American Jewish Peace Archive: Simone Zimmerman02-03-2024
In lieu of the ongoing war in Gaza, the Hannah Arendt Center has decided to publish excerpts from the American Jewish Peace Archive — a project of Jewish American activist and oral historian, Aliza Becker, that is sponsored by the Center. Hoping to serve as a comprehensive archive of American Jewish activism on behalf of self-determination for both Jews and Palestinians, the Archive contains over 200 transcripts from interviews with U.S. and Israeli Jews whose activism spanned the years 1967 to 2017.
Two weeks ago, we shared an excerpt from Becker’s interview with Arthur Samuelson, who came to Israel from America as a young man in the ‘60s. Initially intrigued by the socialist ideal of the kibbutzim, Samuelson found himself on the front lines of a nascent Jewish peace movement that sought to forge dialogue and ultimately, political compromise, with the Palestinian people. Read the full transcript of Samuelson’s interview here.
Today, we are sharing a timely excerpt from activist Simone Zimmerman, who is one of the founders of the organization, IfNotNow (one of the leading Jewish organizations advocating for justice in Israel-Palestine), and who served as the national president of J Street U. Zimmerman was deeply involved with Zionist organizations in the Conservative branch of Judaism in her youth and as a member of her campus Israel Action Committee in her early days in college.
During her interview with Becker, Zimmerman tells a long story of coming to consciousness over injustice in Israel-Palestine. Notably, she remembers a tough fight at her college, UC-Berkeley, over a campus divest-from-Israel resolution. That resolution, which “called for the University to divest from…Caterpillar and United Technologies which had both provided technology for weapons that had been used during Operation Cast Lead”, inspired a strong sense of opposition from Zimmerman; she recalls that it was her personal mission “to defend and serve the Jewish people” on her campus. That seemingly unflappable position, though, started to crack once she attended a riotous student assembly where the resolution was discussed and voted on.
As she recalls:
“I remember just being floored by the stories that I heard from the students who are advocating for divestment: ‘My aunt and cousins didn't sleep for weeks when the bombs were falling overhead in Gaza. My shoulder has never been the same since I was beaten at a checkpoint.’ There was never really any acknowledgement from our side that Israel was committing any sort of human rights violations. I could go on and on about what it felt like to be in these meetings but over and over again it was this experience of, ‘Oh, my God, we're not answering their questions and something is deeply wrong here. I can't sit in a room and listen to Palestinian students talk about their experiences for this many hours and just tell myself that it's a lie. I can't look at every single one of these students and say, ‘You're a terrorist. You’re a terrorist.’’’
She later reflected, “I felt like I knew Israel better than anybody else. I had spent a lot of time there and I had a lot of family and friends there, and I just realized how much I didn't know.” She remembers going back to Hillel after a day of testimony, and asking how to respond to the issues being raised by the opposition. She recalls that “most of my questions were met with radio silence. People in the Jewish community were really scared to talk about the actual hard questions that we were being asked to answer about Israel's actions . . .”
That feeling of moral confusion was furthered when she went to Israel the following summer, and sought out Palestinian perspectives and Israeli voices of dissent. A particularly striking moment occurred when Zimmerman became engaged with the movement for those facing eviction in Sheikh Jarrah, a small neighborhood in East Jerusalem where longtime Palestinian residents were facing eviction from the Israeli government, who had plans to establish the neighborhood as a Jewish settlement. Though the ownership of Sheikh Jarrah homes has been highly contested since the ‘48 war, the grim reality of dispossession, and the heartbreak of the Palestinians who have called the neighborhood their home for more than half-a century, struck a nerve in Zimmerman, who was already in the throes of questioning her relationship to Israel.
The following excerpt is taken from a conversation between Zimmerman and Becker on May 8, 2015. It has been edited for length and clarity. The whole transcript can be read here. In this transcript of Zimmerman’s two-hour interview, Zimmerman discusses her relationship to Israel as a young person, her experience at UC-Berkeley, her time learning with Palestinians and Jewish activists in Israel, and her subsequent experience becoming involved with J Street U.
ZIMMERMAN: I'm in Jerusalem and I've reached out to a friend who is a Berkeley graduate who's on the New Israel Fund SHATIL Fellowship. And he's working on housing demolitions, and he invites me to come with him. He's also just involved with the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement. He invites me to a solidarity dinner in Sheikh Jarrah with him that night. I remember that’s the first time I had ever, at least knowingly, crossed the Green Line into a Palestinian neighborhood. We went to meet this family who were sitting outside in protest every day across from their home that had just been taken over by Jewish settlers. Israeli flags streamed across the top of the house.
And I remember just sitting and talking to this Palestinian man and he just told me about his life and about his experience and how about the situation in that neighbor that had resulted in him being kicked out of his house, his entire family just losing their home to this settler family. And there were all these funny moments during the encounter. He got a phone call from a friend and was talking to him in Hebrew. He gets off the phone and is like, "Oh, that's my Israeli friend. I love him. I don't think all Jews are bad. I think these ones are bad, but there's a lot of good Israelis out there too, and I can tell you're a good Jew also." And he had this moment where he got really emotional and he looked up at the flags and he said, "That flag could crush me at any moment. That flag represents so much power to me."
And I was so startled by that moment because to me the Israeli flag was this symbol of vulnerability in a lot of ways. I still saw Israel as being this place that was threatened and under attack and it had never occurred to me that there was another people who saw Israel as this threatening, oppressive superpower in relation to them and their lives.
I went to Pardes the next day. They were doing a day of learning, and I was a student there at the time, and I was a total wreck. I was just really upset about the night in Sheikh Jarrah, and my parents had mentioned to me that they had a good friend who is a very prominent journalist. He's considered very much a Centrist and writes to a pretty big American Jewish Zionist audience. They told me he's a really balanced, thoughtful guy and that I should just go talk to him, that he'll have something to say about my experience. So I came up and found him and I said, "Hey, I've got to ask you. I was in Sheikh Jarrah last night and I want to ask you what you think about the situation there. How do you even deal with this?" And he looks at me and he shakes his head and he says, "Listen. I live in the French Hill and I drive by Sheikh Jarrah every day on my way to work. And, to be honest with you, I try not to look." That was it—"I try not to look." That's all he had to say to me. And I think it was just, again, another one of the moments where it was so clear to me that the people that American Jews were looking to weren't reckoning with the hardest, most painful issues facing Israel in our community. And it just, again, added fuel to this fire that I just wanted to be part of a different kind of a community and a different way of engaging with my politics around Israel.