Yakov Saacks
Yakov Saacks

Stand up and be proud: A response to Aaron KeyakKEYAK

The following thoughts are not meant to belittle or besmirch anyone.

There has been a fascinating conversation going on, all in response to President Biden’s pick of Aaron Keyak to oversee Jewish outreach on behalf of the White House.

Mr. Keyak has an impressive resume. He was the former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, as well as serving on the Biden campaign’s finance committee. In addition, he had stints as communications director for Democratic representatives Jerrold Nadler of New York and Steve Rothman of New Jersey. Mr. Keyak also helped lead a Jewish outreach team known as the “Hub” that backed President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection bid. The group claimed partial credit for Obama’s victory in Florida, where it led major outreach efforts.

Mr. Keyak came out with not one, but with two tweets that sparked furor, dissent, and uproar. I am diametrically opposed to those who agreed with him and his message. Please be assured, I do not think he is a bad person. I completely disagree with his message even though I am sure that he thinks that he meant well.

I do feel though that he, being a representative of the administration, should think 100 times before he speaks or in this case, tweets.

FIRST TWEET — CLEAR

Mr. Keyak tweets, “It pains me to say this, but if you fear for your life or physical safety take off your kippah and hide your Magen David (Star of David). (Obviously, if you can, ask your rabbi first.)”

SECOND TWEET — LESS CLEAR

“It’s important that those who wear kippot don’t feel more pressure to put our lives in unnecessary actual danger — especially when actions are attempting to be grounded in halacha. (Jewish law). Given the rise in Jew hatred and antisemitic attacks, we must stand with all Jews.”

Both these tweets by Mr. Keyak suggest that due to the rise of anti-Semitism, Jews should be savvier about how they display their Jewishness. In his first tweet, he recommends asking your Rabbi if you can, but in the second tweet, he actually becomes the Rabbi.

PROBLEM # 1 — IT DOES NOT WORK.

Telling a Jew to hide their Jewishness has never worked. It did not work during the Spanish Inquisition nor was it effective during the Holocaust. The haters will seek you out by hook or by crook.

One of the best books that I have ever read titled “The Pity of it All,” written by Amos Elon, traces the history of German Jews from 1743–1933. One of the central themes of the book focuses on the constant efforts of the German Jews to assimilate and become an integral part of their host country. As we now know, this journey ends with the tragic outcome of the virtual annihilation of the German Jews during the Holocaust.

Mr. Keyak, we have tried your approach in the past. It has proven to be a colossal failure.

PROBLEM # 2 — NAIVETE

There have always been collaborators who will “out” the Jew when the time is opportune. The Jew can look like a Presbyterian minister or a Buddhist monk; Hitler had his way of weeding out the Jews from wherever they were. To suggest that one hide one’s Jewishness is to not understand how anti-Semitism works, and is an incredible display of naiveté on Mr. Keyak’s part.

PROBLEM # 3 — OPENLY VISIBLE JEWS

Ok Mr. Keyak, let’s say I am a Chassidic Jew with long side locks and an even longer beard and even longer black coat. I follow your advice and take off my kippah, what does this accomplish? Seriously, Mr. Keyak, what do you advise the ultra-Orthodox Jew to do to hide their very apparent Jewishness. Can I suggest an earring or two so this way they look more like hipsters? Or is your advice only for the clean-shaven with single-breasted suits?

I remember walking on Duval Street in Key West where I was dressed completely incognito. I had a brightly colored t-shirt, baseball cap on backwards and casual pants on with my fringes tucked in. Within five minutes I was stopped three times with people asking me about Kosher food and what times are the afternoon services. Mr. Keyak, you can try to hide but you cannot run.

PROBLEM # 4 — IS THIS REALLY THE ANSWER

I do not think Aaron Keyak meant to hurt anyone by writing what he wrote. In fact, he said that it pains him to write this. However, it was a very painful tweet and completely uncalled for.

Is this really what we should be doing? Hiding our kippahs and tucking in our Jewish stars? What comes next, detach the mezuzahs from our homes and remove the obviously Jewish bumper stickers from our cars? Should we now stop going food shopping in the Kosher aisle at the supermarket and just order kosher products online?  Do I look into surgery to grow my foreskin back when I go swimming and need to change in a public locker room?

Where does this stop?

I wonder if the Asian outreach liaison tweeted that Asians should wear dark glasses that cover their nationality. Did the Muslim outreach liaison post 9/11 tweets that burkas, abayas and hijabs should be suspended and exchanged for pink sweatshirts and orange jeans?

Mr. Keyak, I know you meant well. However, you are a public official and you need to really ruminate in your mind whether this is the right thing or not. You are no longer just a private congregant in a synagogue espousing your views. You are a public figure who in my opinion stepped in it.

PROBLEM # 5 — CANCEL CULTURE

We have all heard of cancel culture, which is not pretty. As Winston Churchill said in 1948 during a speech in the House of Commons, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” We must learn from history and not just try to stamp it out.

Telling Jews to rid themselves of obvious markings is akin to cancel culture. Let’s pretend Jews don’t exist and if they do, they are not relevant, and not only are they not relevant, they are in hiding. A Jew in hiding is part of our history that no one wants to go back to. In fact, Mr. Keyak, we made a promise of Never Again. I believe that Never Again means that never again will we be marginalized and be willing victims and scapegoats.

On the contrary, we are the victors. Mr. Keyak, you, a Jew, hold a position at the White House on behest of the President of the United States. I don’t see Himmler’s grandkids in the White House, nor do I see Goring, Hess, Mengele or Eichman’s. I don’t see Stalin’s kids lighting the Menorah in the Kremlin, do you.

PROBLEM # 6 — ROLE OF GOVERNMENT

This is not the role of Government. Your particular role is to make sure that we Jews have a voice and are understood. The Government’s role is to protect all its citizens from harm. The very first amendment deals with freedom of religion and the right we have to practice — how, when and where we want.

Mr. Keyak, are you suggesting that the Government can no longer protect us in pursuing these rights?

BE PROUD

Mr. Keyak, raise your head up high. Put the kippah back on, eat some kugel, flaunt the Star of David necklace and invite the President to your son’s bris.

This is true of everyone who reads this. Be it Jew or gentile, regardless of race, religion or creed. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You have nothing to hide, tuck or remove. It is your/our inalienable right.

Borrowing a phrase from the 1933 inaugural address of Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Please feel free to share.

About the Author
Rabbi Yakov Saacks is the founder and director of The Chai Center, Dix Hills, NY. The Chai Center has been nicknamed by some as New York's most Unorthodox Orthodox Center.
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