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Interview

In Israel, US monitor defends pressing government on ‘antisemitism’ at Western Wall

Antisemitism envoy Aaron Keyak says Jerusalem understands Washington wanting to keep Jews safe at prayer; tells ToI Kanye comments are fair game for office, but not Trump’s

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

US Deputy Special Envoy to Combat and Monitor Antisemitism Aaron Keyak, right, meets with Western Wall Chief Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch in the latter's office in Jerusalem on October 6, 2022. (US State Department)
US Deputy Special Envoy to Combat and Monitor Antisemitism Aaron Keyak, right, meets with Western Wall Chief Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch in the latter's office in Jerusalem on October 6, 2022. (US State Department)

Over the course of a month, US Deputy Special Envoy on Antisemitism Aaron Keyak used Israel as a launchpad for state visits to the Gulf and Europe.

Keyak, an observant Jew and one-time Democratic party operative, had at any rate been planning on coming to Jerusalem for the Jewish High Holidays with his wife and three children to see family, some of whom they hadn’t seen in years because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“One of the many wonderful things about the Abraham Accords is you can use Israel as a hub to travel throughout the region. We were able to set up meetings in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Brussels,” Keyak told The Times of Israel over salad at a Jerusalem cafe the day before his flight back to the US earlier this month.

In Bahrain and the UAE, Keyak met with local government officials to advance efforts to educate the public about antisemitism and with their growing Jewish communities to discuss their needs.

In Brussels, Keyak and his boss, Special Envoy Deborah Lipstadt, attended a conference with representatives from a variety of European countries to discuss the issue of bans on kosher slaughter and circumcision, both of which are regularly proposed and occasionally approved across the continent and which Lipstadt’s office sees as antisemitic in nature.

But in addition to using Israel as a home base for his travels to nearby countries since arriving shortly before the Rosh Hashanah holiday in late September, Keyak also used his time in the Jewish state to address an issue that his office sees, somewhat contentiously, as being at least antisemitism-adjacent: the harassment of progressive Jews by Orthodox extremists at the Western Wall.

“It [is] obvious that were this to happen in any other country, there would be no hesitation in calling it antisemitism,” he said.

Jew-on-Jew antisemitism is not the only issue the office has waded into that might not naturally be seen as part of its remit.

As part of the US State Department, the office of the US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, formed in 2004, is an outward-facing one, looking at the issue of antisemitism abroad, not in the United States.

But Keyak said antisemitic actions or expressions in the US could also be fair game if they have an international vector, such as recent comments made by rapper Kanye West.

“What’s happened is the line between domestic and international has gotten quite blurred,” Keyak said.

“For example, if you look at the attacker in Colleyville [in Texas in January], clearly that was an act of domestic antisemitism because the actual attack was on American soil, but the attacker was radicalized abroad. So there is an international element. So too, when it comes to social media and online antisemitism, the internet knows no geographic borders.”

“In terms of what Ye said, he has millions and millions of followers on social media,” Keyak said, using the moniker West recently changed his name to.

“He has a platform that exceeds the heads of lots of governments. And while he does seem to be a deeply troubled individual, clearly that’s no excuse for engaging in antisemitic rhetoric.”

While he does seem to be a deeply troubled individual, clearly that’s no excuse for engaging antisemitic rhetoric

Keyak, however, would not discuss recent contentious comments made by former US president Donald Trump, in which he told American Jews to “get their act together and appreciate what they have in Israel – Before it is too late!”

Trump’s comments prompted denunciations by leading American Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League.

“With regard to any former president of the United States. It’s clearly a domestic issue and that falls outside of our office,” he said.

On Western Wall ‘our mandate is clear’

For the past four months, the United States government’s antisemitism office has pressed Israel to ensure that Jews of all denominations can pray peacefully at the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel.

The push was sparked by a June 30 incident where a series of incidents over the summer where protesters disrupted a number of American families’ bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies taking place at the site’s egalitarian section this summer, but police stood by and did not step in.

During the incident, Orthodox boys and men called the worshippers “Nazis” and “Christians,” blew whistles to interrupt their prayers and at one point began tearing up their prayer books, with one of the assailants using the pages to blow his nose.

