The controversy surrounding the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy has once again been resurrected with the publication of Peter Evans’s book ‘Nemesis’ in which the author accuses Aristotle Onassis of having ‘funded’ the assassination through an official of the PLO. The controversy has also provoked a number of Hollywood celebrities, including actor Robert Vaughn, to re-open the case.
For nearly 40 years conspiracy advocates have built their arguments not only around the controversies surrounding the ballistics evidence and the scene of the crime but the oft-repeated cry that the assassin had no real motive for his act. Yet there is a mountain of evidence to prove the contrary.
From the time he was a child Sirhan had been indoctrinated in ideologies that are at the center of his murderous act. Sirhan’s hatred had its roots in the milieu in which he was raised and the education he received. Later, as a young adult, Sirhan sought meaning to his increasingly hopeless life by embracing anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism and Palestinian nationalism.
As a child Sirhan had been taught by Arab teachers who instilled in him the principles of the Palestinian cause. They promoted the cause of Palestinian nationalism and made constant references to the great Arab warrior, Saladin, who had expelled the foreign crusaders from Jerusalem. Teachers would attempt to inspire the children in their care to fight for Palestinian rights.
During Sirhan’s trial his mother related how the intense feelings of the Palestinians remained with the family even though they had been far removed from the conflict when they emigrated to America. She told of how her family had lived in Jerusalem for “thousands of years” and she spoke of the bitterness and hatred of the Israelis who had ‘taken their land’. Mary Sirhan believed her son had killed Robert Kennedy because of his Arab nationalism. She said, “What he did, he did for his country.” A friend of Sirhan’s, John Strathman, believed the young Arab was heavily influenced by his mother’s views.
But Sirhan was doubtlessly influenced by the opinions of both his parents. Child psychologists have long known that the nature of early childhood suggestions by parents can lead to a lifelong influence on the individual’s self-concept. In Sirhan’s case his parents taught him the Jews were ‘evil’ and ‘stole their home’. Sirhan’s father, Bishara, regretted Kennedy’s death but his hatred and contempt shone through in a statement he made to reporters in the days following his son’s arrest. Bishara, himself a victim of Palestinian propaganda, said, “I can say that I do not regret his death as Kennedy the American politician who attempted to gain the presidential election by his aggressive propaganda against the Arab people of Palestine…..Kennedy was promising the Zionists to supply them with arms and aircraft….and thus provoked the sensitive feelings of Sirhan who had suffered so much from the Jews….It is not fair to accuse my son without a full examination of Zionist atrocities against the Arabs – those atrocities which received the support and blessings of Robert Kennedy.”
What was never considered by writers and journalists, in their quest to find a motive for Sirhan’s act of murder, was the effect that teachers and influential adults in Jerusalem’s Arab community had on the young Palestinian. The way a nation educates its children on the characterisation of other races and religions will often determine the relations between them. Populations are not culturally prone to hatred – they are educated toward it as studies of Nazi Germany show. The anti - semitism inculcated in German children in the 1930s and 40s remained with them into their old age and the West German government’s post-war attempts to promote anti-fascism had no effect on those who grew up during the Third Reich.
The propaganda used by Palestinians had no less an effect on the younger generations of children from the 1940s to the present day. From an early age Sirhan had been taught by educators, family members and friends that the Jews were ‘treacherous’, ‘an evil enemy’ and it was his ‘duty’ to rid Jews from Palestine. Sirhan’s generation was taught to hate, despise and fear Jews, to believe that it was not only right for every self-respecting Arab to fight the Jewish state and that it was just and desirable to destroy it. Undoubtedly, this milieu of hatred had an intense effect on Sirhan as he grew up.
Sirhan’s irrational hatred and anger towards the Jews did not originate with any mental illness he may have suffered. In fact his attitude was no different from that of the majority of Palestinians and the rest of the Arab peoples. His ideas were entirely rational within the norms of the Arab world. As Glubb Pasha, an Arab military leader and British officer (and no lover of Jews) reported in 1945, “They (the Arabs) were painfully conscious of their immaturity, their weakness and their backwardness. They show all the instability and emotionalism of the adolescent (characterised by) their touchiness and …readiness to take offence at any sign of condescension by their ‘elders’. Slights gave rise to outbursts of temper and violent defiance.”
