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The U.S. Senator Who Died for Israel

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the American government’s support for Israel, and I imagine that many readers of The Commentator can relate. It’s an election season here in the United States, and that means that citizens are bombarded daily with candidates’ stump speeches, campaign teams’ propaganda, friends’ unsolicited opinions (here I admit some personal guilt), and media analyses of varying quality. As we watch the debates and consider the sides (for those of us that are still considering them and haven’t yet decided), we try to discern which policy issues are important to us, and whether or not the candidates have different visions concerning those issues.

[caption id="attachment_1379" align="alignleft" width="200"] Robert Kennedy in Jerusalem, 1948.[/caption]

Israel naturally comes to mind for Americans who cherish the Jewish State and value its security and prosperity. And this is no small number of Americans; the Israeli cause is widely popular among statistically significant sectors of the U.S. population. Gallup’s 2012 World Affairs survey demonstrates that 71% of Americans view Israel favorably, and this figure is representative of trends in American sentiment for decades. Many see Israel as a key ally that shares American values and interests in an unfriendly region, AIPAC and other policy groups advocate impressively for sustained financial and diplomatic support for Israel in Washington, and millions of Americans express a personal religious connection to Israel.

This reality manifests noticeably in U.S. national politics. Any serious candidate for major office will maintain pro-Israel positions as central to his or her foreign policy. Straying from this path to do anything perceived as detrimental to Israel’s security, or even to do something perceived as out of step with the policies of the elected Israeli government (as we have recently seen) is entirely taboo.

That said, Israel may be an important political issue for Americans, but certainly not the most important one. Still, in some communities and institutions (Jewish and evangelical Christian ones in particular), Israel figures very highly on the hierarchy of voter concerns. The Yeshiva University campuses are a perfect example of such a setting, a little alternate universe in which primary considerations in a U.S. election include the Iranian nuclear threat, funding for anti-missile security in Israel’s south, the status of settlements over the Green Line, and financial aid to the IDF. And this is not a criticism. As values-conscious voters, we focus on the issues most dear to us and aim to utilize our constitutionally-granted voting right to influence these issues.

We Americans who love Israel benefit from and actively engage in the remarkable, bipartisan blessing that is the US-Israel relationship. I make this point with no interest in implying a particular Israel-oriented view on the major presidential candidates of 2012 or their campaigns. Rather, I want to suggest that as we YU students participate politically in this election season, we should consider and give due honor to one of the great heroes of this relationship.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968. He had just finished addressing his supporters in a hotel ballroom to celebrate with them his major victory in the California Democratic Party primary. The young senator, known to some as RFK but to most by the endearing nickname ‘Bobby,’ experienced a rapid rise to prominence on the heels of his older brother’s presidency. Bobby was beloved by his supporters nationwide as an icon of the Democratic Party and a charismatic member of its so-called royal family. In popular politics, he was best known as an activist for the causes of civil rights in the US and abroad, and as a loud and determined opponent of the Vietnam War.

Bobby Kennedy’s assassin is a 24-year-old Palestinian named Sirhan Sirhan, who holds only Jordanian citizenship and is currently serving a life sentence in a maximum-security state prison in California. Sirhan was born in Jerusalem and moved to the United States as a child, together with his family. He expressed outrage over Kennedy’s support for Israel in the 1967 Six Day War and explained that he was driven to kill the presidential hopeful by the content of that night’s speech, which promised additional jet fighters to Israel. Sirhan opened fire on Kennedy as he left the ballroom, hitting him three times and wounding five others.

This incident became an important turning point in American political history, considered by many commentators to be the first act of political violence in the United States related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Bobby died 26 hours after the shooting and was buried three days later in an enormous ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery. He was interred next to his brother, President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated five years earlier. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a national day of mourning, and Congress passed a law extending the mandate of the Secret Service to presidential candidates, a measure that remains in place today, protecting the candidates in the 2012 election.

