Netanyahu taps linguist and LGBTQ rights activist as foreign media spokesperson

South Africa-born Evan Cohen last year criticized government’s surrogacy law as ‘shameful’; has no previous experience in public diplomacy

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Evan Cohen, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (GPO)
Evan Cohen, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday appointed South Africa-born academic Dr. Evan Cohen as his new spokesperson for international media.

The post had been vacant since September 2018, when Los Angeles native David Keyes stepped down amid reports of sexual misconduct.

Cohen, 51, currently teaches linguistics at Tel Aviv University, where he received his academic degrees. According to the university, his research focuses on phonology, phonetics and heritage linguistics.

The Ramat Gan resident, who moved to Israel when he was nine, is the founding chairman of Likud Pride, the party’s caucus for LGBTQ rights, a fact Netanyahu noted in a tweet announcing his appointment.

“Evan is a talented man and he founded the pride caucus in Likud. We have great missions ahead of us for Israel’s public diplomacy,” the prime minister wrote.

In 2018, Cohen spoke out publicly against the government’s decision not to include same-sex couples in a new surrogacy law, calling it “shameful.”

Cohen is also the director and founder of the Tel Aviv Scrabble Club, and has competed in several Scrabble World Championships.

He is not known to have any prior experience in public diplomacy.

Israeli public diplomacy often highlights the country’s open-minded LGBTQ atmosphere. Netanyahu recently appointed Amir Ohana, a Likud MK, as justice minister — Israel’s first openly gay cabinet member. The education minister, Rafi Peretz, of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, is currently embroiled in controversy over remarks in a TV interview in support of gay conversion therapy.

David Keyes, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on their way to the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, March 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, pool)

Keyes, Cohen’s predecessor, stepped down from his post in September 2018, after The Times of Israel published an investigative report regarding a dozen women who accused him of sexual misconduct. The anonymous allegations ranged from sexual assault to overly aggressive and otherwise inappropriate behavior when Keyes was still living in New York.

Keyes, who worked for human rights organizations and was known for “punking” Iranian officials before he was hired by the Prime Minister’s Office in March 2016, denied any wrongdoing, but the reports quickly made waves in local and international media, prompting other women to come forward with additional complaints.

After a Times of Israel followup article cited a woman alleging an “aggressive, sexual” advance by Keyes after he had already moved to Jerusalem and started working for Netanyahu, Keyes declared that he wanted to “take time off” to clear his name.

On December 12, 2018, the PMO announced that Keyes was formally leaving his position, which has been vacant since.

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