Simone Zimmerman’s tenure as Bernie Sanders’ outreach director to the Jewish community lasted only two days. But in the hours between the announcement of her appointment last week and her suspension, reportedly over strongly derogatory remarks she made on Facebook last year about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one thing became evident: The mainstream organized Jewish community — the Jewish “establishment,” in the terms of this election cycle — has been caught with no answer to the Simone Zimmermans of the world. And it needs to find one.
Zimmerman’s challenge is this: She is in her mid-20s, grew up in a Conservative Jewish household, went to Jewish day school and Jewish camp, and was active in United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative movement’s youth organization. She has been to Israel a number of times, several as a leader of organized trips. In short, she is the Jewishly educated, Jewishly affiliated, engaged and passionate product of the organized Jewish community that we’ve been led to be believe does not pose a risk for harboring what many of us would consider distinctly anti-Israel views.
But she doesn’t sound like someone from the organized Jewish community.
She was president of the national student board of J Street U, which makes her suspect in the eyes of many. In 2014, she vigorously protested Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war. And she is an outspoken opponent of the occupation, the Israeli government and what she sees as the organized Jewish community’s squelching of contrary opinions. “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.”
Zimmerman is not a disengaged millennial, possibly lost to the Jewish community. If she hadn’t used vulgarities about Netanyahu on Facebook, she might still be challenging us from a spot in the Sanders campaign.
From an establishment perspective, there is a serious problem. Initial reports said that Zimmerman supported the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. It turns out that she may not endorse boycotting Israel, but she sure springs to the defense of those who do. But the issue goes beyond BDS, beyond her consistently painting Israel as the aggressor in a conflict that finds the Jewish state facing down an enemy that uses civilians as a shield, aggrandizes terror and is sworn to Israel’s destruction.
Zimmerman represents a generation raised from within “the system” that is frighteningly immune to Israel’s case. As she was reaching her formative years, hasbara was predominantly focused on non-Jews and tangentially-related Jews. That strategy has left us asleep at the switch. We better figure out a way to engage the Simone Zimmermans of the world, and fast.