a group of Jews praying on deck, he complained to the captain and demanded that they be removed and sent below deck. The captain complied and a curse against the Kennedy was pronounced by the rabbis.
I myself encountered this idea before JFK’s assassination. As a 15-year-old student at an Orthodox yeshiva on New York’s Lower East Side, I attended the public funeral of one of the great Torah scholars of the generation. Thousands gathered to hear the eulogies. The speech that made the deepest impression on me was by a well-known rabbi who said that the families of politicians, like the Kennedys, who were indifferent to the fate of the murdered Jews of Europe, would be cursed for generations. Their children, to invoke biblical language, would have to suffer for the sins of their fathers. Though I forgot much of what I learned in that yeshiva, I never forgot that speech. And I was reminded of it each time I learned that a member of the Kennedy family had come to catastrophic harm.
In contrast to their father and their eldest brother, John and Robert Kennedy did not seem to harbor hostility toward Jews. In fact, as they entered politics, they developed sympathetic attitudes toward Jews and Zionism. They found their father’s opposition to a Jewish state, couched as it was in antisemitic and isolationist terms, deeply troubling. And they worked hard to change the perception that the Kennedys were antisemitic.
During his three terms as a Massachusetts congressman and two terms as a senator, JFK consistently supported Israel. Speaking to Massachusetts Jewish War Veterans in April of 1948, then Rep. Kennedy criticized President Truman for equivocating on the question of Jewish statehood and suggesting instead that a U.N. trusteeship should replace the departing British. The young congressman called it “one of the most discouraging aspects of recent American foreign policy.” When, in May of that year, Truman granted Israel recognition over the objections of State Department officials, JFK applauded Truman’s decision. Fourteen years later, during a 1962 meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir, it was JFK who first used the term “special relationship” to describe U.S. ties to Israel; previously, the phrase had been applied only to Britain.
And beyond this presidential rhetorical flourish, JFK transformed the American-Israeli relationship with his decision to sell American-made missiles to Israel. As Abraham Ben-Zvi, eminent historian of the U.S.-Israel relationship put it, “the emerging perception that Israel could become a valuable regional ally of the U.S., precipitated the September 26, 1962 presidential decision to sell Israel Hawk anti-aircraft, short-range missiles … The Kennedy administration decided, in 1962, to significantly expand its security ties with Israel, embarking on a course which sought to make Israel an integral part of any deterrence or containment scheme.”
Political and military events of the 1960s, culminating in the 1967 war, further strengthened the relationship between the United States and Israel. The “hard” bonds of political, military, and security cooperation were enhanced by the “soft” American-Israeli ties facilitated by writers, artists, and entertainers. This reciprocal relationship between soft and hard power further strengthened the ties between the two countries.
Meanwhile, as JFK supplied Israel with political backing and armaments, Attorney General RFK provided Israel with assistance in the legal realm, most notably in the “Yossele Case” of 1962. In that case, the FBI and the Department of Justice worked with the Israeli government to return Yossele Schumacher, an 8-year-old boy kidnapped by his grandparents to “save” him from his secular kibbutznik parents. The case required that officials at the highest levels of both governments remained in constant communication and cooperate fully. The Yossele case was widely covered in the U.S. media; The New York Times and other national newspapers gave the story front-page coverage. And in 1962, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion turned to the Mossad, Israel’s overseas intelligence agency, for help.
When the Mossad learned that the child was living with a Hasidic family in Brooklyn, the Mossad chief contacted Attorney General RFK. Kennedy told the FBI to give the Mossad their full cooperation. In September 1962, federal agents, accompanied by Mossad operatives, found the boy and flew him back to Israel. Ben-Gurion was relieved; some would say triumphant. An inter-Jewish Israeli culture war had been defused, if not won, and U.S.-Israeli ties had been strengthened.
In 1964, a year after JFK’s assassination, RFK resigned from the Justice Department and entered the campaign for the New York Senate seat, which he ultimately won. His opponent, Republican Sen. Kenneth Keating, was also a vocal supporter of Israel. Throughout the campaign, the two candidates outdid each other in praise of the Jewish state. RFK, seeking Jewish support, made sure to quote from his 1948 Boston Post articles as proof that his Zionist sympathies were long-standing, not fabricated merely for the Senate race.
At the end of the 1967 war RFK stated, “We can welcome the United Nations’ call for a cease-fire, but a cease-fire is not enough. We must deal with the causes of the conflict by ensuring a permanent and enforceable guarantee of Israel’s right to live secure from invasion and free passage for ships of all nations through the Gulf of Aqaba and the Suez Canal.” And in his 1968 campaign for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, RFK’s pro-Israel statements were consistent with this statement.
