How the latest Bernie Sanders Israel Controversy Over Simone Zimmerman Misses the Point

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In the war to silence criticism of Israel, the Palestinian voice is the ultimate target.
Last week, progressives celebrated Senator Bernie Sanders’ appointment of Simone Zimmerman, an activist opposing Israeli occupation, as the Jewish Outreach Coordinator of his presidential campaign. Their celebration would be short.
Right-wing blogs scoured her Facebook page for incriminating information, and institutions purporting to represent the Jewish community demanded she be fired. Just two days later, the Sanders campaign suspended her.
Celebration became outrage. The hashtag #IStandWithSimone trended on social media and thousands signed a petition demanding Zimmerman’s reinstatement. Articles and op-eds condemned Sanders and the Jewish institutions that pressured him, rightfully pointing out that Zimmerman’s politics on Israel represent a generational shift in the U.S. Jewish community. But most of the conversation failed to link Zimmerman with a broader Palestinian-led movement that is systematically silenced, especially those engaging in Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) to pressure Israel.

As a young Jewish woman who has felt unwelcome in Jewish spaces, I’m encouraged by the outpouring of support for Zimmerman. My Brandeis University chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) was the only Jewish group on campus barred from joining Hillel, and we continue to be pushed out of synagogues, nonprofits, and other Jewish spaces. It’s no secret that Jewish institutional leadership’s unquestioning support for Israeli policies is out of touch with the values of many Jewish people. The growth of organizations like JVP, Open Hillel, Tikkun and If Not Now is filling in that gap by building Jewish communities working toward justice. Meanwhile, Jews of color, sephardim, and Mizrahim are fighting for full inclusion in an institutional world that systematically denies their existence.
Zimmerman is only the latest target of an international strategy to silence Palestinians and their allies by misrepresenting Jewish opinion, conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism, and spreading racism and Islamophobia. As the Palestinians and others involved in BDS campaigns reframe the debate as one of liberation or oppression, and as Israel’s government barrels toward fascism, defenders of the status quo are losing public support. That’s why Jewish institutions in Israel and the U.S. are funding multimillion-dollar projects to muzzle Israel’s critics – especially Palestinians themselves.
Campuses are a major front in this battle. The group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), usually led by Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, and other people of color, successfully unites broad coalitions of progressive and identity-based groups in calling for divestment from Israeli occupation and linking Israeli apartheid with other forms of racism and colonialism. Approximately 30 U.S. student bodies have approved divestment thus far. Interestingly, Zimmerman herself fought BDS as a student organizer with J Street, but that hasn’t shielded her from the same right-wing backlash.
Jewish groups who fight BDS, increasingly viewed on campuses as reactionary and racist, deploy accusations of antisemitism as a silencing tactic. The Zionist Organization of American just enlisted 35 New York State lawmakers in an attempt to ban SJPs on all City University of New York campuses. Right-wing groups at the University of California tried to pressure the UC Regents into condemning anti-Zionism as a form of discrimination. SJP chapters face disproportionate penalties in school disciplinary processes, like the Northeastern University chapter that was suspended after distributing fliers. Websites like Canary Mission smear student Palestine activists with the explicit goal of reaching would-be employers. And professors face intense scrutiny as well: University of Illinois fired the Palestinian Professor Steven Salaita for tweets critical of Israel just days after he was hired.
Even more frightening are legal and legislative measures to intimidate Palestinian activists. Rasmea Odeh, a leader in Chicago’s Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim communities, faces charges of immigration fraud, which activists see as a pretext to attack her political organizing. At the federal level and in over 20 states, lawmakers are legislating against the BDS movement by denying public funding or pension fund investments to institutions or companies that refuse to do business in Israel or Israel’s illegal settlements.
Strong coalitions of progressive and legal organizations have emerged to fight, and often defeat, these censorship measures. But the message remains clear: Palestinians in the U.S. can face chilling consequences for raising their voices and others who speak up for their rights may as well, Simone Zimmerman being one example.
The silencing of BDS isn’t so much about the tactic, but the question of whether Palestinians are allowed to speak for themselves. Economic pressure is a time-honored set of tactics, employed in historic campaigns for labor unions, civil rights, and freedom for South Africa. The demands of the BDS call (drafted in 2005 by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations) are becoming increasingly mainstream: end the Israeli occupation, grant equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority is more beholden to Israeli leaders than its own people, Israel is not a willing partner for peace, and negotiations are going nowhere. So why has BDS become a red line for Jewish institutions, many of whom claim to support a Palestinian right to self-determination? Because it’s what Palestinians themselves are demanding.
The voices of Jews on Israel are being heard – until they dare to align themselves with the actual demands of Palestinian people. Sanders’ decision to suspend Zimmerman has rightly sparked a national debate in the Jewish community. But where is that conversation whenever Jewish institutions try to quash BDS? If Jews truly care about justice, let’s listen to what Palestinians are asking of us: to end our economic and political complicity in Israeli oppression. Let’s work to ensure that Palestinian voices are heard. When the pro-Israel right-wing attacks courageous Jews like Simone Zimmerman, let’s remember that Palestinians themselves are the real target. And when we defend her, let’s defend them too.
Editor’s note:Tikkun has not taken a stand on BDS of Israel, though it has supported BDS against companies doing business from the West Bank settlements or making products or services explicitly for the West Bank settlers. In our last issue on Israel we had people on all sides of the BDS question, and will revisit it again in 2017. Liza Behrendt is speaking for herself and not the magazine which prefers to be a safe place for all sides of the BDS question to present their positions.
Liza Behrendt is an organizer for the Boston chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, a national, grassroots organization working for peace and justice for all Israelis and Palestinians. JVP is a 501c3 that does not endorse candidates.