An ultra-Orthodox youth wipes his nose with a page torn from a siddur at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on June 30, 2022. (Screen capture: Masorti movement on Twitter)

Lipstadt happened to be in Israel when the incident occurred, prompting her to issue a statement on the matter.

“Such a hateful incident — such incitement” would be considered antisemitism had it happened in any other country, she said.

Lipstadt’s decision to jump into the fray and her use of the term “antisemitism” in her description of the incident prompted backlash mostly from right-wing Jewish figures, including the previous US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who decried the incident but said Lipstadt should focus on “external threats” not internal Jewish issues.

Keyak refused to address this general pushback, but said that his office “fully stands by our initial judgment.”

“She saw a group of Jews peacefully praying the way that they prayed, and that they came under attack with epithets, comparing them to Nazis, with the pages of their [prayer books] being torn out and being used as tissues. The attackers were physically trying to prevent them from praying,” Keyak said.

“There was a gut-level response,” Keyak said.

“So she raised it in her subsequent meetings [in Israel]. Also, when US citizens are under attack, it is not simply a domestic issue. Our mandate is clear, and Ambassador Lipstadt has the full authority to address situations that she feels are pertinent to the mission of our office, this included,” Keyak said.

Since the incident, Lipstadt and her office have continued to focus on the issue, meeting with one of the families in August and continuing to raise the issue with the Israeli government.

A police officer stands between a group of ultra-Orthodox youths and a bar mitzvah ceremony at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on June 30, 2022. (Laura Ben-David)

Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who met with Lipstdat shortly after the incident, condemned the violence at the Western Wall and praised the US envoy’s work, while refusing to comment on her description of the incident as antisemitic.

Earlier this month, Keyak met with the chief rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch, to discuss the matter.

“We did bring it up in the meeting, and there’s a strong understanding from the Israeli government that keeping Jews safe while at prayer is a priority for our office and for the US government. That message has been given on multiple levels, and I think they fully heard it,” Keyak said.

A joint statement released after the meeting said the two “agreed the Kotel should be a place where all people, irrespective of their particular beliefs/practices, should be able to pray and reflect safely, without intimidation and disruption.”

“Peaceful protest is one thing, but there’s an expectation that if this particular situation was to happen again, that security forces would step in,” Keyak said.

Ultra-Orthodox youths interrupt a bar mitzvah ceremony at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on June 30, 2022. (Laura Ben-David)

“It’s something that [Lipstadt] and I have reiterated, something our government has reiterated multiple times on multiple levels. And hopefully, it’s something that will never happen again,” he said.

Keyak added that this issue of extremists disrupting non-Orthodox prayer is one of the few easily solvable problems in the Middle East.

“This is something that can be done with proper security,” he said.

Philosemitism in the Gulf

In the UAE and Bahrain, Keyak said he encountered governments that have emphatically embraced their Jewish populations and Jewish visitors.

“Before the Abraham Accords, there were some Jews in the UAE, people who came there for business, but there was not this sort of growing and robust Jewish community that there is now. It’s easier to get kosher food there than in some major cities in the United States,” said Keyak, who observes Jewish dietary restrictions himself.

“What we have in the UAE is a Jewish community that has regular services, access to kosher food, really everything a Jewish community would need to live a Jewish life. The sorts of things that are under attack in too many parts of Europe,” he said.

Apparently, because of those threats to Jewish life, more and more French Jews have begun moving to the UAE.

“I had an opportunity to meet with one of the new French rabbis who was out there to help the growing French Jewish community. It’s a real-life example where French Jews feel unsafe or unwelcome [in France] and they’re looking where they should move to,” Keyak said.

According to Keyak, unlike in Europe — or even parts of the US and Israel — where visibly Jewish people can be harassed, that’s not the case in the UAE.

“In comparison to other countries where there are Jews who feel physically unsafe walking down the street, whether it’s in Paris or Brooklyn, as a Jew walking down the street in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, you’re physically safer than you are in some of those major cities. Even right here in Jerusalem, as another example, there can be public acts of violence against Jews,” he said.

Keyak also noted the ongoing construction of the UAE’s Abrahamic Family House, an interfaith religious complex made up of a mosque, church, and synagogue.

An artistic rendering of the future Abrahamic Family House complex in Abu Dhabi. (Abu Dhabi Government Media Office)

“It’s three houses of worship. Not just museums or exhibits on particular religions, but working places of prayer and learning for each of the three Abrahamic faiths. While unique in their design, they’re the same height and they’re made of the same material.”

