Well, that was awkward.
Just a few days after announcing that it had hired Simone Zimmerman to be its national Jewish outreach coordinator, the Bernie Sanders campaign suspended her position yesterday, in reaction to loud, right-wing criticism of her positions, activism, and language in opposing the Israeli occupation and its enablers. I had planned yesterday to take on her chorus of critics for their ethically compromised and sometimes farcical gotcha-combing of Zimmerman’s very public and proud paper trail. Now, I must add some serious, head-shaking, profound disappointment in the Sanders campaign for what really looks like management amateur hour.
From her home in Brooklyn, NY, the Los Angeles-raised Zimmerman has emerged in the past few years as one of the most effective organizers and articulate voices of the burgeoning population of Millenial-led Jews immersed in Jewish cultural, religious, and intellectual life while vigorously opposing the Israeli occupation and the establishment Jewish community’s support for it. Most notably, Zimmerman was one of the founders and is one of the leaders of If Not Now, “A movement to end the American Jewish community’s support for the occupation and gain freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians” (taken from the INN Facebook page), which sprung up from a 250-person protest Tisha B’Av service during Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2014, and has since seeded chapters and activism in cities around North America. In an earlier and more center-left stage of life, Zimmerman developed her political chops serving as J Street U national board president as an undergrad at Berkeley, where she helped lead opposition to a campus BDS resolution. Read this profile of Zimmerman from the American-Jewish Peace Archive.
The firing center of the attacks on Zimmerman and the Sanders campaign seems to have been this hit piece on Zimmerman, by neo-con Emergency Committee for Israel head Noah Pollak in the conservative Washington Free Beacon, and focused on Zimmerman’s potty-mouth. Pollak, who has used his own social media to promote disproportionate violence as a core religious value and to advocate the IDF using non-violent Palestinian protesters as “target practice”, highlighted Zimmerman’s use of obscenities directed at Prime Minister Netanyahu in the wake of Operation Protective Edge. In a Facebook post, she called Netanyahu “an arrogant, deceptive, cynical, manipulative asshole” and said “Fuck you, Bibi…you sanctioned the murder of over 2,000 people this summer” and some more gems.
Now, I’m friends with Zimmerman and I remember the FB post. I admit that while I thought that the content was spot on and important to say, I rolled my eyes a bit at the profanity and the conceit of the second-person, when clearly, Bibi was not reading this. More than anything, this probably reflects a generation gap in which I, age 40 (eek!) make a distinction between verbal and written speech and relate to social media as written speech — a distinction increasingly viewed as quaint by generations who grew up on social media and in the blogosphere, and in which even mainstream publications like The Atlantic publish cuss words. And sure, it would have been impolitic, distracting, and unprofessional had she had made a post like that while working as the campaign outreach coordinator. But it was two years ago and she was a private citizen.
What galls me about the shock — SHOCK — expressed about the rude young lady’s language is context: Instead of being scandalized by Simone Zimmerman using profane language in reference to Bibi Netanyahu presiding over the killing of 2000+ Palestinians during the 2014 Gaza massacre, how about if we become scandalized by the profanity of the massacre itself? It brings me right back to Sen. Jay Billingsworth Bulworth’s tv interview response to his recent use of obscenity in campaign appearances in the 1998 movie Bulworth. Obscenity?!
And really, right wingers and establishment sentinels, is this really your moment to be champions of civility? Just weeks after the largest annual gathering of American Jews, gathered to cheerlead the Israeli government at the AIPAC conference, gave repeated standing ovations to Donald Trump, a 70-year old billionaire man who repeatedly uses profane ad hominem insults at those weaker than he in order to dehumanize people by race, sex, age, etc.? Really? You’re appalled at cuss words? Please. You take Trump, Pollak, Bibi, and war crimes; I’m rolling with the potty-mouth.
