Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders suspended his new Jewish outreach coordinator Simone Zimmerman, his campaign said Thursday night, after reports surfaced of her harsh and foul-mouthed criticism of Israeli policies and of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“She has been suspended while we investigate the matter,” spokesman Michael Briggs told The New York Times.
Zimmerman’s appointment caused some outrage after it was revealed that she was an outspoken critic of Israel and had last year called Netanyahu a “manipulative asshole” who sanctioned mass murder of Palestinians.
Ronald S. Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, and former Anti-Defamation League chief Abe Foxman had both called on Sanders to fire Zimmerman.
“Bernie Sanders’ hiring of Simone Zimmerman as his chief adviser on Jewish issues is cause for profound concern,” Lauder said. “Does he support the positions Ms. Zimmerman espouses? If not, he should make that clear by terminating her immediately as one of his closest advisers.”
Foxman too told Jewish Insider that “Bernie Sanders needs to fire Simone Zimmerman… No amount of word changes can cure her ugly characterization of the prime minister of Israel and the Israeli army and people defending themselves.”
Jews for Bernie, a group that supports the Jewish senator from Vermont’s Democratic presidential campaign, took to Twitter Thursday to contest “smears emanating from the far right” that Zimmerman supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).
In an op-ed for JTA in 2013, Zimmerman wrote that she had “campaigned actively against divestment efforts” on her campus, the University of California, Berkeley. In the same op-ed, however, she defended the right of pro-BDS students to be heard at campus Hillels.
Zimmerman, a former J Street student activist, wrote on Facebook in March 2015 that “Bibi Netanyahu is an arrogant, deceptive, cynical, manipulative asshole,” according to the Free Beacon.
“Fuck you, Bibi… you sanctioned the murder of over 2,000 people this summer.” Zimmerman later revised the post, excising the profanity, according to the report, which featured screenshots of the original and edited posts.
Zimmerman’s appointment was defended on Twitter by Jews for Bernie group, which maintained that only “right-wing extremists” were opposed to her new role.
“Simone Z. is an anti-occupation activist, not an anti-Israel activist. Those who refuse to acknowledge the difference are extremists,” the group tweeted.
During the 2014 Gaza war, Zimmerman was one of the leaders of a group of young Jews that held regular protest vigils outside the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, reading the names of Palestinians and Israelis killed in the conflict.
She opposes Israel’s occupation, wants Hillel to allow participation by groups that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, is against Jewish federation funding for Israeli projects in the West Bank and wrote favorably of the efforts of Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-BDS group, to get “international corporations to stop profiting off human rights abuses.” (The Anti-Defamation League has called JVP one of America’s top 10 anti-Israel groups.)
“We’re paying attention to what’s happening in Israel — and we are angry,” Zimmerman said in a column on her fellow millennials in Israel’s daily Haaretz in February.
“The hypocrisy of expecting feel-good social justice projects to offset millennials’ deep outrage at the grave injustices committed by the Jewish state is almost too much to bear,” wrote Zimmerman, who is in her mid-20s. “No public relations trick can save Israel’s image. The problem isn’t with the hasbara [public relations]. The problem is nearly 50 years of occupation. The problem is rampant racism in Israeli society. The problem is attacks on human rights defenders by extremists and by the state. The problem is a Jewish establishment that ignores or justifies all of this.”
Jews who back Sanders invariably say they are doing so largely because of the candidate’s positions on socioeconomic issues. But many of these Jewish progressives also like Sanders’s questioning of American political orthodoxy on Israel. Sanders is a proponent of Israel’s security and survival, but also criticizes the Jewish state for using “disproportionate” force against the Palestinians and says the US position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to be more “evenhanded.”
But other Jews, including some inclined to vote for Sanders, are troubled by some of the candidates’ statements on Israel, including his erroneous recall in a New York Daily News interview of the number of Palestinian civilians killed in the 2014 Gaza conflict. Sanders said he thought the number was 10,000 dead, but the actual UN estimate was 1,423. (Gaza’s terrorist rulers Hamas cite a similar number of 1,462. Israel has argued that the figure for civilian deaths is likely lower, since Hamas fought out of uniform in some cases and also had an interest in misrepresenting dead gunmen as civilians. Israel has also stressed that Hamas deliberately placed Gaza civilians in harm’s way, by placing its rocket launchers and terror tunnel openings in civilian areas.) When someone in the room did a quick search for the official number and offered the corrected figure, Sanders accepted it.
Critics nevertheless seized upon the mistake and other Sanders statements as evidence that he buys into the Palestinian narrative that Israel is the primary aggressor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.