There is little doubt the conflict and the situation Palestinians found themselves in, following the 1948 diaspora, had its effect on all Palestinian children. Their dark rage and despair originated from poor leadership within the Palestinian communities and the feeling they had gone unnoticed by the rest of the world. Theirs were memories of a ‘lost homeland’, the yearning for return passed down from generation to generation and above all outrage, shame, anger and humiliation. As writer Sana Hassan eloquently testified, “Living in Beirut as a stateless person for most of my growing up years, many of them in a refugee camp, I did not feel I was living among my ‘Arab brothers’….I was a Palestinian. And that meant I was an outsider, an alien, a refugee and a burden…It defeated some of us. It reduced and distorted and alienated others. The defeated, like myself, took off to go away from the intolerable pressures of the Arab world…The reduced, like my parents, waited helplessly in a refugee camp for the world, for a miracle, or for some deity to come to their aid. The distorted, like Sirhan Sirhan, turned into assassins. The alienated, like Leila Khaled, hijacked civilian aircraft.”
Before Sirhan emigrated to America at the age of 12 he had been schooled in East Jerusalem which had been annexed by Jordan during the 1948 conflict. After 1948, East Jerusalem and West Bank schools followed the Jordanian curriculum. In the Arab world, including Jordan, educational systems were riven with notions antithetical to the values of tolerance and understanding that are so intently promoted in the West. Hundreds of books published from 1948 in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq promoted the theme that the liquidation of Israel was not only a political necessity, but also a moral imperative. Israel and its people were an evil entity and that it was permissible to destroy them. The textbooks contained material that went beyond the worst excesses of Nazi Germany.
Arab leaders compiled a curriculum of hatred for use by their children and the anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish teachings became a basic element in the study of history in the schools. Arab children were taught that Jews were the ultimate embodiment of evil and should be ‘destroyed’. Although Sirhan’s school was nominally Christian teachers were mainly drawn from the Arab community, which was predominantly Muslim, with some input from foreign missionary workers. Christian Arabic children used Jordanian textbooks. From 1948 to 1967 Christian Schools in East Jerusalem were required to teach the Koran. Following his arrest for the murder of Robert Kennedy, Sirhan told of how he had been influenced by one particular teacher in his school, “ Mr Suheil”, who angily denounced present day Arabs and compared them to the Arab warrior Saladin. Suheil tried to indoctrinate his pupils in Arab nationalism and urged them to be like Saladin and fight for the Arab cause.
As the Arab world ignored the United Nations call to legitimise the State of Israel Arab Jordanian school textbooks continued to refer to Israel as ‘foreign occupied Palestine’. The texts called for Israel’s destruction and made reference to the obligation Palestinians had to defend Islamic land. In the textbooks Jews were portrayed as thieves, occupiers and ‘enemies of the prophets’, ‘cunning’, ‘deceitful’, ‘wild animals’, ‘locusts’ and ‘treacherous’. The curriculum also exhorted children to violence and described the Jewish state in Nazi-like terms. They always described Arabs as ‘victims’. In fact, the purpose of Arab schooling in Jordan and Egypt was to mobilise the population for future conflict with Israel.
The Israeli educational textbooks during this period were not without their own bias and many used less than flattering descriptions of Arabs and were essentially racist towards ‘goyin’ (Non-Jews).History textbooks also contained many biases, distortions and omissions concerning the depiction of Arabs and the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, the books omitted the incitement to hatred and violence that was present in the textbooks used by Palestinian refugees in Jordan and Egypt. In fact, beginning in the 1950s, Israel did much to promote the concept of peaceful co-existence. Study of Arabic culture and language was introduced in elementary schools and the works of Arab authors and poets, even those hostile to Israel, have been included in the curriculum.
