Simone Zimmerman

Simone Zimmerman

“I think as an American Jew, as someone who is part of a community that wields an extraordinary amount of power and influence over what goes on in Israel… I have a voice and a right to speak up.”

Peace Activism
2011 - present
IfNotNow
J Street U

Interview Date
May 8, 2015

Interviewer
Aliza Becker

The Interview

Simone Zimmerman grew up in the heart of the Los Angeles Conservative Jewish community. There she was taught that “Israel was…the culminating achievement of Jewish history,” and that there were three main ways to defend it: serving on the front lines in the army, emigrating to Israel, or working as a pro-Israel advocate on campus. Zimmerman chose the latter. She describes her experience at the University of California at Berkeley from 2009 to 2013, including contentious debates about divestment from Israel, her involvement in the pro-Israel/pro-peace campus group J Street U, and her subsequent participation in launching the grassroots initiative IfNotNow in 2014.

Before leaving for college, Zimmerman was warned that “the UC Berkeley people hate Israel. Your mission is to…teach…the truth about what's going on there." Once on campus, Zimmerman immediately became involved in the “Israel advocacy scene.”

In her second semester on campus, Zimmerman got an urgent call; a bill to divest from Israeli companies was being proposed in the Student Senate. She “dropped everything” and ran to the meeting.

During the debate, the Jewish students sat on one side of the room; on the other side were Palestinians and a “broad coalition of progressive student groups and communities of color” including “queer, black, Armenian, Arab, Muslims, South Asian” and even some Jewish students.

Zimmerman found, to her surprise, that the pro-Israel arguments she had carefully practiced were not convincing to the other side. In contrast, the opposition was “thoroughly prepared.” When they lost the first vote, Zimmerman felt like she had just watched “Israel getting pushed into the sea.”

The next weekend, Zimmerman felt “comforted and supported” at the national conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington, DC. At a meeting with UC Berkley students, an AIPAC official outlined their strategy. “What are we going to do about the divestment bill at UC Berkley? …We are going to get pro-Israel students to take over the student government and reverse the vote. That is how AIPAC operates on our nation's capitol and that is how AIPAC needs to operate on our nation's campuses."

Following the student body president’s veto of the bill, there were two more meetings attended by well over a thousand people. The debate had garnered national attention.

Several Jewish groups provided talking points and coaching. The Jewish students spoke about how the divestment bill was “choosing a side in a conflict where you shouldn't choose sides” and questioned why the university should be involved in the issue at all. “We…didn't have a good argument against their claims,” recounts Zimmerman, so “we were encouraged to cry and use emotional arguments like “don't silence my voice.”

Biography

Simone Zimmerman was born in 1990 in Los Angeles. As a child and adolescent, she participated in some of the central institutions of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ): Jewish day school and high school, Camp Ramah, and United Synagogue Youth (USY).

Zimmerman’s maternal grandfather’s family made aliyah to Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s. Because of this, her great grandmother was the only one of twelve siblings to survive the Holocaust. The importance of Israel as a Jewish refuge was a foundational narrative of Zimmerman's family history.

Growing up, Zimmerman went to Israel both to visit family and as part of USCJ youth programs. About ten percent of her high school graduating class joined the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), as did many of her friends from USY.

In her freshman year at the University of California at Berkeley, Zimmerman joined the Israel Action Committee, the oldest pro-Israel group at UC-Berkeley. Her experience with a campus divestment resolution on campus that spring began to shift her political outlook. 

Zimmerman initially met with J Street campus organizer Daniel May in the winter of 2011. He invited her to speak at the March 2011 J Street National Conference on a panel entitled, “Who is Afraid of BDS?" to speak on her experiences at UC-Berkeley. That summer, Zimmerman attended a J Street U trip and in the fall she became a founder of the J Street U chapter at UC-Berkeley.

 Zimmerman was elected as national president of J Street U for the 2012-13 school year. In the summer of 2014, she worked as staff on a Birthright program.

In July 2014, Zimmerman and some friends held a series of vigils advertised through social media to protest the Gaza War. That group, organized under the name, IfNotNow, founded a grassroots Jewish movement dedicated to ending the Occupation.

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