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Ted Kennedy’s Changing Take on Israel

Being wrapped in an Israeli flag this past week has caused Madonna, our Lady of Miracles, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and AIPAC some flak.
First, the simple case. Strutting underdressed across the concert stage in Tel Aviv wrapped in an Israel flag on 9/2/09, as her partner, the Brazilian model ‘Jesus’ shouted ‘Viva! Viva!’ off stage was probably just the Material Girl doing her material thing. And anyhow, the late Michael Jackson could have been mistaken when he made his snide remark a while back, “She can’t sing.  She can’t dance.  I don’t understand her success!”

On her quick trip north to the Palestinian village of Safad near the Lebanese border to view a Kabbalah shrine, Esther/Madonna may not have been advised that most of Safad’s population was ethnically cleansed in 1948 and with their offspring most now live in 12 Refugee Camps in Lebanon and 10 in Syria.  Reading deep politics into her flag-wearing event may be unwarranted since Esther/Madonna has now apparently offered to don the Palestinian flag or even Hamas’ or Hezbollah’s just to make amends and dampen the flap from her flag wrap.

Abe Foxman, President of ADL and AIPAC  on the other hand, knew exactly what they were doing four days earlier as both offered to send an Israeli flag to  Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica in Boston’s Mission Hill section. The plan was to wrap Ted Kennedy’s casket, side by side with the American flag, each flag to cover roughly half of Ted’s casket during Kennedy’s internationally broadcast funeral, which was even watched live in Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburbs. Only since the lobby’s continuing exploitation of the Holocaust and ADL’s use of the image of Yasser Arafat to demonize him and raise millions to fund illegal settlement expansion, did Foxman see such a terrific chance to hype brand Zionism, this time by linking it in perpetuity to the Kennedy mystique and the Arlington Cemetery eternal flame.

Wrapping Kennedy in the Israeli flag for history would no doubt give a boost to Israel’s preferred historical narrative and the Israeli flag which has increasingly come to represent virulent Zionism and its crimes.

AIPAC claims the well-intentioned project to wrap Kennedy in the Star of David was no more than another gesture for the memory of a friend of the Jewish people. Perhaps Abe saw his initiative as a return tribute for Ted’s thoughtfulness during the November 6, 1995 funeral for Yitzak Rabin on Mount Herzl (renamed for the founder of modern Zionism, Hungarian Binyamin Ze’ev (Theodore)  Herzl, who had never set foot in Palestine, from its ancient  expunged Arabic name “Jabal Assalam” meaning ‘Peace Mountain”) On that day Senator Kennedy sprinkled a cup of soil from his two brothers, John and Robert’s, gravesites at Arlington Cemetery on Rabin’s, as a gesture of respect.

Despite some intense lobbying, the Kennedy family graciously declined the Foxman-AIPAC offer and Ted’s coffin carried only the American flag.

Quite appropriately, the late senator did draw well earned encomia from a broad range of Jewish organizations, spanning the spectrum from the Orthodox Union to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Israeli officials praised Kennedy, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling the senator “a great friend of Israel,” and Israeli President Shimon Peres declaring Kennedy’s death was “a very big loss for Israel and thinking people the world over. Kennedy was a clear friend of Israel the whole way, and in every place that he could help us he did help. During his more than four decades in the US Senate, Sen. Kennedy consistently supported American assistance to Israel.”

Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, praised Kennedy as “a great friend to me and to Israel and to the Jewish people. He was one of ours.”  The anti-Palestinian American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris added that “Kennedy was in his hearts of heart an Israeli who could always be relied upon. His support for the well-being of the State of Israel faced with Arab threats, was always firm, as was his solidarity with vulnerable Jewish communities”, Harris noted.  Kennedy was kind of like “Joe Biden the Zionist” Harris would have us believe.