In December 1956, when Sirhan was 12 years old, the Sirhan family moved to the Unites States. At first Sirhan was not impressed with his new life but he was hopeful that his position as one of an ‘oppressed’ minority would improve. The 12 year old asked his mother if, by becoming US citizens he would get blonde hair and blue eyes. From an early age he would always refer to himself as a ‘Palestinian Arab’ even though he was, technically, a Jordanian citizen.
The effect of seeing American students from wealthy backgrounds socialising amongst themselves had an impact on Sirhan; an impact long recognised by educators who have understood how school populations, differientiated by social class, material possessions and social groupings can experience resentment and bitterness. Sirhan began to recognize that, for him at least, America was a society of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. He identified with the ‘have-nots’ and characterized the ‘haves’ as students who had ‘blonde hair’ and ‘blue eyes’. Sirhan was beginning to identify himself along racial lines. At this time he was described by friends and fellow students as “taciturn”, “surly”, “hard to get to know”, “withdrawn and alone” but also “pleasant and well-mannered”.
Sirhan’s hatred and anger towards the Jews remained with him as he settled in his new country. He continued to believe ‘Jews’ ran ‘the whole country’, headed major organisations of the media and were responsible for the slanted view the media gave of Arabs. According to Mohan Goel, an acqaintance of Sirhan’s, “(Sirhan) couldn’t understand the Americans, that they let the Jews suck the blood of the nation, and keep putting money in the banks.” Sirhan confessed he still felt, “…towards the Jews as they (the Jews) felt towards Hitler. Hitler persecuted them and now they’re persecuting me in the same style.”
At Pasadena’s John Muir High School Sirhan became interested in politics and began to express his political views. Once he gave a talk to the school’s Foreign Relations Club. Arriving at the venue Sirhan became disgusted at the audience which he believed was made up mostly of “Jews”. Asked if Arabs should accept the status quo and also accept ‘peace’ Sirhan became inflamed. He berated his questioner and asked, rhetorically, “Give up our own houses? You want us to give up our own houses?”
The Sirhan family continued to resist acculteration. Conversation at home was always Arabic and they listened to taped Arab music all day long, especially the music of Umm Kulthum. They read Arab newspapers and observed Arab customs, read Arab literature and their way of ‘thinking’ was always the ‘Arab way’. Arab pride was also important to them which is the reason why Sirhan became angry when his lawyers argued that he had been ‘mentally ill’ when he shot Robert Kennedy. Sirhan reacted this way because in Arab culture there is a great stigma attached to mental illness. In most Arab countries it is better to be a criminal than to admit insanity.
Despite his all-English education Sirhan’s mother tongue remained Arabic although Sirhan claimed to ‘think’ in English. The family spoke Arabic amongst themselves and all the brothers described themselves not as “Christian Arabs” but as “Palestinian Arabs”. The brothers also strongly disapproved of their sister Aida not marrying an Arab.
During a period of unemployment in 1966/67 Sirhan frequently visited the Pasadena Public Library, especially during the summer of 1967 when he read everything he could get his hands on about the Six Day War. He avidly read ‘B’nai B’rith Messenger’ keeping track of what he described as ‘Zionist intentions’. Angry and bitter at the Arab defeat Sirhan frequently railed against the purported pro-Israeli US television news and the “bias” of magazines like Time, Newsweek and US News and World Report.
The war had an intense effect on him. He had seen photographs of Israeli soldiers triumphantly taking control of the Suez Canal and later he would remark, “If I had seen those guys personally, I would have blasted them.... I would have killed them.” His anger against Israel provoked him to write in his notebooks, “ 2 June 1967, 12.30pm - A Declaration of was against American Humanity when in the course of human events it has become necessary for me to equalise and seek revenge for all the inhuman treatments committed against me by the American people .....”. Another entry declared, “Long Live Nasser...Long live the Arab Dream.”
