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How Robert Kennedy’s Assassination Foreshadowed the Rise of Palestinian Terrorism

Despite conspiracy theories claiming the contrary, RFK’s killer, Sirhan Sirhan, was a martyr for the anti-Israel cause

Ron Capshaw
June 06, 2018
STAFF/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy gives a speech on Sept. 2, 1964 at the Democratic National Convention in New York.STAFF/AFP/Getty Images
STAFF/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy gives a speech on Sept. 2, 1964 at the Democratic National Convention in New York.STAFF/AFP/Getty Images

In Oliver Stone’s laughable JFK, the murder of the slain president’s brother Robert Kennedy is treated as further vindication for the director’s madcap thesis that JFK was killed by the military industrial complex for attempting to withdraw American military officials from Vietnam.

RFK, Stone asserted in the movie, was likewise murdered by sinister government forces for the same reason. Incredibly, it’s a theory that many still promote. But to those of us who prefer observable facts to madcap conspiracy theories, RFK’s assassination, 50 years ago today, offers far more satisfying lessons.

RFK’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, supplied everything that Lee Harvey Oswald did not: an admission of guilt, reasons why, and a murder committed at point blank range in front of numerous witnesses rather than from a sniper’s nest in the Texas School Book Depository.

Sirhan’s motives for pistol-shooting RFK three times—once in the head, twice in the back—had nothing to do with Kennedy’s growing opposition to the Vietnam War. Instead, it had to do with Kennedy’s hawkishness toward the Palestinians and his support of Israel in the 1967 war. By his own admission, Sirhan murdered Robert Kennedy because of the latter’s “sole support of Israel and his deliberate attempt to send those 50 [fighter jet] bombers to Israel to obviously do harm to the Palestinians.” He even calculated the assassination to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the Six-Day War. The son of an Arabic-Christian family who emigrated to California from Jerusalem when Sirhan was 12, he went from religious denomination to denomination until settling on, ironically, an advertised “apolitical” and “humanistic” sect called the Ancient Mystical Branch of the Rose Cross, an occultist organization pledged to the study of “life and the universe.”But Sirhan’s true religion was a vitriolic hatred of Israel. He stated in court that he killed Kennedy because of “20 years of malice aforethought”; a reference to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. His courtroom testimony was so vicious toward Israel that his Jewish defense attorney, Emile Zola Berman, almost resigned from the defense team.

This left his attorneys only with a plea that Sirhan was mentally deranged and did not remember killing Kennedy. But again, Sirhan was unhelpful. The most he would allow in his testimony was that he was drunk the night he shot Kennedy, but he was quite aware, he said, that he was killing RFK for the Palestinian cause.

Scholars have asserted that the shooting was the first instance of an assassination motivated by the Israel-Arab conflict. In this they are correct. Like so many terrorists who followed in his footsteps, Sirhan wanted to be a martyr. When asked by the judge if he wanted a life sentence, he proclaimed that he “wanted to be executed” and tried to dismiss his attorneys.

And like those Middle Eastern groups who justify such actions today, Sirhan, too, was defended and his actions excused as legitimate reactions to alleged Israeli wrongdoing. At the time of the trials, M.T. Medhi, the secretary general of the action committee of the Arab-American Relations Committee approvingly said of Sirhan’s actions: “Sirhan was defending himself against those 50 Phantom jets Kennedy was sending to Israel.”

Eyewitnesses to the assassination were not impressed. The most articulate of them, the writer George Plimpton, stated that Sirhan “looked enormously composed. He seemed … purged.”

But the passage of 50 years has done nothing to diminish his hatred of Israel. At his 15th and most recent parole hearing, which took place in 2016, Sirhan—according to a spokesman for the board of parole hearings—was “very hostile.” The terrorist, now 74, “hates Americans,” said the spokesman, Tip Kindel. “He continues to pose a risk for public safety.” So does his murderous ideology, no less diminished by time.

Ron Capshaw is a writer living in Midlothian, Va.

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