Last August, a synagogue in Flatbush, Brooklyn held a town hall to discuss the merits of the Iran deal — the Obama administration's plan to drop sanctions in exchange for controls on the country's nuclear program. In the back of the sanctuary, a small group of demonstrators held up a silent protest in support of the deal, hoisting a sign that read: "Another Jew who says no war with Iran."
The protesters were ejected from the room. A congregant called them "Arabs," and another muttered: "You're going to send all of us to the gas chambers." One of the protesters ejected that day was Simone Zimmerman — and on Tuesday Bernie Sanders announced she would be his National Jewish Outreach Coordinator.
Zimmerman is the co-founder and leader of the Jewish Group IfNotNow, a coalition of activists who came together during Israel's assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014, when nearly 1,462 Palestinians civilian — including 495 children — were killed in the Israeli war with Hamas. That summer, Zimmerman and IfNotNow held candlelight vigils outside the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York, where she and other protestors read names of both the Palestinians and Israelis killed.
Zimmerman has penned a number of articles for progressive Jewish publications condemning the Israeli government, its occupation of Palestinian lands, and American Jewish institutions that, in her view, uncritically support Israeli policies. "No public relations trick can save Israel's image…. The problem is nearly 50 years of occupation," she wrote in a February 2016 op-ed in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "The problem is rampant racism in Israeli society."
Zimmerman has not been meek in her criticism of Israeli policies, or of its prime minister. The conservative website the Washington Free Beacon published an article on Wednesday, highlighting some of the aggressive language Zimmerman used to describe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Facebook post last March. "Fuck you, Bibi, for daring to insist that you legitimately represent every fraction of the Jewish world," she wrote using Netanyahu's nickname. She also accused him of "sanctioning the murder' of over 2,000 Palestinian civilians in Gaza' — echoing Sanders criticism of the 2014 Gaza War.
After Zimmerman's Facebook posts, which she later edited to remove swear words, became public, the former head of the Anti-Defamation League Abe Foxman called on Sanders to fire her. "I believe Bernie Sanders needs to fire Simone Zimmerman," he said in an email to Jewish Insider. "No amount of word changes can cure her ugly characterization of the Prime Minister of Israel and the Israeli army and people defending themselves."
That Sanders, who would be the nation's first Jewish president, has tapped a Jewish organizer with a history of criticizing Israel and challenging Jewish institutions comes as no surprise to Daniel Sieradski, the head of Jews For Bernie, a New York PAC supporting the senator's presidential bid. "Sanders isn't just the anti-establishment candidate, he's the anti-Jewish establishment candidate," Sieradski explained. "Bernie is seen as being refreshingly honest about the topics Jewish voters care about."
In Zimmerman, Sanders found a vocal critic of Israel who also has deep roots in the Jewish community — she grew up attending Jewish day school in Los Angeles and became involved in Jewish activism while attending UC Berkeley. In college, Zimmerman became a leader with J Street — a Jewish advocacy organization that's tried to stake out a position on the dovish-side of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the goliath pro-Israel organization that often dominates the national conversation about Israel policy. After college, she worked briefly at the Daily Beast, helping Jewish-American journalist Peter Beinart run the "Open Zion" blog — a forum that hosted a freewheeling debate on Israeli policy and the future of the Jewish-American politics. Beinart applauded Zimmerman's new role in the Sanders campaign and said she was "deeply committed to the Jewish community."
Until her appointment by Sanders, Zimmerman was best known as a leader with IfNotNow, an organization she helped found with a group of like-minded young Jewish activists upset by traditional Jewish organizations' hesitation to stand up for Palestinian rights. "We believe that we represent the majority of the American Jewish community," Yonah Lieberman, a co-founder of IfNotNow explained. "We represent a shift from a view that Palestinians are a direct threat to Jews and Israelis, to a view that the occupation and the denial of freedom and dignity from the Palestinians is the greatest challenge."
Zimmerman's appointment comes at a key moment for Sanders — he's less than a week away from the New York state primary and is campaigning heavily in New York City, where typically nearly 20 percent of Democratic primary voters are Jewish.
And on the doorstep of that key primary, Sanders put his foot in his mouth. In an interview with the New York Daily News editorial board on April 4, the Senator inflated the civilian death toll of Israel's 2014 war in Gaza; he said that 10,000 civilians died, when the number was closer to 1,400. That provoked Israeli-American politician and former Israeli Ambassador to the UN Michael Oren to accuse Sanders of "blood libel" — a reference to a medieval anti-semitic canard that accused Jews of baking with the blood of Christian children.
Sanders is now lagging behind Clinton with Jewish voters going into the New York primary. A new poll released by Sienna shows Clinton leading Sanders 60-38 among Jewish voters — that's a better margin than her overall lead in the state of 52-41. On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton nabbed endorsements from 12 of the 14 Jewish members of the New York City Council.
One of those supporters, Councilman David Greenfield, an official Clinton surrogate, called Zimmerman an "anti-Israel activist." He also drew attention on Twitter to the fact that, in the past, Zimmerman agreed to participate in events attended by activists with the BDS movement — a grassroots campaign to boycott, divest, and sanction Israeli institutions. Greenfield did not respond to requests from VICE News for comment, but announced on Twitter Thursday that he would be discussing Zimmerman's "anti-Israel" views on his radio show that evening.
Kalman Yeger, a longtime Jewish Democratic activist, who's an elected member of the Democratic County Committee in Brooklyn, called Zimmerman's appointment "scary."
"Fundamentally the question that I have is: does she represent Bernie Sanders worldview. If she does that's extremely scary… that means that the candidate doesn't understand who the good guys are and the bad guys are" Yager said. He plans to vote for Clinton in Tuesday's' primary.
But Sieradski with Jews for Bernie, dismissed the attacks against Zimmerman as alarmist. "She's not some anti-Israel radical," he said. "She wants the community have an open convsration about the occupation and what the repercussions are."
Zimmerman's critique of Israeli policy is in line with how younger Jews approach Israel, says Beinart, her former boss at Open Zion Blog. "Simone is someone represents the best of those younger American Jews who want to change the conversation," he said.
It's true that according to the latest Gallup polling, younger Americans — those between 18-29— view Israel's policies in the Middle East as "unjustified." Those are the voters that the Sanders campaign is after, says Sieradski with Jews for Bernie. "The campaign has made a conscious choice not to win the right-wing pro-Israel vote," he said.
Beinart said he doesn't think Zimmerman's obvious dislike for Netanyahu will be a liability for the Sanders campaign. "The most right-leaning Jewish voters in New York, they aren't going to vote for Sanders anyway," he said. "[But] if you look at progressive voters throughout the country, they are not fans of Netanyahu."
Though neither Zimmerman nor the Sanders campaign responded to request for comment about her appointment, it's clear that Zimmerman has been a Sanders fan for sometime. After the Senator won the New Hampshire primary, she celebrated the victory on her Facebook page, and took a dig at the Senator's opponent, Hillary Clinton. "The first Jew in history just won a primary, as a proud socialist calling for political revolution, she wrote. "Hil[lary] thinks she can win us back with hawkish Israel policies? Wake the fuck up."
Follow Avi Asher-Schaprio on Twitter: @AASchaprio