Aaron Keyak, deputy special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, vitually addressing the Kyiv Jewish Forum on Dec 29, 2021. (Screenshot/YouTube)
Aaron Keyak, deputy special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, vitually addressing the Kyiv Jewish Forum on Dec 29, 2021. (Screenshot/YouTube)

S.F. native Aaron Keyak is fighting global antisemitism for the State Department

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After he became a bar mitzvah and started going to morning prayer services at Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco, Aaron Keyak would watch each morning as Holocaust survivors silently pulled up their shirt sleeves and wrapped tefillin over the numbers tattooed on their left arms.

The memory left an impression.

More than two decades later, Keyak, 37, devotes his days to protecting Jews as deputy envoy to combat and monitor antisemitism at the State Department. He is second in command to Deborah Lipstadt, one of the world’s most respected historians of the Holocaust.

The office that monitors global antisemitism was established in 2006 after the bipartisan passage of the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004. Keyak served as acting envoy from last November until Lipstadt was confirmed in March for the position — which carries the title “ambassador.”

In a recent interview in Israel, an extended stop on Keyak’s monthlong tour of the Middle East, he talked about the U.S. government’s decision to deny entry to Jewish immigrants aboard the MS St. Louis on the eve of World War II. Hundreds of refugees died as a result. “If this office existed, St. Louis would have been able to dock,” he said.

“Ambassador Lipstadt would have walked into the secretary of state’s office, or the president’s office, and made sure we hadn’t prevented the rescuing of Jews when we well knew what was happening.”


Engaging abroad 

Lipstadt’s high-profile and active leadership brings a particular strength to the office and lends clout to her deputy.

“When I’m speaking with government officials, they are aware that I’m speaking directly on her behalf, and when she’s speaking, she’s speaking directly on behalf of the president, secretary of state and Congress,” Keyak said in an hourlong interview over shakshuka at a coffee shop in Jerusalem in late September. “So it allows us to do things that we could never have done before.”

Keyak, who is Orthodox, was in Israel with his wife, daughter and twin boys on the first stop of his diplomatic mission. It was also the first time he packed his kittel — a white linen robe worn by religious Jews on Yom Kippur — in anticipation of spending the High Holidays away from home.

When we are meeting with our international interlocutors, they understand that fighting the hatred of Jews is a foreign policy priority of the United States of America. — Aaron Keyak

The trip’s itinerary included meetings with officials in Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Brussels. Keyak also considered visiting Kuwait, but that part of the trip was postponed because of Kuwait’s recent parliamentary elections.

Keyak said his visit to the United Arab Emirates was a follow-up to Lipstadt’s travel to the Persian Gulf in June, her first international trip as ambassador, which included a stop in Saudi Arabia.

The itinerary represents the administration’s efforts to build on the Abraham Accords, the normalization deals between Israel and Arab states, to advance religious tolerance and change attitudes toward Jews in the region.

He will be joined by Lipstadt in Brussels this month for an international conference to address kosher slaughter and circumcision, and to host a meeting with a group of antisemitism envoys from Canada, Israel, the European Union and other countries. Lipstadt hosted the group for the first time at the United Nations in New York earlier this year and said she seeks to reconvene the gathering every few months.


Orthodox ‘political wunderkind’

Keyak’s passion for politics started at a very young age. His parents, Vicki and Jeffrey Keyak, always welcomed political talk during Shabbat dinners, he said. His grandfather chaired the state’s Democratic Party. His mother was among the founding members of the Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club in 1983 to ensure a Jewish voice in politics. His late father was president of their synagogue and was deeply involved in politics and Jewish communal life.

Keyak worked on the Biden-Harris transition team after serving as director of Jewish engagement for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in 2020, when a J. headline dubbed him a political wunderkind.

He co-founded Bluelight Strategies, a Washington consulting and publicity firm, with longtime Democratic strategist Steve Rabinowitz in 2014, after a short stint as interim executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. In 2012, he spearheaded The Hub, a Jewish outreach team that supported former President Barack Obama’s reelection. Before his involvement in presidential politics, Keyak was communications director in the offices of Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York and former Rep. Steve Rothman of New Jersey.

He told the Forward that his present job is where he believes he can be most impactful. The relationships he developed with some of Biden’s Jewish ambassadors more than a decade ago help him connect with leaders abroad, he said, so that he often can stand in for Lipstadt.

“When we are meeting with our international interlocutors, they understand that fighting the hatred of Jews is a foreign policy priority of the United States of America,” he said.

That knowledge, and the image of the Holocaust survivors who once prayed beside him, guides him each day, he said. “So long as this office exists, we’ll never make a compromise on the backs of Jewish lives.”

Jacob Kornbluh

Jacob Kornbluh is the Forward’s senior political reporter. Follow him on Twitter @jacobkornbluh or email [email protected].

Forward

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