By MENACHEM WECKER
“I entered this race telling people I’m going to do something different, which is a mass experiment in truth telling,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a Democratic candidate for president in 2024 and nephew of former President John F. Kennedy, told JNS on Monday, July 17.
“My attitude has been, if something is true, we should be able to talk about it, and then we need to be able to talk with each other and process the feeling,” Kennedy added in a far-reaching conversation that ran nearly 40 minutes.
The lawyer, who has a long history of environmental activism as well as criticism of vaccines, has come under fire for recent remarks about COVID-19. Many have said that Kennedy’s comments on a study, which suggested that Ashkenazi Jews were less affected than others by the virus, are anti-Semitic. Others, including prominent Jewish leaders, have defended him.
“It’s clear to me now that I need to be much more careful,” Kennedy told JNS.
“I have to learn a lesson from this, and the lesson I learn is that I have to understand that the words that I use have impact, and they can be misused and misinterpreted,” he said. “I regret talking about that study, and I am going to be careful to make sure that I don’t do anything like that in the future.”
Pro-Israel Family DNA
His father, Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, a former U.S. attorney general and senator, and his uncle, the former president, were strong supporters of Israel. Bobby was in Israel in 1946 and 1947, and both he and his brother supported “the sacred alliance between Israel and the United States,” said the current presidential candidate, who is known as RFK Jr.
Kennedy added that his uncle, the late Edward “Ted” Kennedy, a longtime U.S. senator from Massachusetts, “was the architect of the exodus of oppressed Soviet Jewry to safe havens” in the 1980s and early 1990s.
“There is nobody in the presidential race who is going to be a stronger champion for Israel than me,” Kennedy told JNS.
“This affection, the affinity relationship with Israel, is part of the DNA of our family,” he told JNS. “It’s been a great disappointment and troubling development to me that the Democratic Party has drifted away from its traditions.”
The way Kennedy sees it, the times when he was a college student, and there was “pretty much universally strong support for Israel,” are long gone. The 69-year-old told JNS that his children’s generation understands neither Israel’s importance as the only Middle East democracy nor the significance of its military alliance with the United States.
What was once “an oasis for justice and rights in the Middle East” is instead seen as an “imperial nation” that oppresses the “indigenous population of Palestinians,” Kennedy said. “There’s very little understanding of the evolution of the Jewish state, of what was happening in Palestine prior to the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate after the empire. The entire history going back thousands of years.”
Kennedy told JNS that he is aware of no other country that has Israel’s military discipline, or what he calls, its “unique moral approach” to warfare.
“Israel tries to treat Palestinians morally with justice and has sought a two-state solution despite the “abject refusal of the Palestinian leadership to negotiate and the genocidal aspirations of the Palestinian Authority,” he said. And Israel only attacks military targets, “enduring casualties of IDF forces in a deliberate, purposeful effort to protect civilians.”
“I don’t think any other country in the world does it as well and with such a commitment as Israel,” he said.
No other Democrats defend that record, Kennedy told JNS. “I am going to not only defend that record, but I’m going to champion the moral argument for Israel and use my campaign as a bully pulpit to do that,” he said.
Asked about his personal connection to Israel, Kennedy told JNS that he remembers sitting next to his father at a swimming pool in 1967, when his father got a call from the White House informing him that Israel was at war.
Having been “grilled on it when we were little,” Kennedy knew the geography, with Syria, Jordan and Egypt encircling Israel.
“I said to my father, ‘Are they going to overwhelm Israel?’ He said to me, ‘No. The Israelis are tough,’” Kennedy recalled. “For my father, that was the highest accolade that he could give to anybody. I knew my father’s admiration, his commitment to Israel.”
Kennedy told JNS that he has visited the “Wailing Wall” (Western Wall or Kotel) and “all the sacred sites in Israel.”
“I’ve bathed in the Jordan River,” he said.