RFK had moved to the left on many issues between 1964 and 1968. As the historian John R. Bohrer noted in his 2017 book, The Revolution of Robert Kennedy: From Power to Protest After JFK, “As Bobby embraced a progressive agenda, the progressive agenda embraced him.” The issues Kennedy addressed—civil rights, economic inequality, and the futility of the U.S. war in Vietnam—represented shifts in both idea and action. But on the issue of Israel and the Arab states, he remained steadfast. He did not subscribe to the idea developing during those years on the left that Israel was a colonialist enterprise.
Bobby Kennedy’s support of Jewish causes was emulated and intensified by the political work of his brother Sen. Ted Kennedy. Bobby was an early supporter of the movement calling for the right of Russian Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union. As attorney general, he supported diplomatic efforts in that direction, and as the senator from New York, he spoke in support of the movement at the 1965 Madison Square Garden rally organized by the Conference on Soviet Jewry. Twenty thousand supporters of the cause were at the rally.
After Bobby’s death, Ted Kennedy took up the cause and became one of the most dedicated and effective voices in Congress making the case for Soviet Jewry. He was the first important figure in Washington to meet with Soviet refuseniks who had come to the U.S. to advocate for the release of their families and friends.
After Ted’s death in 2007, Natan Sharansky said that “Senator Kennedy broke down the iron curtain that separated Soviet Jews from official US politicians. He wasn’t the only one, but he was one of the big figures, one of our biggest allies, for Soviet Jewry.”
RFK’s 1968 assassination at the hand of 22-year-old Sirhan Sirhan was linked by the assassin himself to Kennedy’s pro-Israel stance. The murder took place on June 5, 1968, the one-year anniversary of the start of the Six-Day War. Sirhan Sirhan was born in Jerusalem in 1944 into a Greek Orthodox Christian family. During the 1948 war, they were displaced from their home and eventually settled in a refugee center east of Jerusalem. In 1957, with the aid of a Protestant church organization, the Sirhan family moved to the U.S. and settled in Pasadena, California. After two years in Pasadena, Bishura Sirhan, the assassin’s father, moved back to Jordan after becoming disillusioned with life in the States. His wife and children stayed in California. As an adolescent, Sirhan expressed resentment toward U.S. support of Israel, a theme he obsessively chronicled in his diaries. These journals, which were found in Sirhan’s home after the assassination, contained long diatribes about Israel and Jews. Two weeks before he shot RFK, Sirhan wrote, “My determination to eliminate RFK is becoming more and more of an obsession. Kennedy must die before June 5th.”
The assassination, two months after MLK’s, was so traumatic for those who had supported his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, and for the nation as a whole, that both the government and the media downplayed Sirhan’s political motives. But his true intentions—to punish RFK for his support of Israel—were immediately clear to government officials, though they did not want them presented to the public.
At the conclusion of his jury trial in 1969, Sirhan Sirhan was sentenced to death. After the California Supreme Court’s 1972 decision that capital punishment was unconstitutional, his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment.
As of this writing, Sirhan is 77 years old and still serving his sentence; his applications for parole have been denied 10 times. Surprisingly, he has gotten a lot of media exposure in the past quarter-century. In 1989, Sirhan told TV interviewer David Frost (in an NBC Inside Edition broadcast) that at first he had thought of RFK as a fighter for justice, but when he learned of Kennedy’s support for sending arms to Israel, he decided to kill him: “To hear him say that he was going to send fifty Phantom Jets to Israel, to deliver nothing but death and destruction on my countrymen, that seemed like it was a betrayal.”
The late congressman and Civil Rights stalwart John Lewis was a great admirer of RFK. He observed that “something died in America” on the day RFK was shot. On June 5, 2018, the 50th anniversary of the assassination, Lewis spoke at a memorial event in D.C. He recalled being in Indianapolis on the day MLK was killed and hearing the powerful speech that RFK gave there on the night of MLK’s murder. Standing on the back of a flatbed truck in a Black neighborhood of the city, RFK said, “What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another—a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.” In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, Lewis said of that speech, “It was very, very moving. From time to time you have what I call an executive session with yourself. I said to myself that evening: ‘We still have Bobby.’ Two months later, he was gone.”
During a 2017 visit to Israel, RFK’s daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, spoke of her “special bond” with Israel, a bond forged by her father. She quoted from RFK’s 1948 Boston Post articles and summed them up in this way: “He wrote about the courage of the Israelis, and how they were determined to build a new country. After seeing such horror in Europe, they were going to build a country of courage and of democracy and of values. And he realized, when he saw the Israelis, that the United States had a special relationship to this country and needed to make sure that that relationship stayed firm.”
Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel.