Sorry: As Presidential Contender, Sanders Was Right to Dismiss Simone Zimmerman

Appointing a Jewish liaison that calls Netanyahu a murderer is the same as employing a spokesperson who writes that Obama is an anti-Semite.

Simone Zimmerman, former head of Jewish outreach for Bernie Sanders campaign.
Twitter screenshot

I’ve met Simone Zimmerman several times in the past few years, briefly. She struck me as a smart and sophisticated political activist who seemed self-possessed beyond her young age. When someone told me she was going to go far in life, I nodded my head in quick agreement. Peter Beinart, who knows her better than I do, is a reliable witness about Zimmerman’s admirable motivation and deep concern for Israel’s future.

When I heard about Zimmerman’s appointment as the Jewish outreach liaison in Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, I was surprised at first, impressed at second. Her credentials as President of my favorite Jewish organization, J Street U, as well as her role in the establishment of the anti-occupation If Not Now movement, made Zimmerman a daring but nonetheless brilliant choice to serve as Sanders’ liaison to Jewish Millennials, his hardcore constituency. Kudos to the both of them, I thought.

Nonetheless, I am dismayed by the widespread condemnation of Sanders’ subsequent decision to dismiss Zimmerman after her foulmouthed Facebook posts against Benjamin Netanyahu came to light. Sanders’ is running for President of the United States, and as such, appointing someone who wrote, “F*** you, Netanyahu” and called the Israeli prime minister a murderer, as Jewish liaison is simply unacceptable. If he wants to be taken seriously, that is.

Netanyahu’s appointment of Ran Baratz as his chief spokesman was insupportable for the exact same reasons. In his own Facebook posts, Baratz insulted Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and called President Obama an anti-Semite, and while he has a right to his opinions - even if I find them odious - they disqualify him from serving as Israel’s face to the outside world. The fact that Netanyahu is apparently still trying to move the suspended appointment forward is a reflection on Netanyahu, not on the appropriateness of the appointment.

And it makes no difference whether Netanyahu secretly agrees with Baratz that Obama is out to harm Israel, as he unfortunately does, just as it makes no difference that Sanders’ may wholeheartedly concur with Zimmerman’s conclusion that Netanyahu is an asshole, which is also likely. Just as it is unseemly for the prime minister of Israel, no matter who he is, to employ someone who has thus maligned the leader of Israel’s greatest ally, so it is unsuitable for a serious presidential contender to appoint someone who has directed such profane language against the leader of a country that remains, despite Netanyahu, one of America’s greatest friends. 

This is no reflection on Zimmerman. One can and should admire her spunk and passion and agree that it is a far better alternative to the apathy and disengagement that characterize far too many Jews of her generation. Nor does her Facebook post, the product of youthful excess, perhaps, disqualify her from pursuing whatever position her heart desires. But in life, and especially in public service, words matter and often exact a price. In the digital age, they cannot be completely erased, either. That, by the way, should serve as a lesson to us all.

There’s also no doubt that Sanders’ campaign was careless when it didn’t vet Zimmerman sufficiently: going over Facebook posts seems like a basic prerequisite these days. Had it done so, Sanders’ advisers might have saved both them and her unnecessary embarrassment. Nonetheless, the decision to let her go was the right one politically, because Sanders’ critics would have never let go of her Facebook post. It would become an albatross around her neck as well as that of her employers. 

And it was also the correct decision substantively, because noblesse oblige. If Sanders were running to be president of Jewish Voice for Peace, J Street or Trotskyites Forever, Zimmerman’s words would have no significance. But for a presidential candidate who seeks to reach out to Jews in general, and not just to Netanyahu’s harshest critics, Zimmerman’s appointment was a boil that needed lancing, the sooner the better. Her Facebook post was offensive not only to Netanyahu but also to many Jews who possibly support Sanders’ economic policies but nonetheless take offence at describing Israel’s Gaza operation as murder. 

This does not negate Beinart’s assertion that the Jewish establishment’s refusal to tolerate the kind of pro-Israel, anti-occupation sentiments of Zimmerman and her fellow Jewish Millennials is both misguided and tragic. The refusal of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations to accept J Street to its ranks is thus myopic and reckless. Sometimes one suspects that mainstream Jewish leaders would prefer to see the many thousands of J Street supporters and other critics of the occupation get sucked in by BDS and turn into anti-Zionists. That would justify their pigheaded refusal to look at the Jewish community in the mirror and would leave the occupation-denying, Israel-is-always-right crowd of yesteryear in their splendid isolation.

Nor does Zimmerman’s dismissal detract from the validity of her views on the occupation, on Netanyahu and on the Gaza war. These are shared by many thousands around the world, including, I assume, the vast majority of Sanders’ own supporters. Running for president, however, involves compromise, a concept that sometimes seems alien to many of Sanders’ and Zimmerman’s fans. To quote a famous Israeli slogan, they would rather be right than smart, but that’s not the way one wins the presidency.