“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.”
May 8, 2015
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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.”
“You’re crying about being silenced and marginalized,” said the opposition, when your own community is “pledging to take over the student government.” The opposition played a video of the AIPAC official speaking to UC Berkley students.
Zimmerman found herself “floored by the stories” she heard from divestment advocates. One Palestinian student talked about how his “aunt and cousins didn't sleep for weeks when the bombs were falling overhead in Gaza.” Another talked about being “beaten at a checkpoint.”
When she searched for answers at Hillel, “most of [her] questions were met with radio silence.” They “were really scared to talk about the actual hard questions…about Israel's actions.” While the student president’s veto was upheld, Zimmerman found the process so ugly and painful that “it wasn't really a win.”
A few months later, Zimmerman read Peter Beinart’s article, "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment" in the New York Review of Books. Beinart seemed to describe precisely the sort of behavior that she had experienced on campus. The Jewish community did not apply the liberal values she identified with when it came to Israel.
On a trip to Israel that summer, Zimmerman witnessed for the first time Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians. She eagerly sought out a friend of her parents for guidance. He told her, “To be honest with you, I try not to look.”
Fortuitously, in the winter of 2011 Zimmerman met a J Street U organizer. The campus group’s objective to reclaim the Jewish tradition of “vigorous debate” and “change the politics on this issue” resonated with her. Zimmerman helped start one of the earliest chapters; the group had fewer than ten chapters at the time. During the 2012-13 school year, when Zimmerman served as the group’s national president, J Street U had grown to 50 campus chapters nationwide.
When another divestment bill was introduced in Zimmerman’s senior year, J Street U worked with other Jewish students to defeat it. Zimmerman’s efforts to negotiate an alternative bill opposing the Occupation and endorsing “U.S. leadership for a diplomatic process towards a two-state solution” failed when she found unwillingness among Jewish students to speak against the Occupation. It appeared to Zimmerman that their actual goal was to “prevent any sort of public criticism and condemnation of Israel.”
Zimmerman became politically active again during the Gaza War of 2014. As the violence intensified, she met with other young Jews opposed to the war. They formed an ad hoc group called IfNotNow and held a series of vigils outside of the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations in New York City. At each vigil, they read the names of Israelis and Palestinians who had been killed and recited the mourner’s kaddish. Over several weeks, the number of participants grew, and the vigils spread nationwide.
Since then, Zimmerman has been exploring with a small group how to “build a national grassroots movement in the American Jewish community that can transform the… de facto support for the Occupation that exists in the American Jewish community.”
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.