How Bobby Kennedy Cemented His Relationship With U.S. Jews

In his new book, author Larry Tye reveals how Robert F. Kennedy escaped the anti-Semitic shadow of his father and came to be seen as one of America’s strongest supporters of Jewish causes, and of Israel, before being assassinated in 1968.

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Robert F. Kennedy rides through Los Angeles in 1968 in his typical campaign pose: standing in an open-air car, smiling and reaching out to touch the endless hands that greet him.
Robert F. Kennedy rides through Los Angeles in 1968 in his typical campaign pose: standing in an open-air car, smiling and reaching out to touch the endless hands that greet him.Credit: Lawrence Schiller/Polaris Communications/Getty Images
Larry Tye
Larry Tye

The following is taken from "Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon," by Larry Tye. Tye's biography (Random House) looks at Robert F. Kennedy's transformation from the cold warrior he was at the start of his political career to the hot-blooded liberal he'd become by the end, when, on the eve of his political triumph in the 1968 California presidential primary, he was assassinated by 24-year-old Palestinian Sirhan Sirhan. These excerpts look—for better and worse—at Kennedy's Jewish connections.

Not all the lessons that Robert F. Kennedy grew up with were ones of tolerance. There has been an ongoing debate over the last 75 years as to whether or not his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was an anti-Semite. Critics point to his habit of slurring Jews as “sheenies” and “kikes”; defenders say (as if it’s a defense) that he was equally unenlightened in calling Italians “wops” and fellow Irish Americans “micks.” In 1938, the new German ambassador to London met with Kennedy, who was then the American ambassador, and reported back to Berlin that Joe had said, “It was not so much the fact that we wanted to get rid of the Jews that was so harmful to us, but rather the loud clamor with which we accompanied this purpose. He himself understood our Jewish policy completely.”

Kennedy insisted that account was distorted and pointed to his record of pushing Britain to open its colonies to Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany, which had prompted the Arab National League of Boston to brand him a “Zionist Charlie McCarthy.” Joe said his dislike of Jews was not categorical but individual, but the truth was just the opposite: Although he had Jewish friends, and liked to boast that he was “the only Christian member” of a Jewish country club in Palm Beach, his letters and diaries made clear that he stigmatized Jews as vindictive, ambitious and self-pitying.

Joe was always looking for someone to blame for his failed tenure as ambassador. His favorite culprits were President Roosevelt’s Jewish advisers, as he suggested in this diary entry from 1941: “The four men who followed me to Europe: Hopkins had a Jew wife and 2 Jew children. Harriman a Jew wife. Cohen a Jew. Fahey—lawyer—a Jew mother.”[1]

In an unpublished interview in 1944 with a Boston journalist, Joe explained that, “Whenever I have been asked for a statement condemning anti-Semitism, I have answered: ‘What good would it do?’ If the Jews themselves would pay less attention to advertising their racial problem, and more attention to solving it, the whole thing would recede into its proper perspective. It’s entirely out of focus now, and that is chiefly their fault.”

Joe and Rose Kennedy with their nine children. Bobby is wearing a light-colored suit and standing behind Ted, who is sitting on his father’s lap.Credit: ullstein bild / ullstein bild via Getty Images

A year later, just after FDR died, Joe wrote in a long letter to his daughter Kathleen: “The Jews are crying that they’ve lost their greatest friend and benefactor. It’s again a clear indication of the serious mistake that the Jews had [made] in spite of their marvelous organizing capacity.” He sent someone—who it was is unclear—a copy of that letter with a note at the top reading, “Please destroy this after you’ve read it.”

The most disturbing evidence of anti-Semitism comes from an exchange of letters in 1934 between Joe and Joe Jr., who was just back from Hitler’s recently installed Third Reich. The younger Kennedy expressed regret at the Nazis’ scapegoating of Jews, but quickly added that, “This dislike of the Jews, however, was well founded. They were at the heads of all big business, in law etc. It is all to their credit for them to get so far, but their methods had been quite unscrupulous. . . . It is extremely sad, that noted professors, scientists, artists etc. so should have to suffer, but as you can see, it would be practically impossible to throw out only a part of them.” The Nazis’ brutality, he added, “was a horrible thing, but in every revolution you have to expect some bloodshed.” He sounded just like his father, which was his intention. Joe responded that he “was very pleased and gratified at your observations of the German situation.”

Kennedy peering over the Berlin Wall in 1962 with Willy Brandt, the governing mayor of West Berlin, who went on to become chancellor of West Germany and 1971 Nobel Peace Prize winner.Credit: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

A work in progress

There is no evidence that Bobby shared those feelings, but neither he nor Jack could escape the whispers that they, too, had been influenced by their father’s hostility toward Jews. At times Bobby’s disdain for the liberal establishment, and for The New York Times, seemed to grow out of his belief that both were dominated by Jews. Why, he wondered, were they so quick to denounce anti-Semitism and so untroubled by anti-Catholicism? (He loved the political philosopher Peter Viereck’s musing that “anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals,” and he joked that the Times’ ideal headline would be MORE NUNS LEAVE CHURCH.)