Between September 1967 and March 1968 Sirhan had been employed by Health Store owner John Weidner and he discussed politics, religion and philosophy with his boss. One of Weidner’s assistants said Sirhan was “…a fanatic when it comes to a discussion of religion or politics.” According to Weidner, Sirhan believed he was, “…an Arab...... till the end.” Weidner quoted Sirhan as saying, “They (the Jews) have stolen my country. They have no right to be there. It belongs to Jordan and they have taken it.” Weidner said Sirhan believed, “The Jewish people were dominating, they had a lot of wealth, a lot of power, and he say (sic) there is no freedom in America....he always had the attitude of resenting authority...he could be very nervous and arrogant....he was thinking alone...knowing his hate of the Jews....and knowing his complex of inferiority, seeing in Kennedy a man who has a big name, rich, successful life, happy - now Sirhan, you have got to do something big...”
It was because of Sirhan’s ‘touchiness’, arrogance and his feelings of inadequacy and inferiority that friction between employer and employee developed. Weidner said he sometimes “…felt that (Sirhan) had turned against the whole American way of life, and that he was an anarchist in revolt against our society. And yet he had beliefs and principles. Personal honour and his self-respect were important to him. And second only to that he esteemed patriotism. He had strong patriotic feelings for his country (Palestine). Yes, I would say he loved his country.”
Weidner also engaged Sirhan in many discussions about the problems of the Middle East. According to Weidner, “.... he hated the Jews because of their power and their material wealth, they had taken his country from his people who were now refugees. Because of Israel, he said, his family had become refugees, and he described to my wife how he himself had seen a Jewish soldier cutting the breast off an Arab woman in Jerusalem.” He told Weidner, “There is no God. Look at what God has done for the Arabs! And for the Palestinians! How can we believe in God?”
During the Easter vacation of 1968 Arab-American Lou Shelby, who hired Sirhan’s brother Adel as a musician for his club The Fez, visited the Sirhans. Shelby thought the family were ‘strange’. He had previously visited them in Pasadena on a number of occasions for musical rehearsals and was able to see them in a social setting. According to Shelby, “The Sirhans always struck me as being a weird family. By that I mean something quite strange and unusual. Perhaps the best way to explain it is by saying that though they were Christians, the general quality, the atmosphere, of their family was that of a Muslim family. It was serious and heavy and lacking in the adaptability and quickness which most Arab Christian families here have. And there were their relations with their mother; the sons were fond of her, of course, but she had little influence on them and they didn’t take her wishes or feelings into account.”
Shelby had known Adel for seven years but it was the first opportunity to talk to his younger brother. According to Shelby, “We had a really big argument on Middle East politics...we switched back and forth between Arabic and English. Sirhan’s outlook was completely Arab nationalist - the Arabs were in the right and had made no mistakes. I tried to reason with him and to point out that one could be in the right but still make mistakes. But he was adamant. According to him, America was to blame for the Arabs’ misfortunes - because of the power of Zionism in this country. The only Arab leader he really admired was Nasser and he thought Nasser’s policies were right. The Arabs had to build themselves up and fight Israel, that was the only way. The only outside friend the Arabs had was Russia, but, according to Sirhan, Russia had not proved a good enough friend during last June’s fighting (Six Day War).”
Following his arrest Sirhan told one of the court appointed psychiatrists, George Y. Abe, about his political philosophy. Sirhan told him he was solidly anti-Zionist and disgusted at the way Jews in America had such a strong influence within the American political system. Sirhan said he believed Robert Kennedy listened to the Jews and he saw the Senator as having sold out to them.
As the years went by Sirhan’s hatred of the Jews did not dissipate. He once denounced one of his brothers for dating a Jewish girl and he rejected another girl he dated because she was Jewish. He became incensed when he saw the movie “Exodus”. “Every time I hear that song,” he later told Robert Kaiser (‘RFK Must Die’, 1970), “I shut it off. It bugs me. The memories. Those Jews…. ‘The fucking Arabs’ is what they’re trying to say every time they play that song.” Sirhan refused to see the movie “Lawrence Of Arabia” as he believed it to be anti-Arab. He also disliked the movie because it had a Jewish director, Sam Spiegal.
