This Kennedy was our friend
Bobby Kennedy's 40th yahrzeit fell Wednesday, as well as 60 years since his visit to Palestine.
Hillary Clinton's horrible gaffe several weeks ago about Robert Kennedy's assassination served as a reminder that RFK was gunned down exactly 40 years ago as he left a primary victory celebration in California. Bobby generated great hope and enthusiasm among America's young, especially those who were opposed to the Vietnam war - not unlike the campaign of a young Illinois Senator today.
RFK was a strong supporter of Israel, and that support was genuine, deep, and heart-felt.
And it cost him his life.
His oldest daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, told me on his 30th yahrzeit, "He was killed by an Arab terrorist [Sirhan Sirhan] because of his support for Israel."
Sirhan's motives - which were expressed in his diary and trial - were fueled by his anger over Israel's victory exactly one year earlier.
Ironically, June 5 is also another Kennedy anniversary. Sixty years ago, just weeks after Israel declared its independence, the Boston Post published a series of articles by the young college graduate who arrived in Palestine in late March 1948. Bobby's words still inspire:
"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.
"From a small village of a few thousand inhabitants, Tel Aviv has grown into a most impressive modern metropolis of over 200,000. They have truly done much with what all agree was very little...
"The Jews point with pride to the fact that over 500,000 Arabs, in the 12 years between 1932-1944, came into Palestine to take advantage of living conditions existing in no other Arab state..."
RFK'S WORDS also serve as a rejoinder to anti-Israel propagandists today. Some revisionists claim that the Jews of the Yishuv outnumbered and outgunned the Arabs in Palestine. Kennedy's eye-witness account is different:
"When I was in Tel Aviv the Jews informed the British government that 600 Iraqi troops were going to cross into Palestine from Trans-Jordan by the Allenby Bridge on a certain date and requested the British take appropriate action to prevent this passage. The troops passed unmolested...
"I saw several thousand non-Palestinian Arab troops in Palestine, including many of the famed British-trained and equipped Arab legionnaires of King Abdullah. There were soldiers from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Trans-Jordan, and they were all proudly pointed out to me by a spokesman of the Arab Higher Committee... Every Arab to whom I talked spoke of thousands of soldiers massed in the 'terrible triangle of Nablus, Tulkarm, Jenin' and of hundreds that were pouring in daily...
"When I was in Lebanon and asked a dean at the American University in Beirut if many students were leaving for the fight in Palestine he shrugged and said, 'Not now - the quota has been oversubscribed.' When journeying by car from Jerusalem to Amman I passed many truckloads of armed Arabs and even then Jericho was alive with Arab troops. There is no question that it was taken over by the Arabs for an armed camp long before May 15 [the British date of departure]...
"The inability [of the Haganah] to make any long-range military maneuvers because of the presence of the British has been a great and almost disastrous handicap to the Jews... If the Haganah had waited for May 15th and the withdrawal of British troops, there would be few alive in Jerusalem today. Strong units of that body had moved into the hills on either side of that strategic road and repelled Arab counterattacks long enough for several hundred truckloads to make the 40-mile trip into the city... The maneuvers had to take place and took place despite the British...."
IN ONE stirring passage, Kennedy joined with Haganah fighters and physically placed himself in danger.
"I have ridden in Jewish armored car convoys which the British have stopped to inspect for arms. As always, there were members of the Haganah aboard and they quickly broke down their small arms, passing the pieces among the occupants to conceal them so as to prevent confiscation... If the arms had been found and confiscated and Arabs had attacked, there would have been but a remote chance of survival for any of the occupants. There have been many not as fortunate as we...."
ROBERT KENNEDY'S affinity for American Jews and empathy for the Jews of Palestine was all the more remarkable considering his father's antipathy and the views of one of his father's friends, Lord Beaverbrook. As related by RFK's biographer, Arthur Schlesinger, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. opposed the United States's entry into the war against Germany, and in the summer of 1942 complained to his friend, Beaverbrook, "There is a great undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the appointment of so many Jews in high places in Washington..."
In March 1948, Bobby found himself on the Queen Mary sailing to England with Beaverbrook. Schlesinger relates, quoting from RFK's diary, that when the young Kennedy told Beaverbrook he was heading to the Middle East, the Englishman remarked that the United States was "a subjugated nation to a Jewish minority..."
Bobby Kennedy was probably one of America's most optimistic and forward-thinking politicians since Franklyn Roosevelt. His attitude is reflected in his famous quote (paraphrasing G.B. Shaw), "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?"
And that attitude was obvious already in 1948 when RFK wrote, "It is against all law and nature that this Jewish state should exist... The Jews believe that in a few more years, if a Jewish state is formed, it will be the only stabilizing factor remaining in the Near and Middle East... Vehemence and hatred between the Jews and Arabs increase daily. But in many cases Jews and Arabs work side by side in the fields and orange groves outside of Tel Aviv. Perhaps these Jews and Arabs are making a greater contribution to the future peace in Palestine than are those who carry guns on both sides..."
May his memory continue to be blessed.
The writer served as deputy chief of mission in Israel's embassy in Washington. He blogs at www.lennybendavid.com. Robert Kennedy's articles can be viewed at www.robertkennedyandisrael.blogspot.com