November 18, 2018

What Simone Zimmerman represents about millennial Jewry

On April 12, Simone Zimmerman, a Los Angeles Jewish day school graduate and UC Berkeley alumna, was named head of Jewish outreach for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, a dream job for a young, politically active, liberal American Jew. Then, on April 14, Zimmerman was suspended by the campaign. 

Zimmerman’s downfall, her #IStandWithSimone supporters have argued on social media and in online opinion pieces, was not ultimately the fault of the Sanders campaign, but, rather, brought on by the Jewish-American establishment. They see the establishment as intolerant of millennial Jews who view Israel differently than what they were taught by their parents, teachers, rabbis and even their summer-camp counselors. 

The Sanders campaign offered no official reason for the suspension, but it followed the revelation of a screenshot of a profanity-laden Facebook post by Zimmerman from March 2015 (which she later edited) in which she said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “sanctioned the murder of over 2,000” Palestinians in the 2014 Gaza war. Zimmerman had also penned an op-ed published by JTA in May 2013 that criticized Hillel International for refusing to sponsor speakers or partner with organizations that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Zimmerman’s posts were first revealed by Noah Pollak, a conservative Jewish journalist at the Washington Free Beacon, and they came in the wake of a Sanders’ comment to the New York Daily News, in which he mistakenly called the number of civilian fatalities in the most recent Gaza war 10,000, instead of the accepted number, which is fewer than 2,000, an error he later corrected.

Pollak’s piece and others like it led to a torrent of criticism against Sanders from mainstream Jewish leaders, including from Anti-Defamation National Director Emeritus Abe Foxman, who told Jewish Insider, “Bernie Sanders needs to fire Simone Zimmerman.” 

After the suspension, a counter-response erupted, led most prominently by Peter Beinart writing for Haaretz, along with bloggers at +972 Magazine and Mondoweiss, organizations such as Jews for Racial & Economic Justice and the Foundation for Middle East Peace, as well as many young American Jews taking to Twitter and Facebook.

What those 48 hours revealed — aside from being an embarrassment and distraction for the Sanders campaign — is a divide between mainstream Jewish America and a growing number of millennial Jews raised within those institutions. These young Jews now reject key elements of the narrative they were taught about Israel and are actively trying to change how American Jewry talks about and teaches the Israel-Palestinian conflict. These young activists consider America’s mainstream Jewish community as complicit in what they see as Israel’s immoral occupation of the West Bank.

From New Jew and Ramah to Berkeley and J Street U

Zimmerman’s adolescence in Los Angeles included summers at Camp Ramah, participation in the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth, trips to Israel and study at what was then known as New Jewish Community High School (now deToledo High School), where her mother, Elana, serves on the board, according to the school’s website.

Zimmerman did not respond to requests for an interview, but in an interview in May 2015 in the American Jewish Peace Archive (AJPA), Zimmerman said her views on Israel changed while she was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. 

During her freshman year, Zimmerman joined the campus Israel Action Committee, a pro-Israel student group, but became disillusioned during a 2010 student government debate over a bill pushed by the BDS movement that won approval. When she attended AIPAC’s policy conference that year in Washington, D.C., she told AJPA, pro-Israel Berkeley students were told they should seek more power in student government and reverse the BDS vote. Eventually, Berkeley’s student body president vetoed the BDS bill, which led to two more heated student government meetings.

At those meetings, Zimmerman told AJPA, she was “floored by the stories” told by divestment advocates — one speaker told of relatives in the Gaza Strip who heard bombs falling during Israel’s 2008 war against Hamas; another said he had been beaten up at an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank. Zimmerman said she brought her questions to Hillel, but found people there “were really scared to talk about the actual hard questions.” She was also moved by a much-discussed article in the New York Review of Books by Beinart, titled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” in which he criticized AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, among others, for abandoning the “liberal values they profess to admire” by ignoring Israel’s presence in the West Bank and the Palestinians’ plight.

In Israel during the summer of 2010, Zimmerman said she “witnessed for the first time Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians.” And during her sophomore year at Berkeley, she met an organizer for J Street U, the campus arm of J Street, a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby. She launched at Berkeley one of J Street U’s earliest campus chapters, and rose to become the organization’s national president in 2012-13. During her senior year, even as she and J Street U opposed another BDS bill put before Berkeley’s student government, Zimmerman tried and failed to negotiate an alternative bill calling for a two-state solution. During that effort, she said she found that pro-Israel advocates on campus wanted to “prevent any sort of public criticism and condemnation of Israel” when it came to its West Bank presence. 

After graduating, Zimmerman moved to New York. Soon after, in the summer of 2014, Israel responded to months of rocket attacks from Hamas with a seven-week targeted bombing campaign against Hamas terrorists and weapons caches, including a ground invasion to destroy cross-border terror tunnels. According to the U.N. Human Rights Council, the war killed 1,464 Palestinian civilians, and about 800 Hamas fighters. On the Israeli side, six civilians and 66 soldiers died. The imbalance in the number of casualties fueled accusations against Israel of “disproportionate” use of force, even as Hamas openly targeted Israeli population centers and was revealed to operate and stockpile weapons in Palestinian civilian neighborhoods. 

The 2014 Gaza War also became a catalyst for progressive American Jews like Zimmerman who were angered, among other complaints, by what they saw as the American-Jewish establishment’s indifference toward the suffering of Gaza’s civilians. Zimmerman and a handful of other young Jews formed a group in the summer of 2014, during the war, called IfNotNow, holding vigils outside of the Conference of Presidents’ headquarters in Manhattan, reciting Kaddish as they read the names of Palestinians and Israelis killed.

IfNotNow vigils during the war spread to nearly a dozen other cities and, in addition to demanding an end to the war, the expanding group called on mainstream Jewish institutions to end “support for the occupation,” and to promote a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that includes “freedom and dignity for all.”


Today, IfNotNow has three full-time staffers, and operates in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Boston; Philadelphia; the San Francisco Bay Area; and Chicago. It is currently planning to conduct a training session in Los Angeles in late May, and has also held vigils and other actions in St. Louis; Providence, R.I.; Pittsburgh; and Detroit. Most recently it held “liberation seders” in five cities, including Washington, D.C., where on April 19 members protested in front of Hillel International’s headquarters, blocking its front entrance. The pre-Passover protests were part of IfNotNow’s first “National Week of Action.”

Yonah Lieberman, 25, one of the group’s leaders based in Brooklyn, N.Y., said 250 people have gone through IfNotNow’s two-day training sessions during the past four months.

He said the group trains its members in IfNotNow’s narrative, its structure (unified but decentralized) and the “momentum theory of organizing,” a strategy combining tactics from community organizers, mass mobilizers and civil resistance movements.

The group’s website decries an “out-of-touch” Jewish establishment, saying it doesn’t represent American Jewry when it comes to Israel. But IfNotNow also says it does not seek to destroy the establishment, but rather to transform it.

“We are not trying to destroy the community. We are not trying to destroy the establishment,” Lieberman said. “There are a lot of really great things that the Jewish mainstream establishment does for the community. All those great things are overshadowed by the very public support for the occupation.”

Like Zimmerman, Lieberman is the product of a mainstream Jewish upbringing. He grew up in Washington, D.C., attended the pluralistic Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (graduating one year after this reporter), went to Habonim Dror Camp Moshava in northern Maryland — a kibbutz-style Zionist summer camp — and spent three months of his high school years on an exchange program in Israel at the Alexander Muss High School in Hod HaSharon. He said that in high school, he felt there were “inconsistencies” between the Jewish values he was taught and Israeli treatment of Palestinians, but it wasn’t until he became a student at the University of Michigan that he found the language to describe it.

“The word ‘occupation’ didn’t enter my lexicon until college, maybe freshman or sophomore year,” Lieberman said. “In college, it was a pretty classic story of learning about the realities of the occupation and learning about the way that our community was supporting the occupation.”

Lieberman created J Street U’s University of Michigan chapter and joined the group’s national board during his senior year. He says J Street is still his “political home,” while he calls IfNotNow his “movement home.” 

“There’s an entire generation that’s rising up right now, that’s trying to speak with the values we’ve been taught by our community, and there’s an out-of-touch establishment that’s trying to silence people like Simone,” Lieberman said. “We don’t want to be part of a community where the only way to be part of the community is to either shut up and toe the party line on Israel, or to leave the mainstream community and form your own small community. We don’t want that to be Judaism.”

