Aaron Keyak began his new position on July 10 as the Jewish outreach director for the presidential campaign of the presumptive Democratic 2020 nominee, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Following communication stints on Capitol Hill and serving as interim director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Keyak co-founded Bluelight Strategies, a consulting group in Washington, D.C., that works with Jewish and progressive causes. (He is on a leave of absence from Bluelight to work in his current role on the Biden campaign.)
Keyak, 35, and his wife, Avigail, have one daughter, Shira.
JNS talked with Keyak by phone on July 17. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: U.S. President Donald Trump has been lauded by many, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as the best friend Israel ever had in the White House, in stark contrast to the Obama administration. That said, how can Biden address concerns for continued support of Israel, America’s one democratic ally in the Middle East?
A: One thing about Joe Biden is that he has a decades-long history in public service throughout the Obama administration, but also as a leader in foreign policy in the Senate. He’s made very clear that he’s a strong supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship. He’s proud of the role he played in negotiating the 10-year, $38 billion Memorandum of Understanding, which was the highest aid package ever agreed to by the United States, as well as their support for the life-saving [missile] defense system Iron Dome. Joe Biden is strongly and proudly against BDS, and has been unequivocal in his support for the U.S.-Israel relationship.
What should concern those of us who strongly support the U.S.-Israel relationship is how a diminished America on the international stage doesn’t help any of our allies and, importantly, doesn’t help Israel. What Joe Biden is going to do is lean on his decades of relationships internationally and his record as a foreign-policy leader to restore America’s standing abroad—and that will help all of our allies, including Israel.
Biden has had a warm relationship with every prime minister since Golda Meir, and he will bring that fondness for the world’s only Jewish state if he’s elected.
Q: What adverse actions, if any, do you think Trump has done to the U.S.-Israel relationship?
A: He’s used Israel and anti-Semitism as a partisan weapon, which doesn’t benefit Israel and doesn’t benefit Jewish Americans. He’s undermined the prospects for a two-state solution. The biggest damage that Trump has done to the U.S.-Israel relationship, as true for all our alliances, is that he has become a joke on the international stage. America was once seen as the leader of the Free World, and now we see Trump using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters so he could have a photo opportunity. This is a different image of what America is, and Biden will undo a lot of the damage Trump has done.
Q: The Biden campaign has said that as president, U.S. funding to the Palestinians, including to UNRWA, would resume. Why give funding to an entity that critics say has continually incited hatred of Israel and anti-Semitism, as well as perpetuated the conflict?
A: Biden has spoken out against incitement and is strongly against that sort of rhetoric. There’s also a humanitarian crisis, which is real. While ensuring that Israel and its neighbors live in as much peace and security as they can, it is important to provide humanitarian aid when there is suffering.
Q: The Hamas terror organization is responsible for the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. How is it fixable it? And will Biden seek to address this?
A: It’s a challenge. You have to target humanitarian aid in a way that helps people’s lives and doesn’t help Hamas at all. We have to at least attempt it.
Q: How can Jewish and pro-Israel voters trust Biden on Iran after all that occurred under the eight years of the Obama administration, which culminated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the 2015 nuclear deal?
A: If you look at Congress, even from foreign-policy experts, there are people who opposed the JCPOA in the first place, especially Democrats like Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.); they were against Trump’s reckless decision to tear up the Iran nuclear deal. Both Israelis and Americans are less safe as a direct result of Trump’s carelessness. He continues to dangerously ignore our international allies and pursue his maximalist approach without any real plan to verifiably prevent a nuclear armed Iran, which the JCPOA had done—all while bringing us to the brink of war.
The Obama-Biden administration believed that the best way to prevent a nuclear bomb for Iran was through a diplomatic approach. If Biden becomes president, he’s going to re-engage and find a diplomatic solution that is verifiable and strong. The truth is when it comes to Jewish Americans, there was polling at the time that the majority of Jewish Americans didn’t want Congress to reject the Iran deal. Biden’s approach to a diplomatic solution to preventing a nuclear Iran is right in line with the mainstream of Jewish Americans. LINK
Q: As an observant Jew, what it is it like being in a demanding campaign role while observing Shabbat?
A: It’s a grueling job. Part of that 25 hours of real rest [on Shabbat] is what enables and empowers me to work long hours, insanely nonstop, for the six days. When people ask me what it’s like to have a 24/7 job, I say that for me, it’s 24/6. Being an observant Jew and working on campaigns is part of struggling with the balance between modernity and halachah.
There are some things that are non-negotiable. I was very upfront with my supervisors, and they were very understanding. It’s not that Shabbat takes away from my ability to serve the campaign. That rest, and that holy time with my family and for me, really propels me for the rest of the week.
Q: How does Biden plan to address growing anti-Semitism in America—not only on the far-right, but also on the left?
A: During the national fireside chat with Jewish Americans, Biden spoke out against anti-Semitism on the right and on the left. Jew-hatred isn’t any different if it’s coming out of someone with a MAGA hat on or if it is coming out of the mouth of somebody on the left. It’s not just about his arguments or his campaigning in the Jewish community. It’s when he’s talking with all Americans. He said one of the reasons he decided to run for president was in the aftermath of Charlottesville, Va.
In fact, when I saw those neo-Nazis and white supremacists and racists marching with tiki torches saying “Jews will not replace us,” that was a scary moment for me as a Jewish American. What really made me unsafe for the first time in my own country in my lifetime was how the president of the United States responded when he said there were “very fine people on both sides.” That’s scary for us as Jews and also scary for all Americans, and it’s central to Biden’s argument of why he should be elected the next president of the United States.
Q: Why, after so many Palestinian refusals to even negotiate, including former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative in Obama’s second term, would a two-state negotiation work? Shouldn’t it be up to the parties to negotiate directly without America imposing its will?
A: Joe Biden’s position is that he supports a two-state solution negotiated between the two parties directly. The two parties agreeing to the solution is key to envisioning a path towards peace. As far as the two-state solution goes, the only reasonable path forward that both Israelis and Palestinians can agree on is two states with mutual security cooperation with their own states.
Q: Do you expect Biden to win handily, as Democrats expected with Hillary Clinton in 2016?
A: When I was working to defeat Donald Trump, I remember thinking up until election night that Hillary Clinton was going to be the next president of the United States. After that, things quickly went downhill. I remember forcing myself to stay up until 3 a.m. to watch Trump’s acceptance speech, and it was clear that he even didn’t think he was going to win. This year we can’t take anything for granted. We have to keep fighting like we’re a few points down in the polls.
Q: In three sentences: Why should Jewish and pro-Israel voters cast their vote for Biden?
A: As is central to the reason why he decided to run for president in the first place. Joe Biden will speak out against anti-Semitism and hate unequivocally and without hesitation, so that Jewish Americans again feel completely safe within our own country.
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