“And it’s the type of religious co-existence that doesn’t diminish the differences between religions, but embraces the uniqueness of its religion while also having them stand equally. It’s quite a powerful symbol. So that works within the UAE. And outward, I think it’ll be a good symbol for other countries to build on,” Keyak said.

At the same time, Keyak acknowledged that this public pluralism is a somewhat recent, top-down development.

Just a few years ago, Jews in the UAE were compelled to keep a low profile and certainly did not have the kosher food and synagogues that they do now.

The shift is thanks, least in part, to a political decision by the Emirati government, which saw it as advantageous to more openly embrace Jews and Judaism as part of its larger diplomatic effort to normalize ties with Israel.

“Let’s appreciate that throughout most of human history the political advantageous thing was not to come out against antisemitism. The political advantageous thing for too much of history was to scapegoat the Jews. So we have an opportunity now to engage these countries in a conversation about addressing the hatred of Jews,” he said.

We will talk to any government or any entity who wants to genuinely, authentically talk about antisemitism because that’s a good thing in and of itself

Keyak, who has been part of of the trilateral efforts between the US, Israel and Emiratis, stressed that this growing ‘philo-semitism’ — opposite of antisemitism — is not solely the result of cynical political calculus.

“When we have these meetings, there does seem to be a genuine warmth in the room. It was not just a cold calculation about shared national security interests or joining forces in the fight against terrorism. There was a real warmth,” he said.

At the same time, Keyak said the reason why the UAE is embracing Judaism and fighting antisemitism is to a certain extent irrelevant to his mission.

“I know some of these are very big questions, but our answer is actually quite simple and narrow: We will talk to any government or any entity who wants to genuinely, authentically talk about antisemitism because that’s a good thing in and of itself,” he said.

Slaughter ban summit

The culmination of Keyak’s month on this side of the Atlantic was a multi-lateral European Commission summit held in Brussels on the issue of legislation banning kosher — and halal — slaughter, which has been proposed and in some cases adopted by a number of European countries.

These laws, which are generally written in terms of animal welfare, require slaughterhouses to first stun animals before killing them — on the grounds that this is more humane — which is at odds with the edicts of kosher and halal slaughter.

Keyak said the attendees also discussed the issue of circumcision, which some countries have also proposed banning.

Representatives from across Europe, the US, and Israel meet in Brussels to discuss bans on ritual slaughter that have been proposed and approved in European countries, on October 20, 2022. (US State Department)

“The conference was primarily focused on ritual slaughter. But once a country enacts a ban against ritual slaughter, often the next agenda item has to do with circumcision,” he said.

The conference, which was held last Thursday, was attended by representatives of governments throughout Europe.

“For a lot of the day, we went country by country and went through the particulars of the legislative process in that particular country,” Keyak said.

“Or there might be a country that currently has such legislation moving through the process, and the person representing that government would speak and then they would hear from other governments or they would hear from representatives from their Jewish community directly about what it means for that country if they were to go into effect,” he said.

In her address, Lipstadt encouraged the countries present to include religious exemptions if they do pass legislation requiring stunning before slaughter, noting that many of the countries that already have such laws include exceptions for things like hunting and fishing or, in the case of Spain, bull-fighting.

“At a time when we are seeing rising antisemitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and xenophobia across Europe, this type of legislation reinforces the perception that members of religious minority groups are unwelcome in some countries,” she said.

“What a distressing time to be a Jew or a Muslim.”

US Special Envoy to Combat and Monitor Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt speaks at a conference focused on bans on ritual slaughter that have been proposed and approved in European countries in Brussels on October 20, 2022. (US State Department)

She also noted that even if the intent is not the same, the laws were reflective of Europe’s long history of discrimination against Jews.

“Laws limiting Jews from practicing their religion, including laws banning kosher slaughter, were enacted in Europe’s not-too-distant past for the purpose of making it difficult for Jews to live their lives. One of the first acts of the Nazi regime was to pass such a law,” said Lipstadt, one of the world’s leading Holocaust researchers.

Keyak said he could not discuss the full results of the conference but believed that it had helped in the fight against these bans.

“Stay tuned,” he said. “I think there will be some positive developments coming out of the meetings.”

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