WASHINGTON – When Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign in March 2019, America wasn’t yet struck by a deadly pandemic and its economy was still growing. Trying to explain why he thought it was urgent to get Donald Trump out of the White House, Biden mentioned one important event: the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The march, organized by white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and Trump’s reaction to it – his infamous “very fine people on both sides” statement – were used by Biden as the prime example of what he described as “a battle for the soul of America.” In the 16 months that have passed since his announcement, Biden has returned to Charlottesville again and again, even as the COVID-19 crisis and the economic disaster accompanying it have created new lines of attack against the president.
Aaron Keyak, Biden’s recently hired director of Jewish outreach, told Haaretz on Tuesday that Biden will probably continue to talk about Charlottesville in the three and a half months left until Election Day. “Vice President Biden understands that what Trump did back then, the fact that he gave legitimacy to white supremacists and Nazi sympathizers, is a danger to all Americans,” Keyak explained. “This is dangerous for Jewish Americans in particular, but it’s truly a danger to our country’s entire social fabric.”
Before joining the Biden campaign, Keyak was a managing partner at Bluelight Strategies, a public relations firm that he founded in 2014 together with media strategist Steve Rabinowitz. Their company worked with leading organizations in the U.S. Jewish community. Prior to his work at Bluelight, Keyak was an adviser to Congressman Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and one of the most influential Jewish American members of Congress.
Nadler said in response to Keyak’s hiring by the Biden campaign that “Vice President Biden and his campaign could not have found a better person to serve in this role during these unprecedented times. I look forward to working with Aaron and the rest of the Biden team to defeat President Trump in November.”
In an interview with Haaretz conducted by phone, Keyak said that “in the business of Jewish outreach and campaigns, there is something we often call the ‘Kishke test’ – does a certain politician ‘get it,’ do Jewish voters feel that this politician can truly connect to them? Joe Biden gets it. He has a way of connecting with people that very few politicians have. It’s true at public events when he speaks with Jewish voters and supporters, and even more in private encounters with people.”
Biden’s campaign has done several events thus far aimed at increasing and solidifying his support in the Jewish community – all of them virtual, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Biden also sent a video message this year to the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, which took place right before the Super Tuesday vote in the presidential primary.
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According to Keyak, the Jewish vote is going to play a critical role in this year’s election. Approximately 70 percent of Jewish voters supported Hillary Clinton over Trump in the 2016 election, and close to 80 percent supported Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterm elections. Biden’s level of support within the community is expected by most experts to land somewhere between those two numbers.
“There are sizable Jewish populations that can make a big difference in several of the most important swing states,” says Keyak. “After 2016, I think people realize that every vote truly matters a lot, and we have to campaign and work as if we’re down in the polls, and not take anything for granted, including our level of support within the Jewish community. The fundamental character of America is on the line in this election.“
Keyak expects Trump’s supporters in the Jewish community to invest “significant resources” in trying to broaden the president’s level of support among Jewish voters. “They’re going to have a hard time, though, because they’re trying to push a fabrication that people just aren’t buying,” he says, referring to attempts by the Republican Jewish Coalition and other pro-Trump groups to attack Biden on the issue of support for Israel.
“Biden has a long record of support for Israel, and their attempts to say otherwise just won’t sell,” Keyak says. But he cautions that “they do have a lot of resources, and we have to combat that.” Keyak specifically mentions Biden’s role in securing the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding between Israel and the Obama administration, which provided Israel with $38 billion in security aid – the “largest aid package ever provided to Israel. Trump’s supporters can say whatever they want, but between the MOU and support for Iron Dome, people know where Joe Biden stands.”
Trump has reportedly expressed frustration at not gaining more support from the Jewish community despite steps he has taken that were lauded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, such as moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Keyak, while noting that Biden has said he will keep the embassy in Jerusalem, argued that Trump’s presidency has in fact been bad for Israel, because of is impact on the United States’ global standing: “Israel needs America to be strong at home and respected abroad, and this president has done the exact opposite. He has weakened our country, and that hurts our close allies like Israel.”
At a virtual “fireside chat” with Jewish supporters that Biden held in mid-May, the former vice president offered two main messages: a domestic message about the importance of fighting antisemitism, and a foreign policy related message about his support for Israel – and opposition to unilateral Israeli annexation of settlements in the West Bank.
Biden’s views on Israel – general support for the country and particularly for the continuation of U.S. military aid, but opposition to settlements and steps that hurt the chance for a two-state solution – is close to what public opinion polls show is the majority view among U.S. Jews. Keyak noted that Biden also strongly opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
The choice for Jewish voters in November, he added, “is going to be very clear. Trump has emboldened antisemites and strengthened the forces that make Jews feel less safe in our country. The bare minimum that we expect from any decent person is to condemn antisemitism and support for Nazis, not to state that some Nazi sympathizers are good people. To hear that from the president of the United States would have been unimaginable before Donald Trump.”