One of his proudest affiliations of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit he founded, was with EcoPeace, which protects the Jordan River. It is also “the only organization in Israel that had Palestinians and Jordanians and Israelis in its leadership,” he said. “It found a way to unite people through the preservation of water and water resources.”
“My father read us the Bible every night,” Kennedy told JNS. “My favorite parts were always the Old Testament because, of course, those were always much more exciting than the New Testament.”
Kennedy, who is Catholic, sees Christianity as an extension of Jewish scripture. “Jesus never stopped being a Jew, by the way,” he said. “His disciples basically opened up his ideological and religious philosophy to non-Jews. We were raised with the idea that we were kind of little brothers of the Chosen People.”
So is being Catholic part of why Israel is so important to him? “I would say that is overstating things,” he told JNS. “Israel is significant for all of the historical reasons. Israel should be significant to every American and every member of humanity. It’s the historical homeland of the Jewish people, from which they were driven and to which they returned as well.”
It is a “prevailing yet erroneous” view that “Israel settled in a place where they didn’t belong,” Kennedy said. “The idea that is just a distortion, a perversion of history.”
When Kennedy discussed Jordan’s role in the region’s history, JNS asked about the so-called “status quo,” which in part maintains that Jews are not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount.
“I don’t think that’s right. I think it’s a huge paradox,” Kennedy told JNS. “Israel is the only place in the Middle East that has actual freedom of religion and freedom of worship. And the only exception to that is a law against Jews praying. It’s a paradox and is wrong.”
Chatham House Rules
Kennedy told JNS that his remarks about a scholarly paper on COVID-19 should never have been quoted.
“I made a statement in a meeting that was presented to us as Chatham House rules, as a closed meeting,” he said. “I made an accurate statement about an NIH-funded study. I regret ever talking about that now because it’s clear that even accurate facts will be distorted and misconstrued in ways that hurt people.”
“The last thing I want to do is be hurtful to people, particularly Jewish people, who have already suffered more than any other race,” he added.
Kennedy told JNS both that he needs to be more careful about what he says in the future and that self-censoring presents a dilemma.
“People really need the truth more than at any time. Politicians are always editing their comments for effect, and at some level, that’s manipulative,” he acknowledged. “But I also understand that there has to be a balance, and I regret saying what I said at that meeting because it’s caused so much harm, and it’s caused so much hurt to so many people. Not because of what I said or what I intended, but by the way it was distorted.”
“I have a very thick skin, and so much of this stuff bounces off of me,” he added. “All I really need is a clear conscience. That’s my consolation.”
Kennedy was emphatic that he is not an anti-Semite.
“The worst two accusations that anybody can make about you are that you’re an anti-Semite or a pedophile,” he told JNS. “I don’t think there’s anything worse.”
The most he thinks he can do is to try to maintain his personal integrity, Kennedy told JNS.
“Ultimately, the success of this venture is in God’s hands, and the only thing I have control over is the little piece of real estate inside of my own shoes,” he said. “My biggest objective is to end this process with my integrity intact. My second objective is to get elected president of the United States.”
“As a practice, I don’t compare anything to the Holocaust. I’ve been accused of doing that, but I never did it,” Kennedy told JNS. “You can look at my words. In the two instances where I was accused of doing that, I actually didn’t do it.”
In January 2022, Kennedy apologized for a comment that people were then worse off than Anne Frank was during World War II. He has made other statements that critics have said drew improper comparisons to the Holocaust.
“I think you lose arguments if you compare people to Hitler,” he told JNS. “But I think it’s really important that we are able to talk about these aspects of history.”
Kennedy worries about “the pervasive reach of technology,” particularly artificial intelligence (AI), facial-recognition programs, GPS and listening devices, which he sees as “turnkey totalitarianism.”
“It is very important for the population to be educated enough to recognize all the milestones of tyranny,” he said. “It’s important to be able to say, ‘What he’s doing is the same technique that was used by the Third Reich.’ Or that was used by [Joseph] Goebbels or [Hermann] Göring, and I think it’s really important to understand the history, to have a thorough knowledge of history and to be able to make those comparisons, so that we can steer clear of that kind of future.”
