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How Bernie Sanders's Jewish outreach coordinator started a major controversy over Israel

Simone Zimmerman (center).
(If Not Now/Gili Getz)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Presidential campaign staff come and go; it's the nature of the operative's grueling lifestyle. But last week's suspension of Simone Zimmerman, Bernie Sanders's Jewish outreach coordinator, was very, very different. For one thing, she was only at the job for two days. Her "suspension" wasn't about burnout; it was the result of a controversy that tapped into a much larger debate over nature of the Sanders campaign and the future of the American Jewish community's approach to Israel.

On its face, the suspension was about a few intemperate remarks Zimmerman made on her Facebook page about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March 2015, before joining the Sanders campaign. She described him as "arrogant, deceptive, cynical, manipulative asshole," adding in a "fuck you" for good measure.

Probably not the smartest thing to say, and you've seen a predictably large mainstream pro-Israel backlash to Zimmerman's comments. But there's also been a backlash to that backlash, left-wingers criticizing Bernie for backing down. It's a giant, mostly intra-Jewish fight over what it means to be pro-Israel today — as well as a neat window into the Bernie campaign's struggles to engage on foreign policy.

Zimmerman's hiring was a slap in the face to the traditional Jewish establishment

(J Street)

I should disclose that Zimmerman is a personal friend. I met her through a mutual acquaintance when she was in college in 2013, and we've seen each other a handful of times since.

Knowing Zimmerman makes this controversy a bit baffling. If the Sanders campaign had done a little bit of research, it would have been obvious that Zimmerman's hiring would provoke a backlash. She has made a career out of high-profile attacks on the mainstream leadership of traditional Jewish organizations.

Zimmerman entered left-wing activism while a student at — naturally — UC-Berkeley. She entered college with more mainstream views about Israel, the New York Times' Jason Horowitz reports, but started to have doubts about the justness of Israel's policy toward Palestinians during her time at Berkeley. Eventually, she joined J Street, the upstart pro-peace lobby founded in 2007, which became her passion. She was elected president of its student arm, J Street U, in 2012.

After graduation, Zimmerman continued her activism. During the 2014 Gaza war, she founded an organization called If Not Now, a protest group that aims to change the conversation among American Jews on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

If Not Now, in particular, exemplifies Zimmerman's approach to the conflict. The group believes that the American Jewish community's largely unconditional support for Israel makes the community complicit in the suffering of Palestinians — and aims to put direct pressure on American Jewish leaders to become more critical of the occupation.

"The out-of-touch leadership of the American Jewish establishment tells us – young Jews who believe all people should have freedom and dignity – that our values are incompatible with our tradition," If Not Now's website says. "As long as a fearful American Jewish community ostracizes those who see the Palestinians as human beings, deserving of the same things we wish for ourselves, we cannot live with dignity."

In practice, that means staging sit-ins and protests at meetings of mainstream Jewish organizations, such as the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC or Hillel.

The intellectual inspiration for this approach comes from an influential 2010 New York Review of Books essay by Peter Beinart, titled "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment." In it, Beinart argued that what mainstream Jewish organizations, like the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League, were losing touch with young Jews. Their staunch pro-Israel stance alienated a newer generation of Jews more critical of the occupation.

Photo from a J Street U meeting in 2011.

In order to preserve any affection for Israel among younger Jews, Beinart argued, mainstream Jewish organizations need to champion what's called "liberal Zionism." Liberal Zionism supports the existence of Israel, but believes that its continued occupation of Palestinian land is fundamentally devastating to the ideals and even long-term survival of the Zionist project. In order to save American Zionism, Beinart argued, the American Jewish leadership needs to start criticizing Israel more.

This argument made Beinart hugely controversial in the American Jewish community — and a personal hero of Zimmerman's. While she was involved in J Street U, a popular T-shirt among members had a stenciled picture of Beinart's face with the caption "Beinart's Army" under it. He later became something of a mentor to her, hiring her to work on his short-lived Daily Beast blog Open Zion.

So when Sanders hired her, the campaign should have known that they were courting a major controversy. They hired an activist whose main claim to fame was staging demonstrations targeting some of the pillars of mainstream American Jewish life. The only reason to hire someone like Zimmerman is to make a statement: you stand with her, Beinart, and other dissidents from the "Jewish establishment" consensus.

What the backlash against Zimmerman reveals about Bernie

you wanna piece of this (Vox)

Hiring Zimmerman was controversial enough. But after the "fuck you" comments came to light, the trickle of outrage became a torrent.

Prominent American Jewish leaders — some of whom had been personally protested by If Not Now — were outraged.

"I believe Bernie Sanders needs to fire Simone Zimmerman," Abe Foxman, former head of the Anti-Defamation League, 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."

Even some liberal Jews thought that keeping her on staff wasn't a smart move for a Bernie campaign attempting to court Jewish voters. Jewish outreach coordinators, the argument goes, should be able to reach out to all Jews — not just the ones who share their left-wing views on Israel-Palestine.

"The question, to me, is not whether it’s OK as a matter of principle to [have] called Netanyahu an asshole — he most assuredly is," Michelle Goldberg wrote in Slate. "It’s whether a Democratic candidate for president can afford to be associated with that sentiment."

