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RFK Jr. and the unintentional bigotry of sloppy thinkers

Is Kennedy the latest exemplar of this bizarre, new, phenomenon: the pro-Israel anti-Semite?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the demonstration against the vaccine passport introduced in Italy to combat the Covid 19 pandemic on Nov. 13, 2021 at Arco della Pace in Milan. Photo by Renato Murolo 68/Shutterstock.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the demonstration against the vaccine passport introduced in Italy to combat the Covid 19 pandemic on Nov. 13, 2021 at Arco della Pace in Milan. Photo by Renato Murolo 68/Shutterstock.
Gil Troy
Gil Troy

At a recent rambling, boozy dinner, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., referenced a conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was “ethnically targeted” and that the “people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.” Given his other infelicitous remarks comparing coronavirus policies to Nazi totalitarianism, and considering his rubbing elbows with Louis (Jews are termites) Farrakhan and Roger (I love boycotting Israel) Waters, could it be that this scion of the pro-Israel Kennedy clan is anti-Semitic? And with this 69-year-old Kennedy nevertheless claiming that “I’m going to champion the moral argument for Israel and use my campaign as a bully pulpit to do that,” is RFK, Jr. the latest exemplar of this bizarre new phenomenon: the pro-Israel anti-Semite?

We live in a strange age. In Eastern Europe, the Midwest and elsewhere, pro-Israel Jew-haters are on the rise. Still, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. reflects an older, more persistent, more widespread problem: the unintentional bigotry of sloppy thinkers.

Your classic pro-Israel Jew-haters love the Jewish state but hate the Jewish people. Caricaturing Israel as Sparta, these right-wingers or demagogic populists admire Israel’s plucky, take-no-nonsense foreign policy. Or they simply view Israel as a convenient ally. But, be they Hungarian Orbanists or MAGA anti-urbanists, these opportunistic Israel-backers happily use traditional anti-Semitic imagery to score domestic political points. 

Kennedy does not match that profile. He is not right-wing. He cherishes Israel’s moral, democratic soul, not its military might. But he does occasionally swim in the same fetid, populist waters where Jew-hating ideas, libels and conspiracies flourish. 

There are two sides to Kennedy, who was 14 years old in 1968, when Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert Kennedy in what I argue is the first act of Palestinian terrorism on American soil. On one hand, he seems to be quite a conventional third-generation Kennedy, from the glamorous Hollywood third wife—Cheryl Hines—and a checkered personal history to an impressive, left-leaning resume. He has won huge payoffs against polluters, and devoted decades to teaching environmental law. He made lucrative investments in cleantech, and has authored dozens of articles and some best-selling books.

But since 2005, he has become the most infamous Kennedy, as one of America’s leading anti-vaxxers, long before the coronavirus controversies. This anti-establishment crusade has given him a healthy disdain for cancel culture. But this obsession has embarrassed his cousins, who have denounced his claims publicly—and it keeps sending him down polluted intellectual and ideological rabbit holes.

It’s depressing and inexcusable, but not surprising, that Kennedy’s anti-vaccine conspiracy rants occasionally overlap with anti-Jewish conspiracy diatribes. To Jew-haters, Jews are gelatinous—eminently moldable into their latest dread, with the libel of the day always adhering to Jews’ seemingly super-sticky surface. Inevitably, when the world shut down, some lunatics blamed Jews for inventing the virus, while others blamed Jews for profiting off vaccines against the virus. As usual, these nutbars overlooked any tiresome facts, including the many Jews who died in “super-spreader” communal events.

Kennedy’s longshot campaign for the 2024 Democratic nomination is betting on today’s “Butthead politics” giving his craziest outbursts a pass. If voters can say, “Of course Donald Trump subverted the constitution, but I like him anyway” or “of course Biden’s too old, but at least he’s a Democrat,” perhaps they will say, “Of course Kennedy’s vaccination rants are nonsense, but consider the alternatives.” If Kennedy gets enough such get-out-of-jail-free cards, keeps attracting more attention than his campaign deserves, and enough Democrats despair of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, this Democratic prince-turned-renegade hopes they will have nowhere else to go but back to the latest Kennedy.

As for Jews—and especially Jewish Democrats—Kennedy’s occasional verbal burps are the least of their problems. He has apologized repeatedly for those remarks and others, insisting: “The last thing I want to do is be hurtful to people, particularly Jewish people, who have already suffered more than any other race.” Although the last word is cringe-worthy, Jews should accept his apology.

After the drunken dinner, Kennedy gave a thoughtful, 40-minute interview to the JNS insisting, “There is nobody in the presidential race who is going to be a stronger champion for Israel than me.” He explained, quite convincingly, that “This affection, the affinity relationship with Israel, is part of the DNA of our family.” And he added, pointedly: “It’s been a great disappointment and troubling development to me that the Democratic Party has drifted away from its traditions” – meaning being America’s most enthusiastically pro-Israel political party.

This week in particular, Kennedy’s unintentional missteps are far less troubling than the intentional insults being lobbed at Israel from too many so-called “progressive” Democrats on Capitol Hill. Kennedy says stupid things when drunk and apologizes; they make demonizing accusations—and then double-down.

The “Squad” Democrats boycotting Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s joint congressional address celebrating the 75th anniversary of the State of Israel—and the 75-year friendship between America and Israel—are at least being honest. Their actions expose these illiberal liberals as opponents of the Jewish state. Boycotting Israel’s president–who has a symbolic role–let alone this particularly heroic president at this moment in time–shows that these haters reject Israel’s very existence.

While some leading Democrats have condemned these boycotters, not enough have. Moreover, the mainstream party leadership has not repudiated these full-time Bash Israel Firsters—whose standing within the party keeps rising. That’s the “drift” from Democratic tradition Kennedy is boldly and nobly attacking.

Of course, all forms of Jew-hatred are unacceptable, be they left or right, be they obsessed with “the Jews,” “Judaism” or “Israel.” Inevitably, like all haters, these bigots, no matter how well-bred or well-spoken, spread their poisons, encouraging thugs who then lash out at individual Jews. 

Kennedy’s conspiracy kookiness reminds us of the many hats different Jew-haters wear. Pro-Israel Jew-haters often wear baseball caps. Pro-Palestinian Jew-haters often wear keffiyehs. Jew-hating thugs prefer hoodies, while upper-crust snobs prefer golf caps. Academic anti-Semites flaunt their mortarboards—and Kennedy’s sources, occasionally Kennedy himself, keep donning tin-foil anti-government hats. All, of course, deserve our contempt, from left to right, Republicans and Democrats. And all should simply wear dunce caps.

Originally published by the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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