When he was just 14 years old, Bobby Kennedy Jr. got a phone call at his Jesuit boarding school in Bethesda, Maryland, informing him that his father, who had just won the California Democratic primary, had been shot. He flew to Los Angeles aboard Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s plane and was with his father when he died. The young teenager served as a pallbearer at his father’s funeral and later read portions of his father’s speeches at a Mass memorializing his father’s death. The man who murdered his father was a Palestinian domestic terrorist named Sirhan Sirhan. He shot RFK because of his strong support for Israel.
As if all that horror isn’t sufficiently unimaginable, leaders of the Jewish community are now attacking his son, Bobby Kennedy Jr., as an antisemite.
There is much Bobby and I disagree on, from the legacy of his grandfather Joseph Kennedy, to the covid-19 vaccines (I’m quintuply vaxed), to American support for Ukraine. But to call Bobby Kennedy an antisemite is an affront to decency and is a straight-out lie that demeans the term, causes the Jewish community to cry wolf, and slanders a great friend of Israel.
I spend much of my life fighting Jew-hatred. To use the British understatement, it’s not my first choice. Make love not war, is my motto. I’d much rather be discussing my books “Kosher Sex,” “Kosher Lust,” and the “Kosher Sutra” than fighting bigots. But what choice do I have, seeing as the haters have come after me and my people?
But as important as I find it to fight antisemites, I believe it equally important to exonerate those falsely accused.
Twenty years ago when I served as Michael Jackson’s rabbi, he was suddenly accused of being an antisemite. The lyrics of one of his songs said, “Don’t Jew me, don’t sue me.” The floodgates opened on him. “Michael is a Jew-hater.” He was incredibly upset. He had just visited Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with me, against the advice of his managers, who said he’d be boycotted around the world. His childhood tutor was a Jewish woman to whom Michael was especially close and whom Michael funded outright at the end of her life. Then there was his relationship with me and the wider Jewish community. I explained to Michael why the lyrics were so offensive — regardless of how it may be used as slang — he quickly changed them, and they remain changed to this day.
But over that they took someone who had visited Israel, prayed at the Kotel, and called him a Jew-hater.
Then there is Roseanne Barr. Few Hollywood celebrities fight for Israel as much as my friend Roseanne. A lot of people hate Roseanne and her politics and find the way she fights for the Jewish nation too in your face. But an antisemite? Seriously? Aside from the fact that she is Jewish (I know, there are plenty of Jewish antisemites), she is one of the most staunch defenders of Israel in the world and accompanied me on an incredible, public trip to ancient biblical sites in Judea and Samaria.
In 2001, right after the attacks of 9/11, I took the Rev. Al Sharpton to Israel on a solidarity trip between the Black and Jewish communities. He and I had just had a take-no-prisoners debate in midtown Manhattan. When it ended, amid our fiery disagreements before an audience of hundreds, I invited him to a kosher steakhouse and he accepted. A friendship ensued, and he accepted to visit the Jewish state as a guest of both me and the Israeli foreign minister at the time, Shimon Peres.
Sharpton visited Israeli victims of terror in the hospital and gave them genuine comfort. He was absolutely astonished to see tall, muscular, Jewish Black soldiers of the IDF carrying massive machine guns to protect Israel in battle. The trip changed him. Yet when we arrived back in New York, I was personally savaged by leaders of the Jewish community for “koshering” an antisemite. And yet, this past Chanukah, after Kanye West condemned money-grubbing Jews and praised Hitler, Sharpton came to my holiday celebration at Carnegie Hall, lit a menorah with us and Mayor Eric Adams, and sharply condemned Kanye and all forces of bigotry and especially antisemitism.
President Obama was also called an antisemite, a disgusting charge given that his administration was filled with Jews at the highest levels, and Obama never uttered an antisemitic statement in his life. True, he put undue pressure on Israel and gave us the abominable Iran deal. But none of this stemmed from antisemitism, but rather from Obama’s shallow understanding of the Middle East, as his failed overtures to Iran made all too clear.
Now it’s the turn of Bobby Kennedy. You can hate Bobby Kennedy’s politics and you can strongly disagree with him over the covid-19 vaccines, as do I. But false charges of antisemitism are below the belt. Kennedy is a lifelong friend of the Jewish community. As of now, he is the only major Democrat to come out against both President Obama as well as President Biden’s Iran deals. He praised the Israeli counterterror raid in Jenin — which Biden and his ambassador unfortunately compared to a terror-attack — saying Israel protected civilians in ways no army had ever done before.
Josh Gottheimer whom I’ve known for some 30 years, ever since our days together at Oxford, called Kennedy not just an antisemite but a “disgrace to the Kennedy name.” Now, I’ll leave Josh’s credentials on Camelot aside. But Josh had no such words for even Ilhan Omar when he voted to keep her on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wassermann Schultz called Kennedy an antisemite during his testimony at a House hearing on censorship last week.
But Wassermann Schultz also fought to keep Ilhan Omar on the House Foreign Relations Committee, saying, “There’s no reason to remove Congresswoman Omar from her committees except revenge.” Apparently, blaming Jewish “Benjamins” for controlling American policies and comparing Israel to the Taliban didn’t qualify. Asked if she thought all Democrats would be united behind Omar, Wasserman Schultz replied, “Of course…”
What was Bobby’s sin? He said at a private dinner in New York that covid-19 had less of an effect on the Chinese and Ashkenazi Jews. When I called him and told how offensive that is to Jews, in light of centuries-old Jewish tropes that the Jews poisoned the wells of Europe and the like, he immediately apologized, recanted, and did a 40-minute interview with me, taking full responsibility for his words. I told him it didn’t matter, that leaders had to be extremely careful with their words, especially in light of historical precedent. He agreed, apologized publicly again, and continues to have the most pro-Israel platform of any Democratic candidate for president in two decades.
More and more Jews on the right are now calling President Biden an antisemite, after repeatedly refusing to invite Israel’s democratically elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington. After Netanyahu told the press that Biden invited him to the U.S. over the phone, the White House went out of its way to omit the invitation from its readout of the call. Even Morocco’s King Muhammed VI invited Netanyahu before Biden did. Biden is also criticizing Israel’s government for being antidemocratic. Atop the protracted insult of not inviting Netanyahu, Biden passed a message to Israel’s prime minister through Bibi’s foremost English-language critic, the New York Times’ Tom Friedman. After a 75-minute meeting in the Oval Office — time the president could have given Netanyahu — Friedman produced a devastating hit-piece against Bibi, topped off with a threat: “You ignore [Biden’s] sincere concerns at your peril.” That saga played out just a week after Biden dressed down Israel on CNN for having the “most extreme members of cabinet…since Golda Meir.” Biden used the same word — “extreme” — minutes later to describe terrorists murdering Jews in Judea and Samaria, drawing an unfortunate equivalence between law-abiding Israeli leaders and heartless terrorist murderers.
Is Biden an antisemite? Of course not. He has had a 50-year warm and intimate relationship with the Jewish community and has always had Israel’s back. I strongly disagree with his most recent comments on Israel. But he is much more likely pandering to extreme elements of the Democratic caucus than being motivated by any kind of bias against the Jewish people, which I’m certain he does not feel. Biden claims his toughness on Israel stems from love for Jews and democracy. That doesn’t make it better. But it certainly is not antisemitism.
As we Jews now face the greatest threat of antisemitism since the Holocaust, we have to rise to the occasion and fight the haters with all our heart and with all our might, without which we will lose. And every time we offer false accusations of antisemitism, we make our job that much harder.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood is the author of “Judaism for Everyone” and “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.