Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Why Robert Kennedy’s assassination still matters

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy addresses a throng of supporters in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles early in the morning of June 5, 1968, following his victory in the previous day's California primary election. A moment later he turned into a hotel kitchen corridor and was critically wounded. His wife, Ethel, is just behind him. (AP Photo/Dick Strobel)

It was a day that I will always remember.

A number of years ago, I had the honor of sitting on the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, as part of the commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.

I was seated next to Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

As the service was about to begin, there was a moment when Kerry had a brief, whispered conversation with the son of Reverend Martin Luther King. It was, to quite a photo op, but not even the most skilled photographer could have captured the poignancy of the moment.

Kerry Kennedy and Martin Luther King III both lost their fathers within months of each other, in April and June 1968. Both men were victims of assassins’ bullets. Both men died, in the words of the Hebrew poet Chayim Nachman Bialik, “before their time and before anyone’s time.” Each one had one more song to sing, but those songs had been stilled forever.

Fifty years later, it is worth remembering that moment, and it is worth remembering the life and legacy of Senator Robert Kennedy.

Especially for American Jews.


Kennedy was assassinated in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968 — 50 years ago this week. It was in the wake of his victory in the California presidential primary.

Kennedy’s assassin was a Palestinian resident of Silwan in East Jerusalem, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan – notwithstanding Robert Kennedy Jr.’s nagging suspicion that there was an additional gunman (shades of the JFK assassination theories).

He chose to kill Kennedy on that exact date because it coincided with the first anniversary of Israel’s stunning victory during the Six-Day War. Sirhan hated Kennedy because he had supported Israel; in fact, that was exactly what Sirhan said when he testified at his own trial. He remains in prison, serving a life sentence for the murder.

Robert Kennedy (1925-1968). Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Why is it important that we remember this barely-remembered historical tidbit about the death of Kennedy?

Because Robert Kennedy was the first American victim of modern Arab terrorism.

Note that I did not say “Islamic” terrorism; Sirhan Bishara Sirhan is a Palestinian Christian. The name Bishara is a popular Arab Christian name – from the Arabic word for “flesh,” as in the flesh of Jesus.

But what he shared with many of his Muslim cousins was a visceral, irrational hatred of Israel. It drove him to murder a man whom some still believe might have been the greatest hope of an earlier generation.

One man’s hatred of Israel utterly re-directed American political life and the story of the presidency.

Kennedy’s assassination eliminated the one Democratic candidate who arguably could have unified the party and invigorated it with a new sense of vision. It led to the nomination of Hubert Humphrey and, to our lasting chagrin, ultimately to the victory of Richard Nixon.

It would be decades before the emergence of a Democratic candidate whose voice could mobilize young people and point the way to a deeper sense of involvement in the political process.

In remembering Bobby Kennedy, let us remember not just what he lived for, but also what he died for — namely, the precious nature of the American-Israeli relationship.

Many Americans sense that Israel’s enemies and the enemies of the United States are one and the same.

Many Americans also recognize that Israel and the United States are among the only countries in the world today that were founded on ideas. Both countries share fundamental values — democracy, freedom, the rule of law — as well as the struggle to create those values and bring them to fruition. It’s why anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Americanism walk, demonically, hand in hand.

That is why the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination is a sobering moment in our national history. We not only lost Bobby Kennedy, we lost what had been — and what could have continued to be — a precious voice in our national narrative.

When I remember Bobby Kennedy in my prayers this week, I will remember that hope.

I will remember why he died — and hope that his vision of Israeli-American cooperation will long survive him.

And, I will remember these words that he spoke in June, 1966 at the University of Cape Town:

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope…those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

May the memory of Robert F. Kennedy be an eternal blessing.


About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.


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  • Ironically, American conservatives “got more” for their political preferences than Palestinians got from Sirhan’s assassination of Robert Kennedy. They got The White House. They got Nixon. Palestinians got what exactly? A guy named Sirhan in an American prison for half a century?

