Brookline, MA – Joseph P. Kennedy III, the young Congressional candidate with the famous last name pursed his lips and appeared visibly moved when a man at a synagogue campaign stop asked him about his personal connection to Israeli-Palestinian violence and bereavement. His own grandfather, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated by a Palestinian gunman enraged by his pro-Israel stance.
The assassination, which occurred just after midnight on June 6, 1968, coincided with the one-year anniversary of the Six-Day War and may have marked the first time the violence of the Middle East conflict was exported to the American stage.
Before answering the question, the tall, ginger-haired Kennedy, who bears his family’s trademark chiseled features, paused and spoke of the conflict itself, a conflict, he said, whose “history and complexity” surpassed any other he had encountered.
But citing his trip to the region last spring and the people he had met on both sides of the issues, Kennedy added, “Israelis and Palestinians do want peace and that’s a very strong framework to build on.”
Forty-four years after Sirhan Sirhan, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian, gunned down Senator Kennedy during a presidential campaign in which he had promised to send warplanes to Israel if elected, his 32-year-old grandson is now courting the Jewish voters who make up a significant percentage of his Boston-area district. The younger Kennedy's message is decidedly pro-Israel and pro-social causes.
One of the younger Kennedy's first moves after leaving his job as an assistant district attorney and declaring his candidacy to fill the seat held by Congressman Barney Frank for 32 years was to fly to Israel for a visit. He traveled to Jerusalem to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several Knesset members, and later to Ramallah where he met with Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.
“Any type of peace process has to be backed by political will. The leaders will have to be able to deliver,” he told an audience of some 60 people who gathered to hear him Sunday morning at Temple Sinai, a reform synagogue in the Boston suburb of Brookline. In his remarks he delved into topics ranging from his intentions to stand firmly against Iran’s possible designs for nuclear weapons to support of educational funding for local underprivileged preschoolers.
Later, during an interview with Haaretz, he invoked his visit to the Israeli border town of Sderot, which comes under regular rocket and mortar fire from nearby Gaza. He described the image of Israeli parents sprawled atop their children during warning sirens as evidence that peace efforts should be revived.
“No family should have to go through that and Palestinians we spoke to would say the same thing,” Kennedy said.
As far as bringing the hostilities to an end, “There needs to be a way to have that dialogue,” he said. “We have to get both sides moving toward a common ground and one way a member of Congress can help is to help facilitate this.”
About half of Boston’s approximately 210,000 Jews live in Massachusetts’ fourth Congressional district. It includes the towns of Brookline, Newton, Needham and Wellesley, all of which have relatively large Jewish populations.
Another early move of the Kennedy campaign was to hire Alan Ronkin, an experienced hand in the local Jewish world, as his liaison to the district’s Jewish community. After eight months campaigning, Kennedy is well-versed in the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations and community groups and comfortable using phrases like “Tikkun Olam,” the Jewish notion of repairing the world.
“What is amazing is how active this community is in social causes,” he said during the interview. “There is this extraordinary generosity on programs not just focused on (its own) community, but issues of food stamps and early childhood education and access to opportunity.”
Smiling, he added, “I think reception in the community has been strong. I’ll let you know on election day."
So far Kennedy leads his Republican opponent Sean Bielat in fundraising, but although the district is heavily Democratic the projected outcome of the race remains unclear.
The Kennedy family is the closest the United States gets to a political aristocracy.
Kennedy’s father Joseph P. Kennedy II served for 12 years in Congress. President John F. Kennedy and Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy were his great uncles. The decision by his cousin Patrick Joseph Kennedy II not to seek another Congressional term in 2010 marked the first time there were no Kennedys in national office since 1946, when John F. Kennedy was first elected to the House of Representatives.
Kennedy’s campaign, if successful, would be a step toward a possible restoration of the Kennedy dynasty.
But it’s the Kennedy name, and the privilege and cache it affords, that his opponent has been targeting.
Bielat, a businessman and Marine reservist, also mocks his opponent's relative lack of political experience. At 37, he his five years Kennedy's senior.
“Other than fame that comes with your family, and the money that comes with it, you don’t have the background,” Bielat said during their first debate in September.
Kennedy, a Harvard Law School graduate, seeks office after about three years as an assistant district attorney and two-and-a-half years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic.
Bielet has also been busy trying to position himself as even more pro-Israel than Kennedy.
In an ad he poked fun at Kennedy’s mistake during a debate in the primary season in which he referred to Tel Aviv as Israel’s capital. The ad states, “Congress recognizes Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. Why doesn’t Joe Kennedy agree?” It continues: “We need candidates who support our allies. Sean Bielat stands with Israel.”
But last week Kennedy picked up an important endorsement from The Boston Globe, in which its editorial board wrote, “Kennedy’s skills are impressive. He shows a sunnier, more easygoing manner than his father, former U.S. Representative Joseph Kennedy II, and has a steadier presence than other recent candidates from his family … He has natural political gifts that make up for his inexperience, and voters can feel confident he will grow into an effective advocate for the district.”
Alan Leifer, an investment manager from Newton, Mass. and a Kennedy donor and political backer, said he was surprised to learn from the junior Kennedy that Robert F. Kennedy had traveled to Palestine in April 1948 to cover the Civil War in Mandatory Palestine for the now-defunct Boston Post. He was only 22.
It was that experience that apparently shaped the elder Kennedy's later support for Israel. His grandson said he read through the articles that his family has saved.
Leifer is optimistic about this Kennedy’s prospects.
“I think he’s going to do incredibly well. He’s exhibited the ability to go out there and tell a story and build support, a candidate who is not resting on his laurels but who meets voters at every street corner and works hard for their vote,” he said.
“Massachusetts has been represented for more than 50 years by Kennedys … I think people are interested in Joe’s personal biography and how he comes to think about Israel through his personal biography.”
Another supporter, Deborah Fogel, a writer and editor from Newton, said she had been impressed by Kennedy’s efforts to reach out to Jews across the political spectrum.
“I hope very much that after he is elected, he will be a strong voice for a two-state solution, in line with the views of the majority of his constituents,” she wrote in an email.
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