Kennedy told JNS that it is inappropriate when people compare former President Donald Trump or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Hitler, or make “appalling” comparisons between Jews and Nazis.
“I think the public has the ability to say, ‘OK. That person is not in touch with reality who is making those comparisons’,” he said. “I think it’s important for us to be able to talk about our history and have those historical references if we’re going to make sure it never happens again.”
Roger Waters, Louis Farrakhan
Kennedy hadn’t met Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters when he publicly expressed support for the musician. He told JNS he had no idea that Waters had made anti-Israel statements. All he knew was that people would send him pictures they snapped at Waters’ concerts, during which the singer displayed Kennedy’s photo on stage.
What he did know was that Waters was an active critic of COVID protocols, as he is.
“I posted a thank you for his courage, but I was talking about the COVID. As soon as someone alerted me about his opinions about Israel, I took it down,” he said. (Kennedy said that his close friend Adam Aron, chief executive officer of AMC Theatres, told him he also had no idea about Waters’s views. “And he’s Jewish,” Kennedy said.)
In 2014, Kennedy penned a book about mercury in vaccines. He wrote that multi-dose flu shots, which were largely distributed to minorities, had large amounts of mercury, while single-dose ones, which were made available to more wealthy people, were safer.
Someone in the Nation of Islam, who read the book, asked him to give a talk to leaders of the movement. “I said, ‘Yes I will.’ They have 400,000 followers. I wanted to protect the children, so I went to Chicago and I gave that talk,” Kennedy told JNS.
“I’ve never endorsed anything that Louis Farrakhan has said. I’m an opponent of his,” he said.
Kennedy had partnered for years with a Nation of Islam minister named Tony Muhammad, whom he called a close friend and who was known for brokering peace between the Crips and the Bloods. Kennedy made a documentary with him about “medical apartheid,” he told JNS.
Then an Israeli woman, who was a former member of the Israel Defense Forces Kennedy hired to run a program on “radio frequency traditions of cell phones and cell towers” alerted him to Farrakhan’s positions on Israel and Jews.
Kennedy told Muhammad, “Listen, Tony. I love you, but I cannot be your friend unless you publicly disavow those views,” he told JNS. “He said, ‘I understand. I cannot do that.’ That was the end of our friendship. I’ve never seen him since. That was not something I did publicly. It was very painful for me. But at the same time, I feel strongly about it and it was something I felt I had to do.”
Kennedy told JNS he wishes the public had more of an ability to parse different views that people have, especially those with whom they disagree.
“My instinct is to not cancel people. I think we should talk to people with whom we don’t agree,” he said. “I went and met with [Cuban political leader] Fidel Castro on multiple occasions. I’ve been to prison to visit Sirhan Sirhan, who was involved in my father’s murder. To meet with him and to talk to him.” He even went on FoxNews, Kennedy told JNS.
Kennedy thinks his uncle Ted had his name on more legislation than any senator in U.S. history because he reached across the aisle.
“The reason he had that is because he developed friendships with Republicans. He would bring home Orrin Hatch and John Kasich—people that I viewed as Darth Vader. He found some common ground,” Kennedy said.
He thinks people should follow his uncle’s lead. “Otherwise, we’re going to devolve into this terrible tribalism that’s going to tear us all apart,” he said.
Criticism of Israel
“I don’t think that anybody should be called anti-Semitic because they criticize Israel. That’s not anti-Semitic,” Kennedy told JNS. “What’s anti-Semitic is if you’re holding Israel to a standard that you don’t hold other nations to.”
“Israel is the most democratic nation in the Middle East. It’s the only nation that has freedom of religion. It’s the only nation where it’s safe to be gay, where it’s safe to be a woman,” he added.
“If you’re going to single out Israel, you’ve got to do it in a way that’s not a double standard,” he said. “And if you’re applying a double standard, then you have to explain why that’s not anti-Semitic.”