Friday, June 06, 2008

Robert F. Kennedy (1922-1968)

Forty years ago yesterday (June 5), Robert F. (“Bobby”) Kennedy, Senator from New York, brother of the late President John F. Kennedy and himself a candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination, was shot in the head shortly after winning the California primary. Despite frantic efforts to save him, he succumbed to his wounds shortly after 4:00 A.M. on June 6. New York time. Like his brother before, he was a charismatic leader who captured the imagination of the people. His murder, following closely on that of Martin Luther King two months before, shook the country to its core. Jewish Americans had more reason to mourn: The Senator was outspokenly supportive of Israel and the assassin was a Jordanian-Palestinian, Sirhan Sirhan, who acted on the first anniversary (on the civil calendar) of the outbreak of the Six Day War. He was tried, convicted, sentenced (on Yom Ha-atzmaut) to death in California’s gas chamber, and had his sentence commuted to life in prison when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated all death sentences up to that time. He remains in prison in California to this day. The only indication he ever gave of his motive was blurted out as he was being captured, “I did it for my country.”

Two days later his body was flown to New York, where he was eulogized at St. Patrick’s Cathedral by his one surviving brother, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy:
My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: “Some… see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”

From New York he was carried by train to Washington, D.C. where he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery close to the grave of his brother, the late President. Thousands upon thousands came to each station to catch a glimpse of his casket. Photojournalist Paul Fusco took extensive pictures of the scenes that show America as it was forty years ago, and his work will be on exhibit at the Danziger Projects in Manhattan through the end of July.

The decade of the 1960s was a time when young people the world over dreamed things that never were and said why not. We dreamed of an end to apartheid, both here and in South Africa, the country that invented the word, and it happened. We dreamed of a world at peace and, for better or worse, brought about the end of the war in Vietnam. We dreamed of social and economic equality for women and, rightly or wrongly, today it is largely a reality. We Jews have a long history of dreaming things that never were and saying why not: At the turn of the previous century Theodore Herzl dreamed of the reestablishment of a Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael, which had not existed for nearly two millennia, and with the grace of God we turned the dream into reality. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda dreamed of the Hebrew language once more being on the lips of children, and that too is a reality, both in Israel and throughout the Diaspora. For nineteen years since the establishment of the State, when the Old City of Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria were in enemy hands, Jews with vision dreamed of our heartland coming under Jewish control, and that too happened, with the Kotel being opened for Jewish worship on Shavu’ot of 5727 (1967 C.E.), exactly one week after its liberation by the Israel Defense Forces in the Six Day War. And then of course there is our ultimate dream, the final liberation of the Jewish people and the perfection of the world with the coming of Mashiah. May that too become reality in our time.

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