Home inFocus Trials & Triumphs: Israel at 75 (Spring 2023) Robert Kennedy in Palestine, 1948

Robert Kennedy in Palestine, 1948

Lenny Ben-David Spring 2023
Bobby Kennedy standing on what is today King David Street in Jerusalem in April 1948. Behind him, barbed wire and a British Army roadblock. (Photo: Kennedy Family)

Editors Note: All references to “Palestinian” and “Palestine” except the last one refer to the Jews and Jewish land under the British Mandate for Palestine.

In April 1948, one month before Israel declared independence, Robert Kennedy, then 22 and a recent Harvard graduate, traveled to Palestine to report on the conflict for the Boston Post. His four dispatches from the scene were published in June 1948. The newspaper closed in 1956, and the reports were forgotten for decades. Yellowed newspaper clippings of Kennedy’s articles were found by this author in a pile of discarded files in Washington D.C. They were subsequently published as Robert Kennedy’s 1948 Reports from Palestine [Editor: Lenny Ben David] by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The young Kennedy’s visit to Palestine and other countries had many unexpected and delayed effects. According to Bobby Kennedy’s daughter Kathleen, RFK’s fiancée broke up with him over his trip, which led to his 18-year marriage to Ethel Skakel and 11 children. On another familial note, in 1939, his brother (and later president, John F. Kennedy) visited Palestine and wrote to his father his impressions of the inhabitants, the violence, and the British mandate rule. JFK subtly acknowledged his father’s well-known antisemitism and doubted the likelihood of a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Jewish strife.

Dear Dad: I thought I would write you my impressions on Palestine while they were still fresh in my mind, though you undoubtedly, if I know the Jews, know the ‘whole’ story.

The oldest Kennedy brother, Joseph Jr., visited European countries, including Nazi Germany in 1934, apparently at the behest of his father, Joseph Sr., who served as the US ambassador to Britain. In his reports to his father, Joe Jr. praised some of Hitler’s policies. “Hitler is building a spirit in his men that could be envied in any country.” Joseph Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash during World War II.

End of the Mandate

Robert Kennedy arrived in a chaotic and perilous land on the eve of the British departure from Palestine in May 1948. Jewish Jerusalem and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City were under Arab siege, and regular Arab armies were pouring into the territory from surrounding countries. Kennedy praised the Palestinian Jews (only one month later did the name “Israel” and the term “Israelis” come into being).

The Jewish people in Palestine who believe in and have been working toward this national state have become an immensely proud and determined people… It is already a truly great modern example of the birth of a nation with the primary ingredients of dignity and self-respect.

The Arabs are most concerned about the great increase in the Jews in Palestine: 80,000 in 1948. The Arabs have always feared this encroachment and maintain that the Jews will never be satisfied with just their section of Palestine but will gradually move to overpower the rest of the country.

(Image: Boston Library)

JFK in 1939: The Arabs naturally objected to the Jewish encroachment. They felt that the Jews, if permitted, would dominate in their country numerically as well as economically.

Back to RFK:

The Arabs are determined that a separate Jewish state will be attacked and attacked until it is finally cut out like an unhealthy abscess.

From a small village of a few thousand inhabitants, Tel Aviv has grown into a most impressive modern metropolis of over 200,000. They have truly done much with what all agree was very little.

The Jews point with pride to the fact that over 500,000 Arabs, in the 12 years between 1932 and 1944, came into Palestine to take advantage of living conditions existing in no other Arab state. This is the only country in the Near and Middle East where an Arab middle class is in existence.

I came in contact personally with evidence that demonstrated clearly the British bitterness toward the Jews. I have ridden in Jewish armored car convoys [between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem], which the British have stopped to inspect for arms. As always, there were members of the Haganah aboard, and they quickly broke down their small arms, passing the pieces among the occupants to conceal them so as to prevent confiscation.

Satisfied that none existed, the convoy, supposedly unarmed, was allowed to pass into Arab territory. If the arms had been found and confiscated and the Arabs had attacked, there would have been but a remote chance of survival for any of the occupants. There have been many not as fortunate as we.

In the biography Robert Kennedy and His Times, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. reported that during his visit to Palestine, Kennedy wrote to his parents that the Jews he met “are different from any Jews I have ever known or seen.” As for the Arabs, he wrote, “I just wish they didn’t have that oil.”


Robert Kennedy served as the US Attorney General during his brother John’s presidency. He was elected to the US Senate in 1964 from the state of New York and emerged as the leading Democratic candidate for the 1968 presidential elections, presenting himself as an anti-war and human rights champion. He strongly supported Israel, especially after the 1967 Six Day War.

Sirhan Sirhan, RFK’s assassin, chose the first anniversary of the Six Day War to kill the Democratic candidate. At his trial and in his diary, the Arab Christian complained about Kennedy’s support for Israel in 1948 and again during the 1968 campaign. Specifically, Sirhan pointed to a May campaign speech in a Portland, Oregon synagogue where RFK urged the US government to provide Israel with advanced F-4 Phantom jets.

Sirhan was found guilty of murdering Kennedy and sentenced to death. However, because of constitutional rulings on the death penalty, the assassin’s sentence was changed to life imprisonment. Today, at the age of 78, Sirhan’s latest request for parole was turned down for the 17th time on March 1, 2023.

RFK’s daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, 1995 – 2003, told this writer that people should know, “A Palestinian terrorist killed my father because he supported Israel.”

Lenny Ben David is director of publications at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. A former Israeli diplomat, he is the author of American Interests in the Holy Land.