December 18, 2018

Who is Simone Zimmerman?

In recent days, the name of a young Jewish woman has furiously buzzed around national media outlets. Simone Zimmerman was briefly appointed national Jewish outreach coordinator for the Bernie Sanders campaign before being suspended on April 14, just two days later. This rapid decision came after a right-wing blogger discovered that in March 2015, she had posted on Facebook a profanity-laced comment that was highly critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; later on that day in March, she edited the post and removed the profanity. For this offense, she was widely vilified, with some politicians branding her as a dangerous anti-Israel supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Even Anti-Defamation League National Director Emeritus Abe Foxman felt compelled to step in to urge the Sanders campaign to fire her. 

The demonic image that has gained currency in the last few days bears no relationship to the Simone Zimmerman whom I know well. The question then is: Who is Simone Zimmerman?

Simone Zimmerman is a 25-year-old native of Los Angeles, daughter in a family with deep roots in the Jewish community of the San Fernando Valley. She was a member of Temple Aliyah, went to Camp Ramah and attended Jewish schools through high school. As such, she was the beneficiary of the best Jewish education that our community has to offer. In some regards, it succeeded, inculcating in her a deep and abiding connection to Judaism and Israel. And yet, in another seminal regard, this education woefully failed her. Like so many other young Jews, she was raised on the story of Israel’s unsurpassed virtue with precious little mention of the native Palestinian population or of the nearly 50-year occupation of the West Bank. (Sadly, it is similar to the Israel education that my children received, including my 15-year-old daughter, who is now on a semester-long program in Israel.) 

Who is Simone Zimmerman?

She was a deeply committed Jewish student who made her way to study at UC Berkeley in 2009, intent on joining in pro-Israel advocacy work. It was during her second semester on campus, when she got involved in the struggle against a divestment resolution directed against Israel, that she first came to hear reports of the difficult conditions in which Palestinians live under the occupation. This process of self-discovery impelled Zimmerman to move away from her early involvement in AIPAC to become a campus leader, and eventually national president, of J Street U, the campus arm of J Street. Rather than being welcomed for her stance in support of both a Jewish state and a state of Palestine, Zimmerman and her J Street U colleagues were shunned and branded by the American-Jewish establishment as disloyal and anti-Israel. But Zimmerman is a strong-willed person, and so, undeterred, she became an articulate and passionate opponent of the occupation, believing that it undoes the ethical fiber of Israel. At the same time, she opposed various BDS resolutions on the Berkeley campus, offering alternatives that condemned the occupation and called for recognition of a two-state solution. 

Who is Simone Zimmerman?

Like so many young Jewish people, she left college feeling she had nowhere to turn Jewishly. AIPAC held to a mythic and unrealistic view of Israel, the BDS cause was not her cup of tea, and simply sitting on her hands was not an option. So when the most recent Gaza war began in 2014, Zimmerman and a group of friends in New York formed a group to protest the scale of destruction and loss of life. Availing themselves of the Jewish ritual language with which they are intimately familiar, they began to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for all victims of the violence in the Gaza conflict, both Israelis and the vastly larger number of Palestinians killed by the Israeli military. That small group, known as IfNotNow (from Rabbi Hillel’s famous line in “Pirke Avot”), has since developed into a growing movement of young Jews who seek to disrupt the somnolence of American Jews. The animating question that IfNotNow asks is very different from the question that current leaders of the American-Jewish establishment ask. The older generation, among which I include myself, returns again and again to the question: How can we preserve Zionism and the State of Israel as it currently exists? The younger generation, which is no less passionate and engaged, calls to mind progressive groups that took rise in the 1970s such as Breira and Peace Now. But the young Jews of today seek to exercise steely discipline in contending with one question: How do we bring an end to the occupation, which is not only a moral and political disaster, but an ongoing crisis for American Jewry? Rather than compound the difficulty of the task by considering a range of long-term political solutions, IfNotNow’s sole focus is to upset the status quo of opinion and deed in order to bring an end to the occupation, full stop.

Who is Simone Zimmerman?

She is the future of American Jewry. She should not have used the intemperate language or expletives she did in condemning Netanyahu. That was a mistake. But she is not willing to do what many American Jews do: Remain silently complicit as Israel’s occupation continues to trample on the rights of Palestinians and push the Jewish state closer to the brink of destruction. Marshaling all of her passion and intelligence, she is guiding and agitating her generation toward a position of moral leadership. No wonder the establishment attacks her. They see the same cracks in the old edifice that she does, but lash out in the hope of forestalling any further damage to their position. But soon, if not now, Zimmerman’s time will come.


David N. Myers is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA.