Everybody in the pro-Israel world, it seems, knew David Keyes.
They knew him as an advocate for human rights around the world, as an articulate defender of the state of Israel, as a provocateur skilled at coming up with viral stunts guaranteed to get media attention.
But many in that world, it appears, knew of another side of David Keyes: a man whose mistreatment of women, as one alleged victim tweeted, was an “open secret.”
Nonetheless, Keyes was able to work for the past two years in Jerusalem as a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — despite a public allegation of sexual assault that emerged shortly after he took the role, despite repeated efforts by organizations with close ties to Israel to stop or circumvent his behavior, and despite at least one direct warning to a senior Israeli government figure about Keyes’s conduct.
Keyes has denied allegations of sexual assault and misconduct made against him by more than a dozen women, but said last week that he was “taking time off” from the Prime Minister’s Office to clear his name.
While some of the allegations against Keyes concern would-be romantic encounters that happened on his personal time, others took place in the workplace — both at Advancing Human Rights, the not-for-profit advocacy organization he ran from 2012-2015, and while visiting other institutions.
Keyes’s aggressive behavior toward women in his own office was so pronounced that his coworkers instituted a policy that he could not be left alone with female interns, according to the Times of Israel, the first publication to publish multiple allegations against Keyes.
“David was always trying to impress and seduce women,” one former coworker told TOI. “He conducted himself inappropriately. One woman complained that he made [unwanted] sexual advances.” Another former employee told the news site that Keyes would watch YouTube videos showing naked women in his office.
Current and former employees of the Wall Street Journal told The New York Times last week that Keyes, a periodic presence in the offices of the Journal’s opinion section, had behaved aggressively towards them in 2012 and 2013, in one case alleging sexual assault. In 2013, the section’s deputy editor, Bret Stephens — now with the Times — reportedly banned him from the office without an appointment and called him a “disgrace to men” and “a disgrace as a Jew.” Stephens would later warn Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer about Keyes’s behavior.
In August 2014, after two female employees complained about what the Times described as “several unwelcome advances” from Keyes during his appearance on a panel discussion there, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank instituted new visitor policies banning people from roaming the office freely. It does not appear that Keyes ever spoke at FDD again.
FDD’s researchers are known for their close ties to leaders in Israel as well as other Middle Eastern countries. When asked if anyone at FDD had, like Stephens, warned anyone in Israel about an unwanted encounter with Keyes, FDD founder and president Clifford May told the Forward: “We dealt appropriately with an unpleasant incident. It would be three years before he would become an Israeli official. As far as I’m aware, it didn’t occur to anyone to warn Israeli authorities at that time.”
Despite these incidents, Keyes continued his rise to prominence, with his public performances and viral videos trolling dictators earning praise in publications like the Wall Street Journal. He also continued to appear on the think tank event circuit, being featured twice, for example, at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. “No, when we invited Keyes we were not aware that he had been barred and restricted by any organizations, and no, we never received any complaints about his behavior,” spokeswoman Madeleine Lynn told the Forward.
In March 2016, Keyes was hired by Netanyahu as his foreign media adviser, with an eye toward improving the Prime Minister’s social media outreach, which has indeed exploded. As The Jerusalem Post reported last year, “A senior official close to Netanyahu actively recruited him for the highly sought-after position.”
Shortly after his hiring was announced, Keyes was the subject of a sexual assault allegation from a quickly-erased Facebook post written by a woman who this month revealed herself to be New York state senate candidate Julia Salazar. The Times of Israel and other publications reported on the allegation at the time without naming her without her permission, as is standard practice for reports about sexual assault. Keyes denied the claim at the time, and a Jerusalem Post report noted that in order to get final approval for his job working for Netanyahu, Keyes passed a background check and a polygraph test that asked whether he had been involved in any criminal or sexual offenses.
Later that year, though, after an Israeli reporter began asking questions about Keyes’s history, Stephens called Dermer and warned him that Keyes posed a threat to female coworkers, according to the Times. Dermer, a longtime former aide to Netanyahu, admitted on Friday that he had received the warning but did not pass it on to the prime minister.
“If Stephens or anyone else had given the ambassador information about sexual assault or any other criminal act committed against women by anybody in the Prime Minister’s Office, whether they occurred before the person entered the position or after, he would have immediately informed the Prime Minister’s Office,” his office said in a statement.
An opposition member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, argued two days later that Dermer was in fact legally obligated to pass along the report because of Israel’s laws against sexual harassment, which is a criminal offense there.
“Bibi must return Ron Dermer to Israel immediately,” wrote Karin Elharar of the centrist Yesh Atid party. “The message to Dermer and those like him should be clear: You were silent, now you pay the price.”
Israel’s Civil Service Commission is now investigating the actions of Keyes and Dermer, but it says that it has no jurisdiction over Keyes’s actions before taking the government job. While all of the original accusations against Keyes were alleged to have taken place before he joined the Prime Minister’s Office, a follow-up report in the Times of Israel featured the story of a woman who claimed Keyes made an “aggressive, sexual” move towards her while he was in Netanyahu’s employ.
Reporters at multiple outlets had been pursuing stories about the allegations against Keyes, but could not publish their reports because none of his alleged victims felt comfortable going public. Salazar only spoke out after she was informed that the Daily Caller, a conservative news outlet, was going to run a story about her allegation. Salazar, who during her campaign was accused of serially misrepresenting her past, was the subject of an unprecedented opposition research effort where reporters from numerous outlets were provided with embarrassing information about her. The story about her claim of sexual assault was leaked to at least one other outlet that declined to pursue it before the Daily Caller bit — leading to Salazar revealing herself publicly, spurring others to come forward too.
It’s unclear whether the extent of Keyes’s inappropriate treatment of women was known to the politicians and organizations that enabled his swift professional ascent. What is clear, though, is that the leadership of the world that Keyes flourished in for so long remains overwhelmingly male.
According to the Forward’s 2017 Salary Survey, the top 28 highest-earning CEOs of Jewish not-for-profits — a rough proxy of their organizations’ budgets and therefore influence — are all male.
And of the 19 people listed as top staffers on the Prime Minister’s Office website, 17 are men — including David Keyes, who is still listed as Netanyahu’s adviser.