In fact Sirhan became paranoid about Jews in the United States. He said, “The Jews are behind the scenes wherever you go.You tell them your name and they freeze.’SUR-HAN’, (they say).” He felt slighted every time someone mentioned his double-barrelled name. He said, “My name! My name! As soon as anyone heard it, everything else stopped.” He confessed that he was not “…psychotic…except when it comes to the Jews.”
Childhood friend and fellow ‘radical’ Walter Crowe said Sirhan was virulently anti-semitic and professed hatred for the Jews and the State of Israel. Crowe believed Mary Sirhan propagated these views to Sirhan. Crowe, who studied Arabic, attended a meeting of the Organisation of Arab Students with Sirhan in 1964. In 1965 Sirhan told Crowe of his admiration for President Nasser and expressed the wish that the Arabs would someday rid Palestine of the Jews. At Pasadena College Sirhan said he realised “ …. being an Arab is worse than being a Negro. Oh, I worked hard….. but I stood out in class….just my name gave me away. I stood out for that teacher as an example to prove the points he wanted to make to the class about ‘acculturation’. Once, during a discussion of adaptation, the problem, the issue of Palestine came up. This was my chance to speak. I really wanted to clobber this fellow, this blond son of a bitch and I did. I put him where he really belonged. I talked for one solid hour. There were two or three coloured people in the class.They had to applaud. I was on their side when they got up to tell about their grievances. My argument? Well, I said that if the US was really as benevolent as it claimed to be, why did it send Hitler’s Jews to Palestine? Why not to the Mojave desert? Then see how much milk and honey they could produce!”
For a brief period a few years before the assassination Sirhan had secured employment as a part-time gardener and he came to hate the Jews whose gardens he tended. He referred to them as those ‘fucking Jews’, ‘the goddamn Zionists’ and the ‘fucking Zionists’.
A number of people who knew Sirhan, including friend John Strathman, said Sirhan had been impressed by Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ and also of the German leader’s solution to the ‘Jewish Problem’. Sirhan believed Hitler had had ‘hypnotic’ powers over the German people. John Weidner, said, “I soon discovered he had a dislike for the Jewish people as a nation…he said that in America, the Jewish people were on the top and directed things…He said they had taken his home.”
However, it was the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 that provoked the worst of his anti-semitic rages. Kanan Hamzeh, President of the Organisation of Arab Students in Pasadena, said Sirhan had “intense feelings about the Israelis”. According to John Strathman, Sirhan was “intense” and “mad” about the Six Day War. Strathman’s wife, Patricia said Sirhan became “… burning mad…furious..” about the war.
The Sirhan family watched television news reports about the war and they read the Los Angeles newspapers. The Los Angeles Times editorial of June 6th 1967 said that the US had an obligation to maintain the territorial integrity of Israel and from the week beginning June 5th, 1967, the newspaper devoted many pages depicting Arabs as figures of ridicule. Television comedy shows made reference to anti-Arab jokes and the general atmosphere throughout America was joy at the Israeli victory. Arabs living in the United States found it difficult to understand why the United States sided with Israel, despite the oft-stated view of American leaders that Israel was viewed as an island of democracy in a sea of dictatorships. Arab communities in America also failed to understand how the American people supported Israel because it was seen as the underdog, a small nation standing up to the aggression from large Arab states. Furthermore, support for Israel had been linked to the Cold war realities of a superpower’s response to the growing friendliness between Arab states, especially that of Nasser’s Egypt, with the Soviet Union.