Of course, it’s not really about the profanity; that’s just their shock tactic. It’s really about the substance of an active, practicing Jew, educated about Torah, Israel, and Jewish history, reared in the Jewish day schools (K-12), summer camps (Ramah California), youth groups (USY), Hillel, AIPAC, multiple Israel trips, Mechon Hadar, and so on, who speaks and reads Hebrew, and has numerous Israeli friends reaching the conclusion that “Jewish liberation is inextricably tied to the liberation of all people”. It’s about the fear that there are many more like Zimmerman who are not alienated by Judaism, who are not illiterate in their own tradition, who do not rely on thin and crude ethno-nationalism in order to avoid being swept up in the deluge of assimilation, because they actually are stewards, inheritors and owners of Jewish tradition who know that for the Torah, human life is sacrosanct. For Zimmerman and her friends, many of whom live in Israel, Israel is not an abstraction; it’s a real, pulsating place with real people whom they know well, including its Palestinian inhabitants and history. Pollak and his ilk hide that fear behind blatant lies:
- Describing Zimmerman as “a young anti-Israel activist”: She and If Not Now fight for “a vibrant, liberated Jewish community that supports freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians”. She does not take aim at Israel, to which she is committed; she says that “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.”
- Saying that Zimmerman has a “history of support for the BDS movement”. Rightly or wrongly, Zimmerman has never supported BDS, and emerged politically as national president of J Street U, which is one of America’s most vociferous anti-BDS organizations, and which Pollak, curiously characterized as “an anti-Israel lobbying and activist group”. I guess that’s one way to describe an organization “deeply committed to ensuring Israel’s future as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people, which can only be secured through a two-state resolution.”
- Characterizing this article, which Zimmerman co-authored with Jewschooler Lex Rofes, as “calling on Hillel International…to sponsor campus events promoting the BDS movement”. Actually, what they said was “while we both have campaigned actively against divestment efforts on our campuses, the guidelines’ restrictions on events with any groups supportive of…BDS, prohibit much-needed discussions. Though Hillel professes support for dialogue, the guidelines effectively eliminate any possibility of co-sponsorship with Palestinian student organizations, as most support BDS. Our community cannot champion intellectual rigor and inclusivity while avoiding public conversations with those with whom we disagree.”
As for the Sanders campaign, it pains me to say this, as a supporter, but the decision to suspend Zimmerman three days after hiring her, because of public opposition to her vocal politics about the Israeli occupation, smacks of an amateur campaign operation without a game plan. Zimmerman’s politics on Israel are definitely controversial in the Jewish community, but they were well known. As Uriel Heilman put it in Ha’aretz, “Now charged with reaching out to Jews and Jewish groups to try to corral support for the only Jewish candidate in the race for president, Zimmerman either may be a deeply flawed choice for the job or the perfect hire, depending on your political views and your analysis of Sanders’ prospects among varying kinds of Jewish voters.” Michelle Goldberg, in Slate, made a reasonable case for why, though hiring Zimmerman was “an admirably progressive choice”, it was “also bad politics”.
But nothing in the right-wing assault on Zimmerman was unpredictable; nothing was new in the “revelation” of her 2014 Facebook post. The campaign had to know all about Zimmerman’s Israel politics: otherwise, they would not have heard of her; those are her political qualifications and experience! That coupled with her deep and diverse relationships in the Jewish communities of NY-NJ and California — essential states for Sanders, with large Jewish electorates — are presumably why they hired her. And if they didn’t know how divisive Israel politics are in the Jewish community, well, then they’re they’re asleep at the wheel and not running a professional campaign operation. David Plouffe would not have been caught on his heels about this. And if they knew all about her activism, knew it was controversial, but hired her because they support it and are investing in the portion of the Jewish community who is drawn to those Israel politics, but they were appalled by the use of the F-word in a Facebook post, then they’re being childish.
It’s fair to question whether the campaign should have picked someone who has emerged through political organizing around the most divisive issue in the Jewish world. But on the other hand, on a landscape this divisive, I don’t know that you could find anyone politically informed, savvy, passionate, who hasn’t taken sides on Israel. Maybe Zimmerman isn’t divisive; our community is just divided. Either way, the decision on the merits and demerits to the campaign of an outreach director like Zimmerman should have been weighed ahead of time, not after three days of the right wing shouting in exactly the ways anyone paying attention would have expected.
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right; here #IStandWithSimone. If you feel the same way, and especially if you’re a Bernie Sanders supporter, tweet #IStandWithSimone and let the community understand the constituency she represents.