If You Lose Simone Zimmerman, You Lose the Best of Jewish Millennials

Why is American Jewish Zionism punishing its children for challenging its lies?

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Simone Zimmerman.
Simone Zimmerman.Credit: Facebook / JTA
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

To understand Simone Zimmerman, the 25-year-old Jewish outreach coordinator for the Bernie Sanders campaign who was suspended last week for hostile comments about Benjamin Netanyahu, you must understand American Jewish Millennials more generally.

When it comes to Israel, they can be divided into four groups. The largest, sadly, are those who don’t care that much. They don’t care that much about Israel because they don’t care that much about Judaism. They are the products of a Jewish community that, for generations, has neglected Jewish education, and an American society that grows ever more ravenously assimilationist. And so they don’t care that much about Israel for the same reason they don’t care that much about Shavuot: They are universalistic Americans with little connection to particularly Jewish things.

The second group is those who identify as conventionally pro-Israel. Unlike their elders in groups like AIPAC, who tend to be relatively secular and relatively liberal on issues others than Israel, these younger Jews are more often Orthodox and more often Republican. Often, they are smart and sincere. But they are usually disconnected from Palestinians. With rare exceptions, they do not read books by Palestinian authors. They don’t go to the West Bank to witness Palestinian life. Thus, their love of Israel is rarely discomforted by the experience of seeing Israel through Palestinian eyes.

The third group, which is smaller but growing, is those younger American Jews who see Israel primarily through Palestinian eyes. They reject Zionism and support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement because, for them, being Jewish is not about the bonds of peoplehood. It’s about standing with the oppressed. They care little about the mainstream Jewish community. Their community is the activist left.

Finally, there are the young American Jews like Simone (full disclosure: we worked together at my blog, Open Zion). From afar, these young progressives may look like their counterparts in group number three. But there’s a critical difference. They feel a stronger allegiance to the Jewish people. They care more about the organized American Jewish community because they were raised in more affiliated, more traditional Jewish homes. Simone, for instance, is the product of Jewish day school, Jewish camp and Conservative Judaism’s youth movement, United Synagogue Youth. 

Many of the young people in group number four were on their way to being the next generation of the American Jewish establishment. Simone came to Berkeley expecting to do AIPAC-style Israel advocacy. But at a certain point, the tension between her liberalism and the American Jewish establishment’s Zionism snapped. For many of the Jewish Millennials in group number four, that rupture came as the result of interactions with Palestinians: interactions that made them confront the human consequences of holding millions of people as non-citizens, without free movement, under military law, for almost fifty years.

The Millennials in group number four live the tension between their commitment to universal human rights and their loyalty to the Jewish people. For them, being on the left is not a sufficient Jewish identity. They don’t only populate J Street U. They also populate non-Orthodox rabbinical schools and the independent minyans that have sprouted across the country. 

It’s no surprise that, after college, Simone helped found IfNotNow, which during the Gaza War recited the Mourner’s Kaddish outside the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. They said Kaddish because they look to Jewish prayer for inspiration and guidance. They said it outside the Conference of Presidents office because they care enough about the American Jewish community to fight to change it. 

Last week, Simone was suspended from her job in the Sanders campaign, ostensibly for a Facebook post last year in which she called Netanyahu “an arrogant, deceptive, cynical, manipulative asshole. He is the embodiment of the ugliest national hubris and tone-deafness towards the international community. F**k you.” (A few hours later, she erased the profanity).

Perhaps Simone chose the wrong words. Perhaps she should have called Netanyahu “one of the most obnoxious individuals you’re going to come into - just a liar and a cheat,” as former Clinton administration press secretary Joe Lockhart did. Or she could have simply called him a “liar,” like former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Or she could have used the term popular in the British foreign office: “armored-plated bullshitter.” Or she could have called him a “corrupt individual, a contentious liar who is ruining everything that is good about our society.” Those words came from Leah Rabin.  

After Simone’s words came to light, the Sanders campaign came under what the New York Times called “concerted and ultimately overwhelming pressure from American Jewish leaders” to fire her. She was attacked by Abe Foxman, former head of the Anti-Defamation League — a man who when asked about the Israel military courts that in the West Bank convict Palestinians at rates of more than 99 percent, said, “I’m not an expert on the judicial system and I don’t intend to be.” She was also pilloried by Morton Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America — a man who last month wrote that “The Zionist Organization of American has no current position on the transfer of Arabs out of Israel.” It’s neither for ethnic cleansing nor against it.

Personally, Klein is a nice man. I’m sure Foxman means well too. But by trying to foist their own intellectual insularity and moral blindness on a younger generation of American Jews, they are destroying the community they helped to build. 

Simone Zimmerman cares about Israel. She cares about the Jewish people. She even cares about American Jewish organizations. And she believes there should be a space in those organizations for moral opposition to Israeli policies, the kind of moral opposition once offered by communal leaders like Nahum Goldmann, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg and Rabbi Arthur Schindler. Treat people like her as the enemy and you make enemies of the best of the younger American Jewish generation. Exile those progressive young American Jews who genuinely care about the American Jewish community and watch who follows in their wake. 

I’m not worried about Simone Zimmerman. She’ll do fine. I’m worried about a community that punishes its children for challenging its lies.