Bobby’s career was, of course, characterized by much more than his support for Israel. He served as a federal attorney in the US Department of Justice during the 1950s and became attorney general in his brother’s administration, during which time he transformed the job by playing an active role in providing federal protection and support for the civil rights movement in the South. JFK’s presidency is credited with great advances in the cause of rights for American blacks, largely owing to the efforts of his younger brother/cabinet member. After the president’s assassination in 1963, Bobby was elected to the US Senate to represent New York. During his three and a half years in office, Senator Kennedy came to oppose President Johnson’s military commitments in Vietnam, ultimately calling, in 1967, for a full withdrawal of American forces, and became a public voice on Capitol Hill for pressuring the South African government to end apartheid.

Bobby certainly faced criticism for his policies and activism concerning all of the above and more, but he was killed only because of his support for Israel. It may be attractive not to think much of this fact; after all, as addressed above, what American politician would dream of winning the nation’s highest office without promising military support for a beleaguered Israel in his or her campaign speeches? But I discovered an important website recently that taught me to think otherwise.

Robert Kennedy and Israel ( presents four articles written by Bobby Kennedy for the now-defunct Boston Post in the spring of 1948. The articles provide thoughtful and thorough first-hand testimony of the violent tensions involving Jews, Arabs, and the British in the final weeks before the State of Israel was born and war broke out. Some background is in order: After completing his undergraduate degree in Government at Harvard in March 1948, Bobby earned accreditation as a reporter for the Boston Post, and set out for Europe and the Middle East to tour and write for six months. The articles collected on this website are four out of the six produced by Bobby over the course of his trip.

The site’s creator, accomplished Israeli diplomat and politics writer Lenny Ben-David, explained four years ago that he posted the articles in honor of “the 40th yahrzeit of Robert Kennedy” and the 60th anniversary of his visit to Mandatory Palestine.

After reading the articles, I feel that this site is an invaluable historical resource, albeit not without its occasional typographical errors from the copying process, and I applaud Ben-David for his effort. Throughout all four accounts, written in the thick of historic political developments and growing fear and mistrust in Mandatory Palestine, Bobby deftly crafts a vivid glimpse into the realities of the conflict. The first article faithfully relates the opposing claims of Jewish and Arab nationalist movements, the second lauds the impressive work of the Jewish defense armies, the third illustrates the evident British antipathy to the Jewish cause and the terrible hazards faced by the Jews, and the fourth considers and rejects the potential concern that the Jews of Palestine would turn to Soviet Russia for support when war would later ensue.

Among the striking features of this journalistic work is Bobby’s affinity and admiration for the Jews and their work. He writes of their remarkable ingenuity in building a national infrastructure, a skilled army, and institutions of learning – “They have truly done much with what all agrees was very little,” – and admires their undying determination – “[The Jews] make great sacrifices in order that their children might become heir to a home.” He describes the existential threat posed by Arab enemies to the small Jewish population – “…the Arabs are unkindly disposed toward any kind of Jew;” “’Palestine will be Arab. We shall accept no compromise,” – and the difficulties posed by British non-cooperation – “The British government…has given ample credence to the suspicion that they are firmly against the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.” Finally, Bobby observes the egalitarian values of the Jewish enterprise in Palestine – “This is the only country in the Near and Middle East where an Arab middle class is in existence” (as a result of economic opportunities created by the Zionist influx) – as well as the potential strategic benefit of a strong American alliance with the future Jewish State – “The United States and Great Britain before too long a time might well be looking to a Jewish state to preserve a toehold in that part of the world.”

These accounts, replete with feeling, personal anecdotes, and pictures, demonstrate clearly and significantly Bobby Kennedy’s respect and support for what would become the State of Israel. When he later upheld a policy of continuing support for Israel – the ‘crime’ for which he died – he did so genuinely and courageously. Bobby fell in the front lines for our beloved Israel, the national cause he so appreciated, and he deserves our everlasting gratitude for that. I believe that now, during this 2012 presidential election, as we debate the pro-Israel merits of the different candidates, it is upon us to remember the tragic events of the presidential election 44 years ago. And just as YU awarded Bobby Kennedy an honorary degree in 1967, we as a university community should honor him once again today for his subsequent, ultimate sacrifice.