For five days in April, Simone Zimmerman was the most controversial figure in Jewish politics.
The 25-year-old activist served very briefly as Bernie Sanders’ Jewish outreach coordinator, before being fired after an old Facebook post in which she used profanity against Israeli prime minister Netanyahu surfaced — and quickly ended her political stint.
Since then, Zimmerman shied away from the public eye.
In an interview conducted by fellow activist Isaac Luria and published Monday in 972 Magazine Zimmerman gives her side of the story for the first time.
“To be honest, I feel like the campaign dealt with this really poorly. I think they were mostly not dealing with it,” she said.
But despite being unhappy about her firing, Zimmerman praised Sanders for speaking openly — and critically — about Israel and its occupation of Palestinian land. She called his a watershed moment for the Jewish community and claimed that a majority of Jews support Sanders’s views on the Jewish state.
“There is a crisis on our hands. The occupation is hitting its 50-year anniversary. We see, we care about this community too much to not demand that it be on the right side of history. Even if it makes people a little bit uncomfortable. Disrupting business as usual is actually essential to making change.”
Simone Zimmerman’s story is a tale of deeply involved young Jewish woman, who became skeptical about Israel and disaffected from the mainstream Jewish American approach to Israel. She describes her anger at being targeted by the Jewish establishment after speaking out.
“My entire life was shaped by the Jewish community in Los Angeles. All my friends were Jewish. Everything I knew about who I was and how to be in the world was shaped by that Jewish community,” she told Luria
In Berkeley, California, where she attended college, things began to change for Zimmerman.
“When I got to campus… I really thought of myself as one of the, I knew about Israel. I knew Israel. I’d spent time there. I knew Israelis. I went to a Jewish day school in USY where we learned about Israel, so I was going to be prepared to answer these hard questions.”
But talking about Israel turned out to be a serious challenge. When the campus plunged into a divestment debate, Zimmerman was surprised to see other minority groups on campus take the pro-Palestinian side. It was also the first time she heard the story of the occupation told from the Palestinian point of view.
“I came home and ran around to my parents and the head of my high school and the head of my youth group. It was like, ‘You guys didn’t teach us enough,’ to anybody who would talk to me, who would listen to me. I was like, ‘We don’t know enough about what’s going on Israel. We’re not prepared for these campus debates. You’ve got to prepare us better.’ I was really, really upset about that.
And then came Bernie Sanders. Zimmerman liked his politics, his approach, and his stance on Israel.
“Just hearing him actually not repeat the same worn racist talking points that were getting a home at AIPAC, hearing him name the occupation, recognize that Palestinians deserve freedom and dignity just like Israelis,” she said. “His speech wasn’t radical. Talking about water and destruction in Gaza, just like basic human needs and human, the denial of rights, the denial of just basic daily needs and dignities.”
“As a young person, as an American, as a Jew, I thought the way that Bernie was, the values he was espousing on every other issue was so in-line with my Jewish values and then also seeing him actually, the first, the most serious Jewish presidential candidate we’ve ever had also pushing the boundaries on Israel was just really, really inspiring to me.”
Early in April, just before Sanders prepared for his most important primary battle in the state of New York, Zimmerman got a call from the campaign, offering her the job of Jewish outreach coordinator, a position that did not exist before in the campaign.
“I got a phone call one day that said, ‘We know that your Jewish values are in line with the values of most of the Jews who support us, so why don’t you come do this?’ I said, ‘Of course.’”
“Actually, the masses of American Jews are more aligned with me,” she said. “Most Jews in the progressive movement share my views.”
Zimmerman took the job. And shortly after, the news stories began to pop up, digging into her previous activism at J StreetU, and later unearthing the infamous Facebook post.
“I have no idea who leaked it…somebody took a screen shot of my Facebook post when I initially wrote it and had been saving it. Because anyone who would go on my Facebook now couldn’t get that same image.”
“I had been vetted. They told me they spent a week vetting me, but I’m not really sure how much people knew about who I was or my activism. I don’t really know what the vetting process looked like.”
When the Facebook post threatened to overshadow Sanders’ campaign, Zimmerman was promptly kicked out, told she was suspended, but never brought back on board.
“I’m not really sure how much they knew about my activism or about this issue, and they were also preparing for the debate the next night.”
“I went home, I went to the gym, tried to get out some anger, and then I got a call from the New York Times that the spokesperson from the campaign had told them that I was suspended. So suddenly it was actually news. Then there was a story about me.I couldn’t comment on it. I didn’t do any public press during that time.”
But one of Zimmerman’s toughest moments was her encounter with the Jewish organizational establishment. Specifically with Abraham Foxman, the former national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“I believe that this was his first public statement since he retired over a year ago. He came out of retirement to defend the Jewish people from the threat of Simone Zimmerman.”
Zimmerman stayed home and watched Sanders debate Hillary Clinton in Brooklyn, a debate that provided his fullest, and harshest, critique of the Democratic Party’s position on Israel.
“It was a really bittersweet moment watching the debate that night as Bernie said, ‘There comes a time where it’s important to say that Netanyahu isn’t always right all the time,’ which felt like the very, the presidential version of what I had written on that Facebook page.
Zimmerman intends of keeping up her work on issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how Jewish Americans relate to it. She also intends to spend a year in Israel as a Dorot fellow.
“There is a crisis on our hands. The occupation is hitting its 50-year anniversary. We see. We care about this community too much to not demand that it be on the right side of history. Even if it makes people a little bit uncomfortable.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.