Hypothetically, the Bernie campaign could have stuck by Zimmerman. It would have been controversial, to be sure, but hardly a death blow to his campaign.

To Foxman, they could have admitted that, while Zimmerman's language choice was certainly intemperate, she was right to be angry about Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. She could apologize for the language without taking back the sentiment.

To critics like Goldberg, they could say that the purpose of their campaign is mobilizing Jews like Zimmerman. Challenging the Democratic Jewish establishment's consensus on Israel would be part of the campaign's broader attack on the Democratic establishment's complacent liberalism. A major theme of Sanders's campaign, after all, has been that he's mobilizing a silent left-wing majority of progressive Americans. Why shouldn't the "political revolution" extend to Israel policy?

Indeed, Goldberg herself suggested this was an option. "If the Sanders campaign is about broadening the space for progressive ideas in American politics, hiring a leader like Zimmerman is a great idea," she writes.

But while Sanders did hire her, it wasn't for long.

"She has been suspended while we investigate the matter," Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs told the New York Times. I've asked the Sanders campaign repeatedly to clarify the nature the "investigation," or the duration of Zimmerman's suspension, but so far haven't heard anything.

What this suggests, then, is that Sanders isn't very committed to mainstreaming left-wing foreign policy (or that he thinks keeping Zimmerman on would set back that cause).

While he's successfully taken an aggressive stance on domestic issues, seemingly boxing Clinton into supporting a $15 minimum wage (for example), foreign policy has taken a backseat. In debates, he often sounds uncomfortable talking about foreign policy. And foreign policy isn't a huge part of his stump speech, or a major theme in the out-of-debate attacks his campaign has launched against Clinton.

Early in the campaign, you could blame this on a lack of advisers, but he now has a reasonable slate of foreign policy experts working with his campaign. This is clearly a strategic choice on his campaign: Prioritize domestic policy and sideline the foreign stuff.

One can debate the political merits of this decision. But it's very striking when it comes to Israel, an issue on which he has demonstrated real fluency.

At the last Democratic debate, just hours after his campaign suspended Zimmerman, Sanders was in strong form during an argument with Clinton over Israel. He did an impressive job articulating a liberal Zionist position not terribly far from Zimmerman's, arguing that supporting Israel "100 percent" is compatible with recognizing the damage the occupation is doing to Palestinians. He even talked about his time living in Israel, on a collective farm called a kibbutz.

Yet, when faced with a chance to highlight these sorts of arguments by standing by Zimmerman, they backed down almost immediately. That could be because they decided that defending Zimmerman would set the liberal Zionist cause back. Or it could be that Sanders doesn't care nearly as much about promoting a left approach to Israel as he does about economic policy, as sincere as his convictions on the issue seem to be.

Now there's some rare anger at Sanders on the left

Almost as soon as Sanders suspended Zimmerman, he faced another wave of criticism — this time from the left.

Take, for instance, freelance writer Jesse Myerson's piece in the Marxist magazine Jacobin. Myerson is a huge Sanders booster — he wrote an entire cover story in the Village Voice lauding Sanders's approach to Judaism as the best American Jewry had to offer. Yet he harshly attacked Sanders, accusing him of lacking the courage of his convictions on Israel.

"Millions of Americans vociferously agree with Sanders, and the bloody rubble in Gaza testifies that 'it is just too late for establishment politics,'" he wrote, using a quote from a Sanders speech. "If he means it, he’ll reinstate Zimmerman."

He wasn't alone. Suspending Zimmerman was "cowardly," according to Allison Kilkenny, co-host of the left-wing podcast Citizen Radio. "Simone wasn't saying anything radical," she continued. "It was very, very disappointing to see the Sanders campaign capitulate to that kind of smear tactic."

You can find more of these sentiments if you surf Twitter for #IStandWithSimone, where there's a fairly healthy number of tweets from the past week:

These critics, to be clear, have a lot less political clout then the ones calling for Zimmerman's firing. And no prominent Bernie supporters have threatened to abandon him over the Zimmerman kerfuffle. It seems exceedingly unlikely to hurt the Sanders campaign in any meaningful way.

This is, beyond just this one campaign or this one election, the first of what is likely to be many skirmishes in the war over the future of American Jewry. And it's not clear how they'll go.

Right now, clearly, the balance of power in the Jewish community favors a more traditional vision of Zionism. But if Beinart's thesis is correct, and younger Jews really are more critical of Jews than the older generation, then sheer numbers could start to turn the tables. Dismissing the #IStandWithSimone crowd will become harder, both for mainstream Jewish organizations and Democratic candidates for office.

"Simone Zimmerman cares about Israel," Beinart wrote in a Ha'aretz column on the affair. "Treat people like her as the enemy and you make enemies of the best of the younger American Jewish generation."

Now, Beinart could very well be wrong — the polling data is mixed, and quite difficult to parse. If he is, then Zimmerman and her ilk will continue to lose. If they can't get the most successful, most left-wing Jew ever to make a serious run for the presidency to have their back, then who would?

But if he's right, and Zimmerman is a harbinger rather than an outlier, then she can leave the affair with some satisfaction. Her views are getting more attention as a result of the controversy, and at least some people are rallying on her behalf — and social movements thrive on attention.

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