Bobby Kennedy and the Courage to Reject the Antisemitism of His Times

Senator Bobby Kennedy, the younger brother of President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated fifty-four years ago last week on June 5th, 1968, after a campaign rally in Los Angeles where he clenched the California Democratic Primary in his presidential bid. His killer was 24-year-old Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a devoted Palestinian Christian born in Jerusalem mandated Palestine. Filled with self-confessed violent rage toward Bobby Kennedy for his support of Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War and Bobby’s continued commitment to stand with the Jewish State, Sirhan Sirhan timed his attack on the Senator exactly one year to the day of the beginning of the Six-Day War – June 5th, 1967.

Historians rightly conclude that it was Bobby Kennedy’s support of Israel that tragically ended his life at the hands of Sirhan Sirhan – described by some as America’s first lone-wolf terrorist bent on destroying the Jews.

Though a tragedy, there is a triumphal backstory to the fateful day an Antisemitic killer took the life of Bobby Kennedy due to his support of Israel. You see, Bobby was raised by a father – Joseph P. Kennedy – who held extremely negative views toward Jews.

The facts surrounding Joe Kennedy’s disdain for Jews are well documented by historians and biographers and cannot be excused as some form of ignorant cultural misunderstanding. By all accounts, Joe Kennedy was a dreadfully committed and vocal Anti-Semite. As the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain beginning in 1938, Joe was a known Nazi sympathizer and an outspoken opponent of American Jews in Hollywood, producing anti-Nazi films. The influence and power Joe wielded in his public disdain for Jews would affect his family. His eldest son, Joe Junior, spent time as a student in Germany in the mid-1930s. In witnessing the beginning of the persecution of German Jews, young Joe wrote to his father in full support of Hitler’s Antisemitism. The German people, Joe said:

“Need 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. The dislike of the Jews, however, was well-founded. They were the heads of all big business, law, etc. It is all to their credit for getting so far, but their methods had been quite unscrupulous…the lawyers and prominent judges were Jews, and if you had a case against a Jew, you were nearly always sure to lose. It is extremely sad that noted (Jewish) professors, scientists, artists, etc., should have to suffer, but as you can see, it would be impossible to throw out only a part of them. As far as the brutality is concerned, it must have been necessary to use some. The Nazis’ brutality was horrible, but in every revolution, you have to expect some bloodshed.”

Joe Kennedy Senior responded to his son’s letter with overwhelming agreement and affirmed that he was “very pleased and gratified at your observations of the German situation.”

Bobby’s father aligned himself with other Antisemites, including Charles Lindberg and Roman Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin – a powerhouse radio magnet in America during the 1930s with a listening audience of 30 million who tuned into his “Hour of Power” – the radio voice of his political organization, The National Union for Social Justice. Like Kennedy, Father Coughlin was a Nazi sympathizer and supported the fascist policies of Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

During this time period, Bobby Kennedy would have been in his early teenage years and very impressionable – especially under the powerful and charismatic influence of his father. Yet, he would find the courage to break away from that influence, the mentorship of his father’s circle of Antisemitic friends, and the Antisemitic rhetoric in the media at the time.

This story matters because history has a way of repeating itself. Today we are hearing the same Antisemitic rhetoric that was present in the 1930s. Whether you appreciate the politics of Senator Bobby Kennedy or not – the fact is the young man made a choice to reject the deep-seated Antisemitism of his father and stand with the Jewish people – a decision that would bring his life to a tragic end, leave his children fatherless, and his wife, Ethel, a widow. The triumphal story here is that if, in Bobby Kennedy’s youth, he could choose courage over the powerful influence of Antisemitism in his own home and in the media, there is hope that young people in our generation can find the courage to think and to choose truth over the age-long Antisemitism mutating in our times.

About the Author
Aaron David Fruh is the President of Israel Team Advocates, whose mission it is to change the growing anti-Israel narrative on college campuses. Aaron is the author of five books including The Casualty of Contempt: the alarming rise of Antisemitism and what can be done to stop it (editor), and Two Minute Warning: why it’s time to honor the Jewish people before the clock runs out. Aaron has written for The Jerusalem Post and The Algemeiner.