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What Would RFK Say Today About the Arab-Israeli Conflict?

02/03/2015 06:06 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015

Of the thousands of lives that have been lost in the Arab-Israeli Conflict one of the most famous is one that is usually not associated with the century old conflict. Robert F. Kennedy. RFK was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan because of Kennedy's strong support of Israel. Later this year Kennedy would have turned 90. His presences, like that of Martin Luther King, is severely missed during these days. One can only wonder how different our world would be had they been allowed to live the fullness of their years. Like the prophets of the Bible they both were direct in their judgement of societies failures while at the same time offering a vision of what could be. They were apostles of justice.

The night King was assassinated Kennedy was scheduled to speak in Indianapolis, Indiana. When his plane landed he learned that King had died. He was scheduled to speak in the heart of the African-American ghetto. There were members of the crowd who had gathered to hear Kennedy speak who were intent on venting their anger violently. Within the crowd some were armed with guns. The setting was ugly and palpable. Kennedy was told by the local police they could not adequately protect him. He went anyway and standing on the back of small truck delivered one of the greatest political speeches ever spoken.

Standing in the midst of the belly of beast he directly addressed and acknowledged the anger, frustration, and hatred in the air. In a place of raw emotion on the verge of exploding into violence he brought a poignant calm, empathy, and eloquence. Those traits are tragically lacking in the Arab-Israeli Conflict where disdain, hatred, and indifference have become the daily tone the fills the air with an ugly stagnation and hopelessness.

I would like to imagine Bobby Kennedy, now 89, a cane in one hand, standing on the back of a small truck near the Damascus Gate Light Rail stop. A crowd of Israelis and Palestinians have come to hear him. Drawing back on the words he used that April night 47 years ago he addresses the crowd:

In this difficult days, in this difficult time for Israelis and Palestinians, it's perhaps well to ask who are you and what direction do you want to move in. For those of you standing here before me, Palestinians and Israelis -- you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

You can move in that direction, in greater polarization -- Jewish people amongst Jews, and Arabs amongst Arabs, filled with hatred toward one another. Or you can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across this holy land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

For those of you who are are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice you see perpetuated by the acts of other side, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. As you know I had a member of my family killed.

But we have to make an effort in this holy, but troubled land, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poem, my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

"Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will, comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God."

What we need between Israelis and Palestinians is not division; what we need here is not hatred; what we need here is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer here, whether they be Palestinian or whether they be Israeli.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family you know who has lost someone in this conflict -- yeah, it's true -- but more importantly to say a prayer for this land, which all of you love -- a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this holy land. It will have difficult times. It has had difficult times in the past. And it will have difficult times in the future. This moment is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of Israelis and the vast majority of Palestinians want to live together, want to improve the quality of their life, and want justice for all human beings that abide here.

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for this land and for both peoples.

Thank you very much.

The night Kennedy spoke in Indianapolis riots broke out in over 100 cities across the United States leaving 35 people dead and 2,500 wounded. 70,000 army and National Guard troops were needed to restore order. That night Indianapolis was quiet.

What Kennedy did that night was to reach across a vast chasm and invite people to reach across those barriers with him. He did that by acknowledging people's genuine fear, pain, and hatred, but in so doing he did not allow that acknowledgement to be used to build more distrust but rather channeled that acknowledgement in a different light.

That pivot is fraught with concern, doubt, suspicion, bitterness, hostility, and enmity. Nachman of Bratslav used to say, "The whole world is a very narrow bridge, the important thing is not to be afraid." One of Kennedy's favorite quotes was a paraphrase of a line from a play of George Bernard Shaw, "Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not."

The Israelis, the Palestinians, the Americans and the rest of the Quartet are delusional in their continued myopic focus on the sacred four: borders; Jerusalem, refugees; and security. Yes, those issues must all be addressed, but after 20-plus years of failure to reach an agreement, it is time to climb a different mountain and get a fresh vista. Until there are Israeli and Palestinian leaders who can speak with the empathy and compassion of a Kennedy or a King and acknowledge the dignity and pain of the other, this struggle will continue to afflict both sides like an unending plague.

This blog was first published in the Jerusalem Post January 23, 2015