One year later, on the anniversary of the Arab defeat, Sirhan saw, on his way to the Ambassador Hotel on the night of June 4th 1968, an advertisement announcing a march down Wilshire Boulevard to commemorate the first anniversary of Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. It was a “… big sign, for some kind of fund, or something…a fire started burning in me…I thought the Zionists or Jews or whoever it was were trying to rub it in that they had beat hell out of the Arabs.” At his trial he said, “... that brought me back to the six days in June of the previous year…I was completely pissed off at American justice at the time….I had the same emotionalism, the same feelings, the fire started burning inside me…at seeing how these Zionists, these Jews, these Israelis, …..were trying to rub in the fact that they had beaten the hell out of the Arabs the year before…when I saw that ad, I was off to go down and see what these sons-of-bitches were up to.”
Sirhan was not alone in his anger. An unnamed girl friend of Adel’s told reporters it was no secret that the Arab community in Los Angeles were upset at the American government’s overt support of Israel. In 1967 and 1968 she and others joined in a demonstration with marches on Hollywood Boulevard and the Hollywood Bowl.
Sirhan had developed the idea of ‘striking out’ in the year following the Arab defeat and his feelings climaxed during the 1968 primary elections. Furthermore, in the years leading up to the shooting, his Arab nationalism was fuelled by the Arab newspaper Al Bayan, published in Brooklyn, which promoted anti-Israeli rhetoric. Some of its articles were overtly anti-semitic.
As an avid reader of American political periodicals Sirhan became angry at the way the American press were treating the Arabs. He told one of the doctors involved in the case, “I read this magazine article on the 20th anniversary of the state of Israel….I hate the Jews. There was jubilation. I felt they were saying in the article, ‘We beat the Arabs’. It burns the shit out of me. There was happiness and jubilation.”
There is some evidence that Sirhan was not incorrect in his assumptions that the US media had a bias against Arab states. In a July 1967 TIME magazine article entitled “The Least Unreasonable Arab”, Jordan’s King Hussein was described as the only moderate leader in the Middle East. The magazine stated, “Instead of trying to salvage what they can the Arabs are busy blaming just about everybody but themselves for the fact that great glubs of territory lie in Israeli hands.” In its essay Time continued, “Desperately in need of survival training for the 20th century… a case of arrested development… emotional and political instability…suffering from one of history’s worst inferiority complexes.”
The idea that Sirhan’s self-confessed political motivation was spurious did not originate with conspiracy advocates. From the beginning both Sirhan’s lawyers and the US media sought to portray the assassination of Robert Kennedy as the act of a deranged individual bent on seeking fame and notoriety.
The New York lawyer Emile Zola Berman, a Jew, became one of Sirhan’s lawyers and was praised for defending a Palestinian. However, he may well have been used by the defence team to prevent the political aspects of the crime from being addressed. It was Berman who advocated Sirhan’s defense be built around the plea of ‘diminished capacity’, to prove that Sirhan had been ‘mentally ill’. Sirhan protested and told his lawyers, “Have you ever heard the Arab side of the story?…I mean on the TV, the radio, in the mass media?…That’s what bugs me! There’s no Arab voice in America, and goddamn it, I’m gonna show ‘em in that courtroom. I’m gonna really give’em hell about it.” During the trial Sirhan repeatedly voiced his political motives but his lawyers went ahead with their trial strategy.
The act of killing Kennedy can only be seen as an ‘absurd’ act if there was no obvious rational motive to consider.Yet Sirhan’s crime was indeed explicable and rational both in personal and political terms, as the Arab communities in the United States recognised as soon as the facts of the case were publicised. Henry Awad, the editor and publisher of the Star News and Pictorial, the largest Arab newspaper in America at the time, said, “The Arab community wants this trial. We think it’s the only way the US will hear about the Arab cause…Every single Arab in America regrets the killing but the trial will bring us a chance for publicity”
The New York Times interviewed a celebrated spokesman for the Arab-American community in the United States, John Jabara, who believed the trial of Sirhan would bring an “understanding of the Arab cause”. Al Anwar, an Arab newspaper in Beirut commented on June 10th 1968, “….regardless of everything, Sirhan’s blood-stained bullets have carried Palestine into every American home. The act may be illegal, the price high and the assassination unethical. But American deafness to the cause of the Palestine people is also illegal, unethical and carries a high price.”