But there also were signs that Bobby admired the Jews as a people. In college he went out on a limb to attack the Jew-bashing demagogue Father Leonard Feeney. In a series of stories from the Middle East that he wrote for The Boston Post in 1948, he gushed about the “immensely proud and determined” Jewish race and called the new State of Israel “a truly great modern example of the birth of a nation with the primary ingredients of dignity and self-respect.” With Jews as with blacks, Bobby was a work in progress. He started from a place of little interaction or understanding, but he came to identify with their collective suffering and to earn their trust.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy visiting with the children who were his favorite constituents, this time at a playground in Brooklyn.Credit: Buyenlarge / Getty Images

Flash forward to 1964 when Bobby, still reeling from the assassination a year before of his brother and best friend Jack, launched an intense campaign for U.S. Senator from New York against incumbent Kenneth Keating. Jewish New Yorkers, of whom 1.3 million were on the voting rolls, had more reservations than just their memories of Joe Kennedy. During his six terms in the U.S. House and one in the Senate, Keating had attended umpteen bar mitzvahs, Jewish weddings and fundraisers for Israel, a yarmulke planted on his skull. He had just the right Yiddish phrases in his lexicon, and fellow Empire State Senator Jacob Javits or New York Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz regularly appeared at his side. For anyone who didn’t know that Israel had named a 50-acre forest after him, a sign at a Lower East Side deli reminded, “Keating and Israel go together like bagels and lox.”

Keating made no secret of his disdain for his party’s presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, which made it easier for Jewish Democrats to justify splitting their votes. Bobby made his own ham-handed try at ethnic politicking: At a kosher deli he asked for a glass of milk. At a Lower East Side eatery he eschewed bagels and blintzes in favor of melon and split pea soup. He couldn’t grasp why Jews were so determined to remember their enemies, whether it was the Irish toughs who beat them up as kids or the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain who slurred them as “sheenies” and “kikes.” “Why are they against me? Was it because of what my father did?” Bobby asked his aide Milton Gwirtzman. “That was 20 years ago.”

As the campaign was gearing up in late-September, internal polls by both campaigns showed Kennedy’s early lead evaporating and Keating pulling even or slightly ahead. While some doubted those results—was Bobby a bit too anxious to take on the mantle of an underdog and Keating too anxious to look as if he could lose?—the New York World-Telegram telegraphed the change of fortunes a week later, with the public opinion analyst Samuel Lubell writing that “Robert Kennedy is running well behind Sen. Kenneth Keating.” Many Kennedy admirers, Lubell added, are saying, “It’s not fair to kick out a man like Keating even for a Kennedy.” At just that moment—with the election just six weeks away—the incumbent took his hardest shot yet at Bobby, charging that as attorney general, he had “made a deal” to turn over more than $60 million in assets of a government-held company to a front for a “huge Nazi cartel.”[2] The implication was obvious: Kennedy was a chip off his father’s anti-Semitic block, and New York’s Jewish voters had better beware.

The accusation struck a raw nerve in Bobby, rallying him to defend not just his brother’s administration but his father’s integrity. Coming on the heels of the discouraging polls, it was a wake-up call: Unless he focused, he could actually lose. To a warrior like him—and a Kennedy—that prospect was unfathomable. First he punched back against the Nazi slander with the same appeal to Americans’ sense of fair play that had worked so well for JFK when he fended off anti-Catholic bigotry in 1960. Bobby pointed out that it was Keating himself who had introduced the bill making the $60 million sale possible, adding that he had “never heard of a charge as low as this one. . . . I lost a brother and a brother-in-law to the Nazis. I’m not making any deals with Nazis.” The pro-Keating New York Times agreed, chastising the senator for raising “a fake issue” and making clear that “Attorney General Kennedy did not make ‘a deal with Nazis’; he settled an incredibly complicated lawsuit.”

But Bobby wasn’t done. He flew in from Mississippi Charles Evers, brother of the martyred civil rights leader Medgar, to tell New York negroes why they’d be making a mistake to support Keating. Harry Golden, the legendary publisher of Charlotte’s Carolina Israelite, did the same with New York Jews. “[Bobby] had been reluctant to attack Keating directly, fearing that, with his reputation for toughness and aggressiveness, he might create sympathy for the white-haired, well-meaning Senator,” recalled Kennedy press secretary Edwin Guthman. “That ended when Keating accused him of being party to a deal with Nazis. . . . His strategy shifted, and he was free to carry the fight to Keating.” What could have been a knockout punch for the Republican incumbent had turned into a boomerang and Bobby went on to win by three-quarters of a million votes.

Just after Bobby is shot in Los Angeles, busboy Juan Romero places rosary beads in his hand as Ethel pleads with the pressing crowd to 'give him room to breathe.'Credit: ullstein bild via Getty Images

Over the next three years, Bobby cemented his relationship with Jewish New Yorkers enough that they came to identify him as one of the strongest supporters in the country not just of Jewish-American causes, but of Israel. So did Israel’s enemies, including a 24-year-old Palestinian named Sirhan Sirhan who hated Israel, hated Kennedy for supporting Israel and shot the senator a year to the day after the start of the Six-Day War in which Israel routed its Arab enemies. It was an outcome that shocked and enraged America along with Jewish-America, and not just ironic but tragic for the son of a man whom Jews of an earlier generation had viewed as their sworn enemy.

[1] Harry Hopkins was in charge of the Lend-Lease program, Benjamin Cohen co-crafted the Lend-Lease legislation, and Averell Harriman helped coordinate that plan and other U.S. war efforts. Charles Harold Fahey was assistant solicitor general.

[2] In 1942, the U.S. government seized the General Aniline and Film Corporation, claiming the chemical maker was a Nazi asset. A Swiss company, Interhandel, insisted that it was the rightful owner and that General Aniline was not a German front. After decades of arguments, Bobby’s Justice Department reached a settlement in 1963 that provided for General Aniline’s sale, with U.S. taxpayers getting 70 percent of the proceeds and Interhandel the rest. While Keating’s belated doubts about the deal didn’t stick, if he had probed deeper he would have found questionable ties between Interhandel and both Bobby’s father and his brother-in-law, Prince Stanislaw Albrecht “Stash” Radziwill.

Larry Tye is a former reporter at the Boston Globe, and the author of seven books, including "Home Lands: Portraits of the New Jewish Disapora." Follow him on Twitter @larrytye.