    We should remember the RFK shooting for its turning of American leadership in a bad direction. We should remember it for being an unnecessary murder of something much, much bigger than Sirhan’s stated motivation. It’s not like he could or did reverse American support for Israel, after all.
    But he could and did assassinate the hopes of millions of people for fairness and truth in government. Boom. Just like that.

  • Sirhan could well have been a lonely, disturbed assassin. He could have been a foreign agent. Or, he could have been a real life “Manchurian Candidate.” I say this because he claims he has no memory of the event. Organized crime HATED the Kennedy’s, and I never believed that Oswald was anything more than the perfect patsy. I firmly believe that Hoover, the CIA and the “military-industrial complex” wanted both Kennedy’s gone. JMHO.

  • I believe Jim Garrison was right on the money when he said, “(John) Kennedy’s assassination was part of a coup de tat.”

  • In many ways it is very hard to believe that the shooting of two Kennedys by supposedly-unconnected lone wolf shooters was either coincidence or accident.

  • Wait, what? “Notwithstanding Robert Kennedy Jr.’s nagging suspicion that there was an additional gunman”? You didn’t catch the latest headlines saying just the opposite?

    (1) “Who killed Bobby Kennedy? His son RFK Jr. doesn’t believe it was Sirhan Sirhan”, Tom Jackman, Washington Post, June 5.

    (2) “Who killed Bobby Kennedy? Not the man who has been jailed for 50 years, says Robert Kennedy Jnr: Lawyer claims new evidence puts Sirhan Sirhan’s conviction in doubt, and calls for reinvestigation into assassination that traumatised a nation half a century ago today”, Tom Jackman, Post Magazine, June 5, 2018.

    (3) “Robert F Kennedy: Son thinks man convicted of assassination is innocent”, 9News (Australia), May 30, 2018.

    (4) “RFK Jr. Seeks New Investigation Into Father’s Assassination”, CBS News, May 28, 2018.

    (5) “Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Thinks Sirhan Did Not Fire Shots That Killed His Father”, Newsweek, May 27, 2018.

    (6) “Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says he’s not convinced Sirhan Sirhan killed his dad”, Katherine Lam, Fox News, May 27, 2018.

  • Its been so many years that the government has had to cover-up the facts. I don’t believe Oswald killed Kennedy. I fer shure don’t believe James Earl Ray killed Dr. King. We will probably never know the names of the real people behind these assassinations or which government agencies or organizations were involved.

  • “.. the government has had to cover-up the facts.”

    the government has too many people to keep such explosive secrets . a small group of well funded outsiders perhaps . but to keep a secret for 50 years is difficult in the best of circumstances . no leaks at all ? no deathbed confessions ? no memoirs published after death . secrets will out .

  • While this is a good article, we should still note that both sides have committed terrorism against the other. The problem is that we don’t often associate violence against civilians by those wearing uniforms with terrorism.

  • That may be why we are coping with conservatism which continues to deny so much of it.

  • The most powerful nation on the planet so happens to be the worst when it comes to public confession and admission to guilt. But never say never. My God & Jesus shall make it all known on Judgment Day. Re: JFK, MX, MLK, RFK. 9/11. 7/7. Surabaya. More to come; hang on to your seat.

  • I don’t think you can classify all Palestinian hatred of Israel as “irrational.” Israel has too often overplayed its hand and earned enmity.

  • Moresteps

    You’re wasting your time. The ignorance of the Fox viewer/Trump voter is proof against fact and reason. It’s difficult to tell if their minds are tiny or closed.

  • In name only. He was influenced and followed the dictates of Allah. Kill all infidels!

  • Other than the evidence in existence and the fact that famous people attract loonies by nature.

    It is akin to saying John Lennon’s assassination and the attempt on George Harrison’s life are part of a conspiracy.