There were a few media outlets in the United States that recognised the true nature of Sirhan’s act but their voices went unheard. The Jewish Observer recognised that Robert Kennedy’s assassination would leave a “deep scar on America’s relations with the Arab world” and it noted how the State Department played down Sirhan’s Arab origins in order not to offend Arab states. They also observed that members of Congress were avoiding all reference to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Psychiatrist Dr George Y. Abe, who interviewed Sirhan in the pre-trial period, implied that Sirhan’s political ideas were irrational. Sirhan, he said, “(had) …paranoid-inclined ideations, particularly in the political sphere, but there is no evidence of outright delusions or hallucinations.” Yet the assassin’s ‘motives’ were anything but ‘paranoid’ and reflected the thinking of millions of Arabs both in the Middle East and the United States. Dr Philip S. Hicks, a psychiatrist who interviewed the assassin in 1986 said that the assassination stemmed from “political fanaticism rather than psychotic violence.”
When the United States voiced its support for Israel in the United Nations Assembly it enraged Sirhan. He later confessed, “At the time I would have killed (US Ambassador to the United Nations, Arthur Goldberg) if I had a gun.” Sirhan also developed an intense hatred for other leading American politicians although at his trial he expressed admiration for President Kennedy. He said he had ‘loved’ the president because JFK had been working with Arab Leaders to try to bring about a peace settlement to the Middle East. Sirhan believed President Kennedy “was going to put pressure on Israel….to help the refugees…he was killed and it never happened.”
But Sirhan reserved his burning contempt for Robert Kennedy, who he believed had made statements in support of Israel that went beyond any expressed by the other presidential candidates. He imagined Kennedy had ‘betrayed’ him when he discovered that Kennedy, the candidate who expressed allegiance to the ‘underdog’, had now become his bitter enemy. He also targeted Kennedy because of the Senator’s greater potential in becoming the next president. Sirhan knew RFK’s assassination would engender greater publicity for the ‘Arab cause’.
At his trial Sirhan said he wanted Robert Kennedy to be President but that love turned to hate when he saw television reports of RFK participating in an Israeli Independence Day celebration .Asked by his lawyer, Grant Cooper, if anyone had put it in his mind that Robert Kennedy was a ‘bad person’, Sirhan replied, “No, no, this is all mine…I couldn’t believe it (RFK’s support for Israel). I would rather die…rather than live with it…I have the shock of it….the humility and all this talk about the Jews being victorious…”.
Sirhan said he heard a radio broadcast, “ (the) hot news was when the announcer said Robert Kennedy was at some Jewish Club or Zionist Club in Beverly Hills.” At the Neveh Shalom Synagogue Kennedy said, “…in Israel – unlike so many other places in the world – our commitment is clear and compelling. We are committed to Israel’s survival. We are committed to defying any attempt to destroy Israel, whatever the source. And we cannot and must not let that commitment waver.” Sharif Sirhan told Egyptian journalist Mahmoud Abel_Hadi that, following the broadcast of the speech on television, “…he (Sirhan) left the room putting his hands on his ears and almost weeping”.
Sirhan had been aware that Palestinian organisations were beginning to carry out terrorist acts in the 1960s. In conversations Sirhan held with his friend, Walter Crowe, the two politically-aware and leftist young men discussed Arab nationalism. Crowe told Sirhan that the Arab cause was a fight for national liberation. Echoing sentiments held by many left-wing radicals of the time, Crowe said the conflict in Palestine was an internal struggle by Palestinians who were oppressed by the Israelis. Crowe believed Al Fatah’s terrorist acts were justified and that Palestinian terrorists had gained the respect of the Arab world. Sirhan agreed and spoke of “total commitment” to the cause. Sirhan was for “…violence whenever, as long as its needed.” Crowe said that Sirhan, “…could have seen himself as a fighter”, and believed that Sirhan saw himself as a committed revolutionary willing to undertake revolutionary action. Later Crowe would come to feel guilt about the part he may have played in putting ideas of terrorist acts into Sirhan’s head and reinforcing Sirhan’s resolve.
