Fifty years ago this week, it fell to me to tell Sirhan B. Sirhan Sr. that his son had been identified as the assassin who had killed Robert F. Kennedy the day before in Los Angeles. It was a bizarre encounter in which, by meeting the father, I learned a bit about the troubled life and tortured mind of the son.
It was June 6, 1968, the day Kennedy passed away after lingering for hours after the shooting. I was not in Los Angeles. I was thousands of miles away in Israel, where I was a correspondent for The New York Times. I was stunned by the news about Kennedy, whom I had known and covered when he ran for the Senate in New York.
I was attending a cocktail reception at the home of the U.S. Ambassador to Israel that afternoon when Ambassador Walworth Barbour took me into his study, closed the door and told me that he had just learned that the assassin, Sirhan Sirhan Jr., had been born and raised in Jerusalem and that his father still lived in a West Bank village just outside Ramallah.
I thanked the ambassador, left the reception and raced to Jerusalem. With a translator and the Israeli military escort that was required to travel in the West Bank after dark in those post-war days, I arrived at the Sirhan house about 10 p.m. and rapped loudly on the door. After a minute, a light came on and Sirhan Sr. appeared, pulling a pair of pants over his pajamas.
I identified myself and though I am sure he was confused about being woken up this way, he invited me in and insisted, in the tradition of Arab hospitality, on making coffee. Sitting at his kitchen table, I asked Sirhan if he had heard the news about Kennedy. He said he had and thought it terrible. I asked if he had heard the name of the assassin. No, he said, he had gone to bed before that news.
Taking a deep breath, I asked Sirhan if he had sons. Yes, he said proudly, five. I pushed my notebook across the table and asked him to write the names of his sons in order of their birth. He did, including the fourth of the five, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan Jr. I tapped my finger on that name and told him that was the name of the man who had been identified as the assassin.
Sirhan Sr. was stunned. He gave me a hard, disbelieving look and shook his head no. But he could see I was serious. Suddenly, he started to rant and cry, first about how much he admired the Kennedy family, then about how his fourth son couldn’t possibly have been the shooter.
“He was the best of the boys,” he said frantically, sobbing now. “He was the smartest, with the best grades. I was proudest of him.”
Then the father’s face darkened. “If he did this dirty thing, then he should hang,” he shouted angrily. “Kennedy could have been a great president, he could have finished what his brother started.”
Sirhan went on and on like this non-stop, back and forth, railing now, more and more excited, switching between how wrong it had been for Kennedy to be cut down and how good a boy his fourth son was.
By now it was one a.m. I excused myself and rushed back to Jerusalem to write my story
The next day, I located Sirhan Jr.’s former school, the Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran School in the Old City. The headmaster confirmed that the boy had been a promising student, near the top of his class.
But the headmaster also said the Sirhan home was deeply troubled. The parents had terrible fights, he said. Sirhan Sr. had lost his job after the 1948 war, blamed it on the Israelis, became emotionally unstable and beat his wife and children repeatedly. The family finally split up and the mother, Mary, got financial help from a Christian missionary group to move with the children to the United States in 1957. They settled in California.
From the headmaster’s account, and Sirhan Sr.’s outbursts, it was not hard to imagine the roots of Sirhan Jr.’s bitterness, his anger at Israel and even his fury at the Kennedy family, whom he apparently saw as important supporters of Israel. It was that anger that motivated him to act on June 5, 1968, the first anniversary of the Six Day War.
Shortly after dawn on the hot, dry morning of June 5, 1967, Israel launched a momentous battle with her Arab neighbors that came to be known as the Six Day War.
In the course of six frantic days, responding to Egypt’s closing of her access to the Red Sea, Israel captured the Sinai, East Jerusalem and the West Bank and the Golan Heights of Syria, redrawing the map and the power structure of the Middle East. The war created a stalemate in Jerusalem and on the West Bank that persists to this day, half a century later. It is the same standoff between Israelis and the Palestinians that confronted President Trump on his recent visit.
I covered the battle for Jerusalem and the West Bank as an incredibly green, inexperienced correspondent for The New York Times. I had arrived in Israel just 10 days before to take up my first foreign assignment and knew … absolutely nothing.
Scrambling after the Israeli tanks in a rented car, I followed the first units inside the ancient walled Old City of Jerusalem on foot as they took control of the broad, open space the Arabs call the Noble sanctuary and Jews call the Temple Mount. Suddenly, the exhausted troops were face to face with the holiest site in Judaism, the western retaining wall of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.
It was an extraordinary moment that I described in an article that The Times headlined: “Israelis Weep and Pray Beside Wailing Wall.” In truth, the more observant soldiers prayed, while the more secular slumped in the shade to avoid a broiling sun. But no one, religious or secular, failed to realize that they were living history. It was the first time Jews had control of the Temple Mount in 2,000 years.
The battle for Jerusalem and the West Bank was fierce, but it was largely over in 96 hours. Israel had won the war, but not the peace. A settlement with the Palestinians is still beyond their reach 50 years later.
Israelis and Palestinians alike were stunned by the speed of the war and the outcome. Two peoples who had been separated by the so-called “Green Line” and a narrow no-man’s land were suddenly face-to-face.
Both sides were intensely curious about the other.
As soon as they could, Israelis poured into the walled Old City. Curiosity – and the human instinct for bargains – drove them into the Palestinian shops. The shelves on the Jordanian side were stocked with duty-free electronics and small luxuries unavailable in high-tariff Israel. The bargains flew off the shelves.
As soon as they could, Palestinians explored Israeli West Jerusalem and beyond.
In the process of getting to know each other in the first weeks after the war, Palestinians discovered that Israelis were not, in fact, 10 feet tall; Israelis found that Palestinians were not, in fact, all cut-throats.
It was not all sweetness and light – blood had been spilled. But there was a shared assumption that, because the Israeli victory had been so total, that this time there would be a settlement of some sort, maybe even a peace agreement.
It was not to be.
By the fall of 1967, the leaders of the Arab states met in Khartoum and agreed on their famous three no’s: “No negotiation, no recognition, no peace” with Israel.
At the same time, the first Jewish settlers established a rump settlement in a hotel in Hebron on the West Bank, insisting on their biblical right to the land and vowing not to leave. They were the first settlers, but hardly the last: there are some 400,000 Israelis settlers on the West Bank today and 350,000 more in East Jerusalem. They are determined not to leave.
So, all the elements of a stubborn standoff were in place before the year was out.
They are still in place 50 years later.