  • If his views on the assassination are as accurate as his views on vaccines, it’s safe to ignore him.

  • The premier leftie of the day was Eugene McCarthy, and RFK had won only one major primary at the time of his death. True, he would have had momentum after winning California, but his nomination was no sure thing at that point and even if it were, there’s no guarantee he would have done better against Nixon than Humphrey did.

    As to your larger point about many people having their dreams shattered with RFK’s death, I agree.

  • True, there were no guarantees he would have become president. But he said the right kind of things to a nation, just as his big brother had. Nixon had tapes, it turned out, and every person in America who voted for him should have had to listen to the entirety of what they messed around and elected. My grandparents, for instance, were Republicans in those days. Having never heard a cuss word from either of them in my life, they NEEDED to know what Nixon really was. But alas, they didn’t.

  • There was a whole political party of people with motivation to wish for the end of both Kennedys. The Beatles or ex-Beatles, not so much.

  • Where in this link does it say that he grew up somewhere other than where I said he grew up?

  • Kennedy was not as popular as hagiographies have made him out to be.

    He was in Dallas at the time because he was wildly disliked in the South and wanted to bolster his image. A bullet was hardly necessary to get rid of him. JFK was also a fairly feckless, middle of the road Democrat at the time.

    Most of the reasons for an assassination tend to veer towards wishful thinking. The exception being “Jackie did it”. 🙂

    Despite decades of unfounded claims, research showed it was possible for a lone gunman to do what he did. Also its pretty much a given that doctors messed up after the fact. The attempt to save his life ruined evidence for the later autopsy. Saving one’s professional skin is a far greater motivator to cover up evidence than the ones given for the killing.

  • Perhaps. What I do know is that America lost on the deal. We should have had RFK in the nomination mix, even if the Dems nominated someone else. Conservatism scored big, even if it is able from the investigations to say, “Tsk, tsk, what a shame about those nice Kennedy boys.”

  • To be honest JFK was no bargain. The Civil Rights Act would have never been passed under him in any way. RFK could easily have lost the election on the Vietnam War issue in 1968.

    Now if you want a really wild take on the Kennedy assassinations, rent the movie Winter Kills with John Huston and Jeff Bridges. The theory used there is (fictionalized) Joe Kennedy killed his son (and failed in killing the other) in service of big business.

  • Thanks. I’m not looking for wild takes. We do need to mark our turning points, though.
    The RFK (and King) thing happens to be 50 years old. We now have one far worse which is only 2 years old.

  • Its still an enjoyable film.

    All I am saying is that conspiracies tend to be a lot less than they appear to be and most fall apart for rather mundane and silly reasons.

    To quote Hunter J. Thompson, “The only way three people can keep a secret is if two of them are dead”.

  • It will be a while before all the people who could spill on Trump pass away, you know?

  • Trump couldn’t go a month into his presidency before things started to fall apart for him. Plus the guy has all the self control of a spoiled 4 year old.

  • He grew up in Arab Jerusalem to age 12 hating the Jews and then later in the USA joined a Black Muslim temple/mosque as per the reference.

  • Hey it took a few years to take down Nixon and he was an intelligent and diligent man who could inspire loyalty. Trump is looking down the barrel of the first president in office to be indicted.

  • But, he calls off his own investigations or pardons himself. His base will be fine with either.

  • Salon chickened out & capitulated to the powers-that-mustn’t-be, but, far from “ignor[ing] him, Rolling Stone stands by RFK Jr. as a vocal opponent of the inclusion of the mercury-based preservative, thimerosal, in vaccines.; what’s your point(lessness)?

    “[Rolling Stone] Editor’s Note: The link to this much-debated story by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was inadvertently broken during our redesign in the spring of 2010. (We did not remove the story from the site, as some have incorrectly alleged, nor ever contemplated doing so.) The link to the original story is now restored, including the corrections we posted at the time and the subsequent editorial we published about the ensuing controversy.”

    Source: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., “Deadly Immunity: When a study revealed that mercury in childhood vaccines may have caused autism in thousands of kids, the government rushed to conceal the data – and to prevent parents from suing drug companies for their role in the epidemic”, Rolling Stone, February 9, 2011.

  • If Nixon could not do either, Trump can’t either. Conservatives have been taking stupid pills for the last few years.

    If we are already talking pardons, things are bad for trump. The guy does not command loyalty from anyone.

  • May Robert Kennedy Rest In Peace but Sirhan’s fear for his people have come to pass. Palestinians under occupation are being terrorised, incarcerated and murdered. Notwithstanding the criticism by some conscientious Jews the ongoing Nakba for Palestinians (Muslims and Christians) continue unabated.

  • There is actually no one to stop Trump from pardoning himself. The Republicans won’t do it. Trump knows this, I think.

  • Wow, Rolling Stone is standing behind him?? Well I guess that settles it! It’s not like they had one of the biggest story retractions of all time a few years ago and are on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in defamation damages to UVA officials and students for printing a false story about rape.
    I get my information on vaccines from scientists, not pop-culture gadflies, not people who are famous for being famous, and definitely not from you.

  • As per living in Arab-islamic Jerusalem and joining a Black Muslim temple, he had plenty of koranic influence.

  • Belief in Allah , praying five times a day, Mohammed, their own messenger, Ramadan and a black african version of the koran and yes the Hajj.

  • Not only Rolling Stone, but Huffington Post, Boston Globe, Collective Evolution, EcoWatch and Sacramento Bee as well.

    Source: (1) Robert F. Kennedy Jr., “Central Figure in CDC Vaccine Cover-Up Absconds With $2M”, Huffington Post, May 11, 2010. (2) Robert F. Kennedy Jr., “Autism, mercury, and politics”, Boston Globe, July 1, 2005. (3) Arjun Walia, “A $100,000 Message from Robert F. Kennedy Jr & Robert De Niro to American Journalists & Scientists”, Collective Evolution, February 15, 2017. (4.1) Robert F. Kennedy Jr., “CDC Knew Its Vaccine Program Was Exposing Children to Dangerous Mercury Levels Since 1999”, EcoWatch, January 18, 2017. (4.2) “Yale University Study Shows Association Between Vaccines and Brain Disorders”, EcoWatch, February 8, 2017. (5) Jeremy B. White, “Robert Kennedy Jr. warns of vaccine-linked ‘holocaust'”. Sacramento Bee, April 7, 2015.

  • You say, “I get my information on vaccines from scientists”? PROVE IT right here by way of your rebuttal to this report:

    According to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., “Yale University Study Shows Association Between Vaccines and Brain Disorders”, EcoWatch, February 8, 2017:

    “A team of researchers from the Yale School of Medicine and Penn State College of Medicine have found a disturbing association between the timing of vaccines and the onset of certain brain disorders in a subset of children. Analyzing five years’ worth of private health insurance data on children ages 6-15, these scientists found that young people vaccinated in the previous three to 12 months were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with certain neuropsychiatric disorders than their non-vaccinated counterparts. This new study, which raises important questions about whether over-vaccination may be triggering immune and neurological damage in a subset of vulnerable children (something parents of children with autism have been saying for years), was published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, Jan. 19. … This was a well-designed, tightly controlled study. … ‘This pilot epidemiologic analysis implies that the onset of some neuropsychiatric disorders may be temporally related to prior vaccinations in a subset of individuals,’ [the researchers] write. … At the same time, new research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientists has shown the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal to be as toxic and as brain damaging as other forms of mercury. Yet multi-dose flu vaccines still contain thimerosal … As the researchers point out, two major studies, one from researchers in Norway and one from an international team of researchers from Finland, Italy and Denmark, have shown an increased risk of narcolepsy following administration of the H1N1 flu vaccine.”