A recent POLITICO report omitted the motivation behind the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy: the late Senator’s support for Israel. The Aug. 28, 2021 dispatch, by correspondent Shia Kapos, noted that six of the Senator’s eleven children “expressed outrage” over a recent California parole board vote for the release of convicted assassin Sirhan Sirhan. The report briefly profiled the family’s anger over Sirhan’s possible release—but omitted the motive that drove him to murder the then-presidential candidate more than five decades ago.
Kennedy was gunned down on June 6, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, shortly after delivering a victory speech. Sirhan, a Palestinian Christian from Jordan, was convicted of the assassination and sentenced to death—a punishment that was commuted when the state of California briefly outlawed capital punishment in 1972. While he has previously acknowledged shooting Kennedy, he has also claimed not to remember the assassination.
But Sirhan has, in years past, admitted that Kennedy’s support for Israel motivated him to murder the Senator.
Indeed, in the moments after Sirhan murdered Kennedy and wounded five others, the assassin exclaimed, “Let me explain! I did it for my country.” Similarly, in a 1989 interview with David Frost for NBC’s Inside Edition, Sirhan said that he had supported Kennedy until he heard that the Senator supported sending arms to Israel. As Sirhan told Frost: “To hear him say that he was going to send fifty Phantom Jets to Israel, to deliver nothing but death and destruction on my countrymen, that seemed like it was a betrayal.”
Sirhan, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz correctly observed in 2018, “was a type of killer Americans would encounter more of.”
A June 2, 2003 Los Angeles Times op-ed, entitled “First Shot in Terror War Killed RFK” was more direct, noting that RFK’s murder “was the first case of Middle Eastern ‘terrorism’ here at home—decades before Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda became household names.” Put simply: Sirhan was a Palestinian terrorist, and by committing an act of political violence, he was guilty of terrorism.
Sirhan’s own diary, which was submitted at his trial, further enunciated his motive. The diary showed a growing anger at Kennedy over his support for the Jewish state in the recent 1967 Six-Day War.
For their part, Palestinian terrorists recognized Sirhan as one of their own. When Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) terrorists took American hostages at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Khartoum, one of their demands was the release of Sirhan. Indeed, some of Sirhan Sirhan’s own defenders have even called for him to make his background as a Palestinian a central part of his defense, believing that, “You can’t look at him just as an assassin. If you do, then you miss all that he is and all that he experienced.”
Kennedy himself was a defender of the Jewish state, as the writer Lenny Ben-David detailed in a June 4, 2008, Jerusalem Post op-ed. As a young man, Kennedy had served as a correspondent for the Boston Post in the opening weeks of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence—an experience which generated sympathy for Jewish self-determination. As the future politician wrote at the time: “The Jewish people in [British-ruled Mandate] 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.”
Kennedy continued to vocally support Israel while serving as an Attorney General in his brother John F. Kennedy’s administration, and as a U.S. Senator, as Shalom Goldman profiled in a June 4, 2021, article for Tablet Magazine.
Other U.S. news reports have, in recent dispatches about Sirhan’s possible parole, informed readers about the assassin’s motivations. The Washington Post, for example, carried a Religion News Service (RNS) op-ed, which noted that Sirhan “chose to kill Kennedy on June 5, 1968, 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 testified at his own trial.” Another op-ed, by RFK biographer Larry Tye, appeared in POLITICO on Sept. 2. 2021 and made the same point.
Indeed, the truth is simple, but like many simple truths it risks being overlooked.
As Kathleen Kennedy Townshend, one of the late Senator’s children, told Ben-David, RFK was “killed by an Arab terrorist because of his support for Israel.” That fact shouldn’t be obscured.