The latest twist in Julia Salazar’s New York state senate campaign has extended beyond international borders after she accused David Keyes, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of sexual assault. Multiple women have since come forward with their own allegations against Keyes, shining a harsh light on someone who was seen as a rising star in Israel advocacy.
Here’s what you need to know about Keyes:
He quickly made a name for himself:
Keyes, 34, grew up in California, where he received a Middle East studies from UCLA. After graduation, he moved with his family to Israel, where he served in the Israel Defense Forces’ Strategic Division and then studied diplomacy at Tel Aviv University (his biography on the Prime Minister’s Office website says he graduated with an MA but a bio from the right-wing Gatestone Institute only says he “pursued a Masters”).
After some time at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, a program at the now-defunct Shalem Center think tank supported by conservative megadonor Sheldon Adelson, Keyes quickly made a name for himself as an advocate for human rights and democratic opposition groups in repressive dictatorships, founding the website CyberDissidents.org. The New York Times called him a “pioneer in online activism” in 2012. While some of his work focused on oppression in Iran, Syria and other countries hostile to Israel, he also lambasted the human rights records of Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and other countries that have grown closer to Israel in recent years.
Keyes was also very talented at finding prominent mentors, including Jewish Agency chairman and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky and Human Rights Watch founder Robert L. Bernstein, with whom he founded the group Advancing Human Rights.
He grabbed attention with stunts:
During his time running Advancing Human Rights, Keyes was best-known for his “Daily Show”-meets-“Borat”-style stunts to lampoon authoritarian regimes. In 2015, when Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was speaking at New York University, Keyes and staff handed out balloons and free ice cream to “celebrate” the regime having hanged 1,000 people in the last 18 months. He also traveled to Vienna during the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear deal, confronting Iranian diplomats on camera and asking them, “Who’s your favorite political prisoner, if you could only pick one?”
He also targeted the Saudis, hosting an “awesome gay party” complete with rainbow flags outside a Maryland hotel where the Saudi government, which punishes homosexuality with corporal punishment, was hosting a job fair.
He also lobbied Congress to designate the street outside the Chinese embassy “Liu Xiaobo Plaza,” named after the Nobel Peace Prize recipient who was detained by Chinese authorities for his anti-regime efforts.
He’s been accused by multiple women of sexual assault:
Brooklyn state senate candidate Julia Salazar has been the subject of a possibly-unprecedented opposition research campaign for a state legislature primary. News reports — many of them based on information supplied by unknown sources — have revealed possible discrepancies in her statements about her immigration status, Jewish identity, family wealth, and educational attainment (not to mention an alleged affair with a former All-Star baseball player).
But when the conservative Daily Caller Salazar — working from outside tip from a self-described “former friend” — contacted her to ask her about a 2016 Facebook post containing her accusation against Keyes, which she quickly deleted. After being reached by the outlet, Salazar decided to speak out about her claim publicly, opening the floodgates for others to share similar stories.
Salazar told Jezebel that in 2013, when she was a student at Columbia University, Keyes reached out to her on Twitter to talk about an article she had written. They later met for coffee and then went to his apartment, she said, whereupon Keyes forced her to perform oral sex on him.
Keyes denied the allegation, saying it was “made by someone who has proven to be repeatedly dishonest about her own life.” But Salazar was soon backed up by Wall Street Journal reporter Shaindy Raice, who tweeted that Keyes was a “predator.” The Times of Israel reported on Wednesday that 10 more women had come forward with their own stories of Keyes’ improper behavior, with one woman describing her experience as having been sexually assaulted.
“All of the accusations are deeply misleading and many of them are categorically false,” Keyes told the Times of Israel.
Keyes’s behavior was reportedly an “open secret”:
Raice wrote that Keyes’s “mistreatment of women was an open secret.”
Indeed, according to TOI and Israel’s Channel 10, Keyes’s behavior made female co-workers at Advancing Human Rights highly uncomfortable, leading to the creation of an unofficial policy not to leave Keyes alone with female interns. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish Washington think tank where Keyes had once appeared at a panel discussion, reportedly intervened in 2013 after two female FDD employees complained to their supervisors about Keyes’ behavior. TOI reported that Keyes’s reputation was “so well-known he was asked to stay away from certain offices that he used to frequent in New York.”
*He was Netanyahu’s viral video maven:
Despite the concerns that many apparently had about Keyes’s behavior, he was hired by Netanyahu in 2016 to serve as his foreign media advisor. “A senior official close to Netanyahu actively recruited him for the highly sought-after position,” The Jerusalem Post reported last year.
Since Keyes joined the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu has increasingly focused on social media outreach, including creating viral videos to post to his Facebook page. The Times of Israel reported that he was rumored to be picked as a future ambassador to the United Nations.
#MeToo is now spreading to Israel:
While the claims so far are alleged to have taken place before Keyes joined the government, he is far from the first Israeli political figure to have been accused of sexual misconduct in recent months. Israeli media reported for the first time in 2017 that Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Natan Eshel, was accused by a female aide in 2012 of taking photos of her up her skirt, which was corroborated by other members of Netanyahu’s staff. Allegations of sexual misconduct have also rocked the Israeli news and entertainment industries, as well as other sectors.
Correction, September 16: A previous version of this article inaccurately portrayed the relationship between David Keyes and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Aiden Pink is the Deputy News Editor for the Forward.