AIPAC wanted more

Before Kennedy’s body had cooled, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr issued a declaration to its Campus Allies Mission that Kennedy belonged to Israel and vice versa and implied that to suggest otherwise was, well probably yet another  anti-Semitic ‘blood libel’ of some sort. He insinuated that Kennedy’s function in death should be to help keep U.S. critics of Israeli actions at bay lest they exposed themselves as un-American.

Like many American students interested in politics, this observer followed Ted Kennedy’s career, the good and the bad.  On my second day at Boston University, I walked across Boston Common to his Tremont Street campaign office and saw a large sign above the entrance. I recall  that it read: “Ever since those immortal words of Thomas Jefferson, ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ the Democratic party has stood for the right of men and women to dignity, freedom, and to move ahead.” I found the sign inspiring and joined his Campaign for the U.S. Senate.  Odd how one remembers a sign from some many years ago when often one is not sure what day of the week it is.

I always felt a sort of vague connection with Ted Kennedy.  We were both the youngest of a large loving family.  He had five sisters and three brothers and I have five brothers (one died in infancy) and three sisters. I knew what it was like to try to keep up with older idolized active, sometimes wild, siblings and get regularly shunted aside.  We were both raised by devout Catholic Mothers, he Roman, me Anglican. Admittedly Milwaukie, Oregon was not Hyannis Port  on Cape Cod, Massachusetts,  but  it was just as good, and I am sure we had as much fun growing up with family sports, camping in the woods, picking strawberries for pocket money and swimming nearly every day in Oregon’s creeks, rivers, streams, or lakes.

I did not know Ted Kennedy well personally, but from two stints on his staff, in Boston and on his campaign Issues Staff including during his ill-fated 1980 Presidential bid  at the 22nd and Q St, NW National HQ  in Washington, DC, we had some conversations and once,  he actually saved me from the wrath of the Israeli lobby who wanted me fired when as a Member of the Democratic National Committee from Oregon, I addressed the 1980 Democratic Convention Platform Committee and advocated that the Party support a Palestinian State. I made clear my advocacy was my own view and not those of the Kennedy Campaign.   Kennedy would not let Paul Kirk, our campaign chairman fire me as Kirk yelled, “For Christ’s sake Lamb, the Carter campaign in New York will beat us over the head with this!”  Kennedy told me and Kirk with a hearty laugh “They (the Lobby) will get over it.”

My issues ‘specialty’ was supposedly US-Soviet Relations (we did not have a middle east issues desk only one called ‘Israel’) but most of my days and nights (sometimes, past midnight,  the  increasingly cash strapped campaign would spring for a feast  at Blackie’s House of Beef up the block)  were spent in a windowless room frantically calling around the country compiling ‘day books’ filled with the latest statistics on such compelling subjects as the current price Maine farmers were getting for potatoes, or the ‘hot issues’ in Keene, New Hampshire or how” Carter’s Interest Rates” (sometimes around 18 per cent) were ruining every community in Iowa  the EMK ’80 Campaign Bus rolled into.  We tried to impress journalists like Alexander Cockburn, then working for the Village Voice and also covering the Kennedy campaign for Rolling Stone, with our erudition. Alas, as CounterPunchers learned recently. Alexander was apparently not much impressed by our statistical work or the whole EMK ’80 campaign for that matter.

Our campaigns problem was that we failed to convince Democratic Party voters that there were real differences between Kennedy and Carter.  Historian Theodore H. White noted that Ted’s main problem with Carter was competence with the legislative process.  White quoted Ted in 1982: “Even on issues we agree on, he doesn’t know how to do it,” White, likened Ted’s attitude toward Carter as “the contempt of a master machinist for a plumber’s assistant” but the voters did not get it and we took body blows week after week as the primaries, unmercifully,  seemed never to end.
I puzzled, as many did, over what I considered Kennedy’s PEP problem (Progressive Except Palestine).  How could a fellow turn a blind eye to Israel’s crimes in Palestine when he exhibited such a passion to fight for what he called the most “humble members of society.” I acknowledge his actions that weakened America’s labor movement and his votes on GATT and NAFTA and his much criticized role in setting up the World Trade Organization, but even his detractors acknowledge  his considerable legislative skills to help enact Medicare and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title IX, a woman’s right to choose,  AmericaCorps, No Child Left Behind and the Ryan White AIDS Act, mental health parity, the State-Children’s Health Insurance Program, raising the minimum wage, the government program that extends health insurance for the unemployed,  the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act and who did more than perhaps any senator in modern memory to advance the cause of civil rights — he was one of the few senators to oppose the Defense of Marriage Act, and called health care the “greatest cause” of his life.

