Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who was in Zagreb, Croatia, on July 15, knew that something was going on because his phone was “exploding” with messages. But it wasn’t until later that night—a Saturday and so, Shabbat—when he checked his phone that he learned that Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. had made a statement for which he was being accused of antisemitism.
Kennedy, who comes from the prominent U.S. political family, had mentioned a scholarly study at a fundraising event in New York. The study noted, he said, that Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people are most immune to the COVID-19 virus. RFK Jr., as he is known, told JNS in a lengthy interview that he meant no offense and considers himself a great lover of Israel and Jews. “I am going to be careful to make sure that I don’t do anything like that in the future,” he said.
That Saturday night, Boteach—an author and television host—conducted a nearly 35-minute interview with Kennedy, whom he defended. The Orthodox rabbi also supported him in an interview with JNS. “Bobby Kennedy and I are friends, and I like him,” he said.
“Kennedy is the only major Democrat who has come out against that Iran deal,” the rabbi said. “Bobby Kennedy is one of the only Democrats who spoke out boldly to protect Israel with its recent Jenin assault on terrorists. He defended Israel.”
Just as he did in the video, Boteach told JNS he strongly disagrees with Kennedy’s position on vaccines—about which the presidential candidate is critical in ways that draw criticism that he subscribes to conspiracy theories—among other subjects. But Boteach insisted that RFK Jr. is not antisemitic.
“I disagree with his comments completely. And in the end, he knows that I do. But I equally disagree with this disgusting lie that he’s an antisemite,” Boteach said. “Bobby Kennedy is not in any way an antisemite.”
“The reason I have stood up for him, and will continue to, is I cannot stand when people are falsely labeled antisemites because that degrades the whole term,” he said.
Rabbi: Leave family out of it
Earlier in the day, before Boteach interviewed Kennedy, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) had tweeted that “RFK Jr. is a disgrace to the Kennedy name and the Democratic Party.” The Jewish congressman added that his whole family got COVID.
“Speaker McCarthy and Jim Jordan should disinvite this antisemite from testifying before Congress and spewing his misinformation and hate,” Gottheimer tweeted.
Boteach praised Gottheimer, his local congressman and a former University of Oxford classmate, but told JNS that the reference to Kennedy being a disgrace to his family crossed the line. Boteach said that he and Gottheimer texted on the topic.
“Do you really need to tell a 69-year-old man, who watched his father murdered, assassinated when he was 14 years old, that he’s a disgrace to his father’s last name?” Boteach told JNS that he texted the congressman. “Where does that come from?”
Asked about the conversation, a spokesman for Gottheimer would only tell JNS on background that the congressman stands by his comments.
Boteach thinks that being too reckless with the label “antisemite” risks “trivializing the term by crying wolf.”
“It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call people out when they say things that are unacceptable vis-à-vis the Jewish community,” he said. “It just means we don’t have to call them antisemites.”
Instead, Boteach recommended, “We have to say, ‘Please correct what you said, because it will be used by antisemites, and it feeds into negative stereotypes.’”
“Bobby Kennedy retracted, repudiated and revised,” he said.
‘Racism and hate have no place in America’
Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, also supported Kennedy, whom he called “a friend of mine.”
“I know that he loves, respects and admires the Jewish people and the Jewish State of Israel, as did his father and his uncle President John Kennedy,” Klein stated.
But others saw the comments from Kennedy—whose polls at 15% of the Democratic Party at times—more like Gottheimer did.
“Last week, RFK Jr. made reprehensible antisemitic and anti-Asian comments aimed at perpetuating harmful and debunked racist tropes. Such dangerous racism and hate have no place in America, demonstrate him to be unfit for public office, and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms,” stated Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The Anti-Defamation League stated that “The claim that COVID-19 was a bioweapon created by the Chinese or Jews to attack Caucasians and black people is deeply offensive, and feeds into sinophobic and anti-semitic conspiracy theories about COVID-19 that we have seen evolve over the last three years.”