Ethan Miller, another IfNotNow leader based in Washington, D.C., echoed Lieberman’s goals of improvement, not destruction, and of “proudly standing up for the values we were taught, the Jewish values of tikkun olam and the equality of human value.”

“What really unites us is our desire for being Jewish, and being Jewish shouldn’t necessitate support of the occupation,” said Miller, who grew up attending Hebrew school and Congregation Tikvat Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Maryland.

As an example of the “one-sided” discussion, he cited the sharp negative reaction to Sanders’ interview with the New York Daily News.

“Recently we saw a debate about how many people were killed in the last war,” Miller said, “but nobody in the established Jewish community stopped to question — what about the fact that people died in the first place?”

Beinart worked with Zimmerman on his now-defunct Daily Beast blog Open Zion. He points out that millennial Jews like Zimmerman are not checking out or disengaged from Israel or Judaism. Rather, “the world that Simone comes from … is disproportionately made up of people from more traditional backgrounds, because they are the ones that care.”

A vision for peace? 

Asked whether IfNotNow is committed to preserving Israel as a Jewish state, Lieberman said the group’s focus is on the American Jewish community, not the political debate of one state versus two states, or pro-BDS versus anti-BDS. Impacting their own community, Lieberman said, is “what we, as American Jews, have power over.”

“I think that Zionism is this big loaded word, and it’s been used by the establishment and by the mainstream to kind of create red lines about what you can and cannot say or who can and cannot be part of the community,” Lieberman said. 

Not all of the group’s individual members agree on all issues — Miller, for example, said he sees a Jewish state as part of any solution. Yet the members of IfNotNow are united in their focus on convincing the American Jewish establishment that “the occupation is not necessary for Jews to be safe,” as Lieberman put it. They also want their voices included in the larger conversation.

“We want a Judaism where the mainstream institutions will allow anyone, no matter what their beliefs about the occupation, to be part of the community and take leadership within the community,” he said.

IfNotNow’s choice not to debate the political solution is, according to UCLA Jewish history professor David N. Myers, a significant difference between young Jewish progressives and those in their parents’ generation. Myers, whose daughter is a close friend of Zimmerman’s, hosted a parlor meeting two months ago for IfNotNow, introducing them to veteran local liberal philanthropists. 

“The older generation in this meeting really wanted to know, ‘What’s your take on Israel and a two-state solution?’ ” Myers said. “And it really became clear to me, while that is the question of my generation, the 50-somethings and ups … that’s not the question that IfNotNow asks. They ask, ‘How have we tolerated the occupation?’ ”

Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom has known Zimmerman since her senior year at New Jewish Community High School; he said he spoke with her the day after her suspension from the Sanders campaign.

“I think Simone does represent a significant and, in some ways, growing population of younger Jews who felt like maybe they were in the dark a little bit,” Farkas said. Young American Jews go on pro-Israel Birthright or March of the Living trips, and find themselves unprepared for the anti-Israel “vitriol that happens on college campuses,” Farkas said.

“They learn things and experience Israel in a different way, experience a very well-organized and very well-funded BDS movement that is specifically taking a strategic tack to make them feel bad about their Jewish education and their Jewish heritage.” 

Farkas stressed the difference between Jews like Zimmerman and those who “place squarely” the blame for the situation in Israel and the West Bank on the Israelis. “That’s not coming from a place of love,” he said. 

He also criticized mainstream Jewish figures who “[moved] to an ad hominem personal attack” against Zimmerman. “When you use words like ‘ugly’ or ‘self-hating’ or ‘anti-Semite,’ it doesn’t benefit anyone,” Farkas said.

Farkas sees Simone Zimmerman and others like her in American Jewry not as a threat to the establishment but as evidence that, despite differences, the existing institutions have succeeded in inculcating a love and concern for Israel in the next generation.

“Sometimes when you love something so deeply, you also want it to be better than it is,” Farkas said. “It would be un-nuanced to say it’s just the anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian narrative that is driving our kids away. We do have some responsibility in that conversation.”