October 17, 2019

30 under 30: Simone Zimmerman

Terrified yet hopeful — and leading the charge

Simone Zimmerman looks, on paper, like so many young Jewish professionals from Los Angeles: 10 summers at Camp Ramah in Ojai, leadership training in the United Synagogue Youth, a family that’s active in the community. Her parents even helped found the Jewish high school where she would grow up, now known as deToledo High School, in West Hills.

But it was she alone whom some in the Jewish community singled out, variously, to lionize and vilify during the recent presidential election.

In April, Zimmerman, then 25, found herself in charge of Jewish outreach for the Bernie Sanders campaign. Five days later, she was suspended after establishment figures including Morton A. Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, and Abe Foxman, former head of the Anti-Defamation League, called for her ouster. The reason: a year-old Facebook post she wrote that refers to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu using expletives.

The Jewish web went ballistic over the post. Much of the outrage had less to do with the expletives than the fact that a major presidential candidate would hire a national Jewish outreach coordinator who opposes Israel’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza, as Zimmerman does. In the reductionist slur of electoral politics, she became a distraction to the campaign.

But in her view, there are much worse sins than cursing out a world leader on Facebook.

“What’s even more vulgar than curse words is the occupation itself, is Jewish institutions giving a pass to neo-Nazis to preserve U.S. support for the occupation,” said Zimmerman, now 26, criticizing the less-than-thunderous rebuke many in the organized Jewish community gave the seedier elements of President Donald Trump’s support base.

Zimmerman belongs to a movement of young Jews for whom “true safety and liberation for Jews [in America] and in Israel actually depends on not supporting the occupation but fighting for freedom for all people,” she said.

Last year, she became the face of that movement, but she’s been an influential part going back several years. In 2014, Zimmerman was one of the founders of IfNotNow, a network of progressive millennial Jews that protests the Jewish establishment for what it sees as its commitment to the unacceptable status quo in the Palestinian territories. Her experience earned huge visibility for the group, she said; it now boasts 700 leaders in eight cities, including Los Angeles.

She spoke to the Journal from Israel, where she went to “reflect, recharge and reorient,” participating in a leadership development program, the Dorot Fellowship. She said she’s begun to find some silver linings to her recent troubles: Hopefully having her story out there has emboldened other like-minded youth, she said.

“I’ve heard from lots of people that my story meant something to them, that it spoke to them — rattled them,” she said.

Besides, she said, “If [the Jewish establishment] didn’t see us as a growing threat, they wouldn’t feel the need to attack us.”

In her view, American Jewry is standing on a historic precipice that will require its members to take sides on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I’m more terrified and more hopeful in this moment than maybe I’ve ever been in my life,” she said.