President Donald Trump (left) and former Vice President Joe Biden square off during the first presidential debate, Sept. 29, 2020. (Photos/JTA-Jim Watson-Saul Loeb)
President Donald Trump (left) and former Vice President Joe Biden square off during the first presidential debate, Sept. 29, 2020. (Photos/JTA-Jim Watson-Saul Loeb)

Trump and Biden’s top Jewish advisers talk antisemitism and Iran as election nears

This piece originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post and is reprinted with permission.

With eight days to go until the presidential election, both campaigns addressed questions from The Jerusalem Post about the U.S.-Israel relationship, the rise of antisemitism and the Iran nuclear agreement.

Boris Epshteyn, strategic adviser for Trump 2020 and co-chair of Jewish Voices for Trump, and Aaron Keyak, Jewish engagement director for the Biden campaign, answered questions separately and made the case for their candidate.


How is your campaign preparing for the final stretch?

Epshteyn: Our campaign is preparing for the final stretch of the election by reaching out to all American voters, here and abroad. I had the honor of doing that with ambassador Richard Grenell for our Jewish voters who live in Israel. So we’re reaching out to all voters talking about the president, and making sure that the contrast is clear between Joe Biden and President Trump’s achievements on the economy, on national security, on pushing back on our adversaries and keeping Iran in check, on deregulation, on tax cuts and specifically the Jewish voters talking about the president’s championing of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

All voters are important. We know where the battleground states are. And there is a very significant Jewish population in the state of Florida. I am in the state of Florida today [Oct. 22]. I was here on [Oct. 18] at a very large Israeli-Americans for Trump rally in South Florida. And I plan on being here, doing events throughout the state day in, day out for the next several days. So there’s a concentration on Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Arizona, Michigan — all places that have a very significant and important Jewish voting population.

Keyak: The key states we’re targeting are swing states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, but also states like Colorado and Arizona. And with the expanded map, we’re pushing out to Georgia and to Texas and at the Jewish program, what we do is we overlap the competitiveness of a state and how close historically election results have been with the Jewish population. And so, first and foremost, we have Florida. If you count the Jewish voters in Florida, it’s more than the next three or four swing states combined. But we also have robust efforts in Pennsylvania and Ohio and in Michigan and others.

In a close race, Jewish voters can make a difference, especially in a state like Florida. And our message, Joe Biden’s message to the Jewish community, is really central to his message to all American voters: He decided to jump in this race after he saw the march in Charlottesville where neo-Nazis and other racists were chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” Jew-hatred has been around as long as we’ve been as a people. But what made me feel unsafe for the first time in my life as a Jewish American was that the most powerful person on earth, the president of the United States, called them “very fine people on both sides.” He refused to do the bare minimum that is required of that office, which is to condemn hate and condemn antisemitism. And Joe Biden saw that message. He saw the leadership that we need in our country and how dangerous Trump truly is. And we take that message to all voters in the United States, and also specifically to the Jewish community.

How would your candidate address the rise of antisemitism?

Epshteyn: The president has already signed an executive order [to fight antisemitism on college campuses], he’s already combating antisemitism with the full force of the federal government. He also signed the Never Again Holocaust Education Law that provides $10 million toward funding for Holocaust education for our younger generation. So we make sure that the slaughter of Jews and the Holocaust never happens again. He signed the JUST Act into law, which has made it easier for victims of the Holocaust and their descendants to get restitution. And you will see that continue. You see the president stomping out antisemitism.

Keyak: First and foremost, Joe Biden would condemn antisemitism wherever it comes from the right or the left and speak out strongly, unequivocally and consistently against that hate and will not embolden them, like we see Donald Trump do repeatedly. Since the ADL [Anti-Defamation League] started recording it, there are historic highs [of antisemitism]. Biden would dramatically expand the nonprofit security grant program that provides federal funds to protect our houses of worship and help fund the Department of Justice program to provide tools, training and funding to the state and local police so that they can better protect Jewish sites and will expand federal funding for programs to counter domestic extremism that Donald Trump actually slashed. But first and foremost, we would no longer have a president in the White House who is spreading conspiracy theories, scapegoating the other and encouraging division.

