Youthful energy, political passion and a willingness to go the extra mile in the left-right ideological boxing ring – that’s what leaders like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ambitious presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders look for when hunting new talent to help them win over hearts and minds.
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Although they may be polar opposites when it comes to their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the two men both recently fell into precisely the same trap when their attempts to inject their camps with fresh blood ended in embarrassing controversy that detracted from the images they were trying to buff up.
Netanyahu thought he found what he was looking for in Ran Baratz last fall, when he named the founding editor of the Hebrew-language right-wing news site Mida to head the National Information Directorate.
In Sander’s case, a popular young woman named Simone Zimmerman, a progressive anti-occupation and anti-establishment activist, seemed a bold and exciting choice to be his liaison to the Jewish community in the run-up to the New York primary campaign Tuesday.
But it turned out that the same commitment and power of persuasion that had attracted the leaders to them in the first place had led both Baratz and Zimmerman to use inappropriately strong language in the past. While rude insults and obscenities may be appropriate for online brawling between right and left, they reflect negatively if attributed to the aide of a leader who occupies – or aspires to occupy – a position in which he or she must remain on diplomatic, if not friendly terms with political rivals.
In the cases of Baratz and Zimmerman, there was a failure – of ability, will, or both – on the part of both Netanyahu and Sanders, who did not sufficiently vet or perform due diligence on their new employee’s social media histories, leaving both politicians exposed to criticism. Both appointments hit the rocks almost immediately after they were announced. It only took a few clicks on the search engines of Google, Facebook and Twitter from journalists or activists on the other side. In both cases, there was political damage – and ultimately suspension of the appointments of the two new hires.
The Baratz appointment caused Netanyahu deep embarrassment on the eve of a visit to the White House last November. Shortly after the announcement was made public, it was revealed that during the heated controversy between Jerusalem and Washington over the Iranian nuclear deal, Baratz had been quoted describing President Barack Obama as “what modern anti-Semitism looks like in Western and liberal countries.” It also turned out that he had derided Secretary of State John Kerry, suggesting that “no one at the State Department” could “see the world through the eyes of a person whose mental age exceeds 12.”
The State Department called Baratz's remarks “troubling and offensive.” A list of Israeli leaders, including from Netanyahu’s own party, along with Vice President Joseph Biden and American Jewish leaders, advised him to reconsider the appointment.
Similarly, the decision of Sanders to hire Zimmerman – a former J Street activist and founder of IfNotNow (a new group aimed at ending “the American Jewish community’s support for the occupation”) – was torpedoed in 48 hours by the revelation that she had posted obscenity-laden statements about the Israeli premier, notably: “Bibi Netanyahu is an arrogant, deceptive, cynical, manipulative a**hole F**k you, Bibi you sanctioned the murder of over 2,000 people this summer.”
The fact that Zimmerman later edited the post, replacing “a**hole” with “politician,” and “F**k you” with “shame on you,” did little to mitigate the resulting backlash.
As in the case of Baratz, an avalanche of calls for Zimmerman to be fired came from American Jewish leaders (including the former head of the Anti-Defamation League Abraham Foxman, who was also among the first to demand that Netanyahu “distance himself” from Baratz), and resulted in the “suspension” of her appointment. While Sanders has stated repeatedly that he will not pander to Israel and will say "that Netanyahu is not right all of the time” – it seems that Zimmerman’s name-calling crossed a line of acceptability.
The jury is still out in both cases, though Baratz’s appointment seems to have a good chance of survival. Netanyahu, who initially froze the process but never named anyone else in Baratz’s place, is apparently determined to rehabilitate his embattled, prospective head of public diplomacy: Thus, in late March the premier asked the Civil Service Commission to approve the appointment, despite the potential damage to Jerusalem’s already-troubled relationship with the White House. There has not been a final decision in the matter.
It is doubtful whether Sanders, in the midst of a fierce campaign, has the time, energy or resources to do the damage control necessary to reinstate Zimmerman. The publication of her posts undermines what she was hired to do, alienating that slice of pro-Israel Jewish voters who might be attracted to Sanders on domestic issues. Those who sympathize with Zimmerman seem unlikely to turn against Sanders on the basis of the suspension, given that he has positioned himself firmly to the left of his rival Hillary Clinton on issues of Palestinian-Israeli peace.
While these dramas may be new in the Jewish and Israeli arena, they are far from unprecedented. Since the advent of the Internet era, politicians have been working to master the art of hiring people with strong online voices without crossing lines of diplomacy and good taste.
Among the first high-profile stumbles in this realm was in 2007, when Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards hired an outspoken feminist blogger, whose language crossed a red line in the abortion and birth-control debate and insulted Catholics, who clamored for their resignations – and got them.
Since then, most savvy U.S. political operators have endeavored to go over prospective employees' online histories with a fine-tooth comb – which the Netanyahu and Sanders teams clearly failed to do in these two cases.
And if times are tough for those doing the hiring, it’s even harder for those vying for the plum jobs. As Baratz and Zimmerman learned the hard way, ambitious young activists with big aspirations must walk a delicate tightrope these days.
On one hand, the fiery partisan online exchanges and heightened rhetoric during critical moments like the Iran debate raises their profile and contributes to the recognition that leads to the big jobs they dream of. On the other, if they get carried away with scoring points in the online boxing ring and throw their rhetorical punches too hard, their cursing and name-calling can put paid to opportunities for positions of real power – ones that would allow them to truly influence the causes they cared about deeply enough to use such strong language in the first place.