Simone Zimmerman, the Bernie Sanders campaign’s recently hired national Jewish outreach coordinator, is very familiar with the American Jewish establishment, as she is used to fighting against it.
During the 2014 Gaza conflict, Zimmerman was one of the leaders of a group of young Jews that regularly held protest vigils outside the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, reading the names of Palestinians and Israelis killed in the conflict.
Zimmerman opposes Israel’s “occupation,” wants Hillel to allow participation by groups that support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel, is against Jewish federation funding for Israeli projects in the West Bank, and wrote favorably of efforts by Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-BDS group, to get “international corporations to stop profiting off human rights abuses.” The Anti-Defamation League has called Jewish Voice for Peace one of America’s top 10 anti-Israel groups.
“We’re paying attention to what’s happening in Israel — and we are angry,” Zimmerman said in a column on her fellow millennials in Israel’s daily Haaretz in February.
“The hypocrisy of expecting feel-good social justice projects to offset millennials’ deep outrage at the grave injustices committed by the Jewish state is almost too much to bear,” wrote Zimmerman, who is in her mid-20s. “No public relations trick can save Israel’s image. The problem isn’t with the hasbara [public relations]. The problem is nearly 50 years of occupation. The problem is rampant racism in Israeli society. The problem is attacks on human rights defenders by extremists and by the state. The problem is a Jewish establishment that ignores or justifies all of this.”
Zimmerman, who is charged with reaching out to Jews and Jewish groups to support the only Jewish presidential candidate, is either the perfect person for the job or a very flawed choice, depending on your political views and your analysis of Sanders’ prospects among different kinds of Jewish voters.
Jews who back Sanders say that they are doing so mostly because of his socioeconomic views. However, many of these Jewish progressives also like Sanders’ questioning of American political orthodoxy on Israel. Sanders is a proponent of Israel’s security and survival, but also criticizes Israel for using “disproportionate” force against the Palestinians and says that the U.S. position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to be more “evenhanded.”
“It makes me feel good to be supporting a candidate where I don’t have to make excuses for them being part of the pro-occupation establishment,” said Charles Lenchner, a Jewish Sanders supporter from Brooklyn.
“This is a candidate who has embraced the full humanity of Palestinians in a way we have not seen from any past president except for Jimmy Carter,” Lenchner told JTA. “We need a president who will stand up to Israel’s settler minority, which has captured the government there and captured the foreign policy establishment in the U.S. Bernie Sanders might actually be able to bring American power to bear on the intransigence of the Israeli right wing.”
However, some other Jews, including some who are thinking about voting for Sanders, are troubled by some of Sanders’ statements on Israel, including his erroneous recall in a New York Daily News interview of the number of Palestinian civilians killed in
Operation Protective Edge. Sanders said that he thought the number was 10,000 killed, but the actual U.N. estimate was 1,462. When someone in the room did a quick search for the official number and gave the corrected number, Sanders immediately accepted it.
Nevertheless, critics jumped on this mistake and other Sanders statements as proof that he believes the Palestinian narrative that Israel is the primary aggressor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For these Jews, Zimmerman’s appointment is unlikely to alleviate their fears about Sanders. Some anti-Sanders groups have seized upon Zimmerman’s appointment as fuel for their argument that a Sanders presidency would be bad for the Jews.
“Yes, this is what the Bernie Sanders version of Jewish outreach looks like,” Daniel Greenfield wrote in FrontPageMag, a right-wing website associated with the David Horowitz Freedom Center, which describes the political left as an enemy of America. “Stone throwing and BDS papered over with random Yiddish and Jewish words to make anti-Semitism and hatred of Jew seem socially acceptable.”
However, Zimmerman is most definitely not an anti-Semite. According to a biography of Zimmerman on the American Jewish Peace Archive, which is based off of an interview with Zimmerman in May 2015, Zimmerman, who is a Los Angeles native born in 1990 and the great-granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, grew up in a Conservative Jewish home, went to a Jewish day school and a Jewish camp and was active in United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative movement’s youth organization. Zimmerman also said that she had visited Israel a number of times in her childhood.
When Zimmerman started college at the University of California, Berkley, she initially gravitated towards the traditional pro-Israel camp. Zimmerman joined Berkley’s Israel Action Committee, protested a divestment bill in the student senate, and went to Washington in the spring to attend AIPAC’s annual policy conference.
However, Zimmerman said that her views changed as she learned more from supporters of divestment and the Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians that she witnessed during a trip to Israel. Zimmerman soon joined her college’s chapter of J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group that supports U.S. pressure on Israel to support a two-state solution. Zimmerman spent the summer after her sophomore year studying colloquial Arabic at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 2012, Zimmerman was elected president of the national student board of J Street U, the group’s campus arm.
Zimmerman said that throughout her college years at Berkley, she opposed BDS, but that over time, she became more supportive of the rights of pro-BDS groups to be a part of the Jewish communal conversation in Israel.
“We are doing this out of love for our community and love for our neighbors,” she wrote of her work opposing the occupation. “We know that Jewish liberation is inextricably tied to the liberation of all people.”
When Israel and Hamas went to war in Gaza in 2014, Zimmerman helped found a group called IfNotNow that aims to end Israel’s occupation and during the war protested American Jewish groups like the Presidents Conference.
Since moving to Brooklyn, Zimmerman has also marched in #BlackLivesMatter protests and helped to raise money for Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a group that aims to “dismantle racism and economic exploitation” in New York.
However, Zimmerman remains very focused on Israel. In her Haaretz column in February, Zimmerman wrote of the importance of “bringing American Jews to do civil resistance work in solidarity with West Bank Palestinians.”
“What we need is for the community to stop willfully blinding itself to the disastrous reality of holding millions of Palestinians under military occupation,” Zimmerman wrote. “Moreover, we need the community to stop policing and demonizing those of us who say these truths in public and are fighting for change.”
Now Zimmerman is fighting for the change that Sanders champions. After Sanders won his first primary election in New Hampshire in February, Zimmerman hailed the historic moment.
“The first Jew in history just won a primary, as a proud socialist calling for political revolution, backed 85-15 by millennials,” Zimmerman wrote on Facebook, according to a report in the Forward (Zimmerman’s posts are not all viewable to the general public).
Referencing Hillary Clinton, Sanders’ Democratic rival for the presidency, Zimmerman added, “Hil thinks she can win us back with hawkish Israel policies? Wake the f–k up.”