How could Ted Kennedy, in many ways, such a compassionate person, and a staunch critic of the war against Iraq suspend his independence of judgment, his moral compass, avert his eyes and cast so many votes funding Israel’s brutal occupation.  This has troubled me and many on his regular office staff over the years.  I suspect it also came back to trouble him as he appeared to back pedal from some of his earlier pro-Israel rhetoric.

Kennedy was never as gross in his proclaimed fealty to Israel as many members of Congress and occasionally he raised eyebrows when he declined some of the ‘raw meat’ language ever offered by AIPAC ‘advisors’ for inclusion in his speeches. But he regularly used the Israel card when it served him politically.

I was present at one campaign event when Kennedy spoke before the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations on January 28, 1980, in the run-up to the New York Primary.  He attacked Jimmy Carter in every borough of New York City, accusing him of an “on again, off again flirtation” with the PLO and of holding “pro-Palestinian positions.”  He told the audience,  “I know that in advocating Israel’s cause, I am inevitably advancing the cause of America,” and he asked, rhetorically, “what sort of a settlement can Israel expect from this president electorally unfettered in his second term? How often have threats and pressures, veiled and explicit, been used by this Administration in attempting to coerce Israel?”

The presidential primary polls indicated that Carter would beat Kennedy in the New York Democratic primary by a margin of 54 to 28 percent. But on March 1, Carter’s UN Ambassador, Donald F. McHenry, voted for a resolution in the UN Security Council condemning Israeli settlement activity in Jerusalem an issue still with us. Three weeks later, Kennedy beat Carter in New York by 59 percent to 41 percent.  Ted knew that the Israel lobby had come through for him. Paul Kirk smiled at me.

The brilliant Boston University Government Professor Murry B. Levin’s lectures, between 1955 and 1989 when he retired, often drew 1000 students into BU’s crammed Hayden Hall.  Levin was author of the Alienated Voter, the Compleat Politician and several books on Kennedy.  He would tell his spell-bound students, including this one, that Ted followed House Speaker Tip O’Neil’s creed that all politics are local and for years Kennedy showed little interest in foreign affairs and focused on domestic issues and local constituencies.  This helped the Israel lobby secure Kennedy’s seemingly blind support according to Levin.

Few on the issues staff at EMK ‘80 HQ thought that Ted’s comments on Israel/Palestine were extreme. Out of more than  a dozen in our cramped “issues office” 10 were fairly hard core Zionists with Ted’s niece Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and her husband David, who worked on education issues,  and this observer  the exceptions and only non-Jews.  Rabbi Alexander Schindler, a friend, told us that the Kennedy pledge to Israel was the most unequivocal he had ever heard from any Presidential candidate.That was nearly 30 years ago.  By today’s debased standards, Kennedy’s words now appear less strident. Kennedy supported Obama’s current efforts in Palestine and was, according to some on his foreign policy staff, getting ready to go toe to toe with the Israeli lobby if necessary “to settle this mess”.  Who doubts that Obama needed Kennedy to weigh in with the Israeli lobby to salvage Middle East initiatives?  But would he have done so?

Was Kennedy breaking with Israel’s Apartheid?