Since June 1967 Al Fatah had been promoting their interests in the United States. From 1965 to 1967 Fatah pursued a policy of terrorist attacks on Israeli settlements. Only a few incursions into Israel were aimed at military targets. In March 1968 a group of terrorists used a land mine to destroy a school bus in Israel’s Negev Desert. Two adults were killed and 28 children wounded. In April 1968 a passenger bus was stopped by Israeli police a few miles east of the Sirhan’s village of Taibeh. Three young Palestinian terrorists were shot and two of the victims died. The stories were widely circulated within the United States
As a keen student of politics and Middle Eastern affairs Sirhan could not have failed to read about Fatah’s exploits. On the West Coast Arab students had been receiving political literature from a number of Arab groups, including Al Fatah. Students received copies of Al Fatah statements and communiqués, according to the Christian Science Monitor Beirut correspondent. The statements exhorted Palestinian Arabs to pursue a more violent agenda to rid the Jews from Palestinian soil. There is no evidence, however, that Sirhan had met with any representatives of terrorist groups. However, the Arab community in Los Angeles gave their wholehearted support for the actions of Palestinian terror groups and this no doubt influenced and inspired Sirhan.
Sirhan was a student at Pasadena City College from September 1963 until May 18th 1965. During this period two Arab groups were active on campus, ‘The International Club’ and the ‘Organisation of Arab Students in the United States and Canada’ but were not recognised by the College. According to writer James H. Sheldon, in an article entitled “Anti-Israeli Forces On Campus”, the OAS was dangerously active in spreading extremist and violent ideas during this period.
Sirhan was involved with the Organisation of Arab Students and met the president of the organisation, Kanan Abdul Latif Hamzeh, through his brother, Sharif , who was was an active member. Sirhan became a defacto member of the organisation which, purportedly, had been set up to assist Arab students in adjusting to academic life away from home but in reality it was more politically active than its mission statement professed. According to Hamzeh, Sirhan volunteered to assist in organising meetings setting up chairs and procurring refreshments. Hamzeh also said Sirhan had intense feelings against the Israelis.
Sirhan believed his crime of assassinating Robert Kennedy was ‘legitimate’ and he was intensely proud of his act. Robert Kaiser tried to fathom Sirhan’s true motives and in December 1968 he told him he did not believe his expressed pro-Palestinian motives. Sirhan had been ‘putting him on’, he thought. Sirhan replied, “I could be sometimes. But it’s in me…You know, women, money and horses were my thing, but I still maintain this thing (the assassination) had a political motivation. There was no other …involving factor.” John Weidner said, “I think he did it because he thought he was doing something for his country….(Sirhan) told me that when he was a child, he saw members of his family killed by Jews and he had to flee Jordan when he was a child. He was not a citizen and didn’t like the United States.”
By killing Kennedy Sirhan had been advancing the cause of the Palestinians, a cause which promoted the return of Arab land from the state of Israel. “They (the Palestinians) want action. They want results. Hey! I produced action for them. I’m a big hero over there.”
Sirhan knew that his crime ‘propagandised’ a political or ideological point of view – ‘a propaganda of the deed’ as the 1969 National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, described it . Sirhan attempted to advance his cause through publicity and there was a cause and effect relationship to his crime. In effect, Sirhan was an ‘unaffiliated terrorist’ and the motive for his act was established on the night he murdered Robert Kennedy when he cried out, ‘I did it for my country’.
Mel Ayton is the author of “The JFK Assassination : Dispelling The Myths” (Woodfield Publishing 2002) and “Questions Of Controversy : The Kennedy Brothers” (University of Sunderland Press 2001). His latest book “A Racial Crime – James Earl Ray And The Murder Of Dr Martin Luther King Jr” was published in the United States by ArcheBooks in February 2005. In 2003 he acted as the historical adviser for the BBC’s television documentary “The Kennedy Dynasty” broadcast in November of that year.