How would your candidate approach Iran in the next four years if elected?

Epshteyn: By standing strong against Iran. The difference between the Obama administration and the Trump administration is that President Trump has treated Israel like Israel and Iran like Iran. When Iran shot down a drone, President Trump responded in a proportionate manner that was strong but did not draw us into another useless war. So I think in the second term you will see continued strength against Iran, which will force Iran to come to the table and negotiate a real deal with anywhere, anytime checks on their nuclear capability and stopping funding of terror, which they’ve been doing as the largest state sponsor of terror.

President Trump left the terrible, existential threat of an Iran nuclear deal. This is such a clear contrast from Joe Biden and the Democrats, who sent billions of dollars to the terror regime in Tehran and allowed a resolution in the UN which effectively condemned Israel in December of 2016. President Trump stands with Israel. Joe Biden stands with Iran [and with] forces that hate Israel.

Keyak: As a result of Donald Trump recklessly pulling out of this international agreement, Iran literally has 10 times the enriched uranium compared to before. This is a reckless decision. A Joe Biden administration would prioritize and ensure that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon and, while keeping all options on the table, we’ll work with our allies to ensure that happens. And in that conversation, he’s not just going to talk about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. We’ll also talk about delivery mechanisms like the ballistic missile system and domestic oppression at home in Iran and other notorious activities in the region. When Joe Biden’s administration addresses Iran, he will also do so with the force of the international community. Whatever Donald Trump does, he does in isolation and he does from the standpoint of a weaker America. Joe Biden will restore America’s leadership abroad and will rally the international community to ensure that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon.

How will your candidate improve the U.S.-Israel relationship?

Epshteyn: I absolutely believe that the Jewish people should be looking at the differences between what President Trump has done in terms of fighting antisemitism and championing Israel, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory.

The president has done so much to have the Arab world face toward Israel and away from Iran. And we’ve seen that be successful. Obviously, [the] Abraham Accords are historic for several reasons. That it’s truly a warm peace, which encompasses business, finance, travel, tourism, energy. I’m told it’s easier to get a kosher meal in Abu Dhabi today than in Washington, D.C. I think you’ll see that continue. And the fact that Saudi Arabia has opened up its skies to all Israeli planes is an important sign of more to come under President Trump’s leadership in the next four years.

Keyak: Joe Biden had a relationship with every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir and including [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, who has called Joe Biden “mishpacha.” Fundamental to Joe Biden’s international approach is his personal relationships with world leaders, including with leaders of Israel, and whether the prime minister was from the left or from the right, Joe Biden will unflinchingly stand with Israel when it comes to the security of the world’s only Jewish state, and will fight against delegitimization efforts, whether on the floor of the UN or elsewhere.

When it comes to security, intelligence or defense cooperation, Joe Biden will build on the relationships that were at an all-time high when he was in the administration and ensure that Israel has the ability to defend itself by itself and will stand up for Israel’s qualitative military edge.

How will your candidate approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how high it would be among his priorities?

Epshteyn: I don’t want to get ahead of the president on that, but I think they’ve been very innovative in how they have addressed the conflict; innovative in having the Arab world begin to turn toward Israel and away from bad actors in the Middle East, such as Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah. And I think you’ll see that continue. And I think that will result in a long-term peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Keyak: The first priority in a Joe Biden administration would be to address Covid and listen to the scientists and listen to the doctors. The American people are suffering and we need to do everything we can to prevent more deaths and to do everything we can to find a vaccine and treatment options.

When it comes to the international stage, I think the world is looking for American leadership once again. Joe Biden has relationships with world leaders and he’ll restore America’s role on the international stage, and when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, specifically, he has been outspoken as a supporter of a two-state solution, because the only viable solution in the long run for a Jewish democratic state are Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace and security, each in a state of their own.

Omri Nahmias

Omri Nahmias is The Jerusalem Post's Washington correspondent.