Following September 11, Senator Kennedy felt strongly that it was important to establish positive ties with more people of the Muslim world. To support that goal, he and colleagues established a program to provide scholarships for secondary school students from countries with significant Muslim populations to spend up to one academic year in the United States. These students live with American host families, attend high school, and engage in activities to learn about American society and values, acquire leadership skills, and help educate Americans about their countries and cultures. Since the program began in the fall of 2002, approximately 3,000 students from more than 30 countries have participated.  Meanwhile, Kennedy   started regularly calling a number of Muslim and Arab opinion leaders to assure them that 9/11 would not be allowed to bring division among Americans.

Kennedy also recently defended Judge Richard Goldstone’s UN-mandated investigation of both sides of the Gaza conflict. He met with human rights groups that have been the target of a disinformation campaign launched by the Israeli government. Kennedy recognized the problem of the Israeli military killing mainly civilians. He argued to his staff that Israel’s military campaign in Gaza should not be lamely excused or covered up but should be seen for what is was and must not happen again.

Kennedy staffers attest to the fact that he read Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other reports that showed, through detailed, on-the-ground investigations for example, that Israeli forces fired white phosphorous munitions indiscriminately over civilian areas, shot and killed Palestinian civilians waving white flags, attacked children playing on rooftops with precision missiles fired from aerial drones and needlessly destroyed civilian property.

Kennedy’s Senate staff provided him with the proof of Israeli air attacks on Gaza – the buildings blown to rubble, the children killed on their way to school, the long rows of mutilated corpses, the wailing mothers and wives, the crowds of terrified Palestinians not knowing where to flee, the hospitals so overburdened and out of supplies they cannot treat the wounded, and our studied, callous indifference to this widespread human suffering.

Staffers noted that their boss winced when he read reports or received briefing like the recent one study from the UN about 10,000 Gazans having no access to a water network – while about 60 per cent of the nearly 1.5 million population receive water only intermittently while water consumption in the Gaza Strip is less than a third of that of Israelis living just a few miles away.

Kennedy,  a long term backer of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel recently changed his views and  came to favor a shared Holy City for all faiths along the lines  long advocated by the Papacy, and  in principal he did not oppose having Jerusalem  the Capitol of both Palestine and Israel. He was also said to be studying and reconsidering the requirements of UNSCR 194 and the Right of Return.  How he ultimately would have reconciled its requirements, and those of the more than two dozen UN Security Council Resolutions which Israel continues to ignore, shielded by US political cover, with his own civil and human rights legacy while continuing to vote funds for an expansionist Israel is unclear.

One hopes that had Ted Kennedy lived he would  have accelerated his reconsideration  of blind  support for Israel’s  brutal occupation and, come to oppose, as he did in South Africa, a renegade Apartheid regime. Some Kennedy staffers claim to have seen a change in Ted’s views on the Question of Palestine following his 1992 marriage to Victoria Araiji Boustany Reggie, whose family on her Mother’s side is Lebanese.  One current Kennedy staffer explained:  “Vicki never forgets her Arab origins and in her own way works for justice. Probably Ted learned a lot about Israel’s attacks on Lebanon from her. A number of Boustanys in Lebanon actually support Hezbollah and the Resistance, but I doubt Vicki does”.

Some who know him well believe that Kennedy was in the process of evolving from toeing the Zionist line designed to buy peace for his domestic agenda through a Faustian bargain with the Israeli lobby. Unlike perhaps a majority in Congress who consider Israel a rogue expansionist state, but who want to keep their jobs.

“It may have been that Ted was trying to reconcile his background, his pedigree, his principals and all he believed in and he may have even concluded that Israel was a mistake and had become a militarist pariah that was the antipathy of all that the Kennedy mystique stood for.   Or maybe Ted was not there yet and maybe never would have dropped Israel completely but his views were changing”, explained a current staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The Senior Senator from Massachusetts was appropriately laid to rest under the Stars and Stripes forever.  Not the Star of David.

FRANKLIN LAMB is doing research in Lebanon.  He is Interim Director of the Sabra-Shatila Foundation and can be reached at fplamb@sabrashatila.org

More articles by:

Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.

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