by Noah Kulwin
Early last week, the Bernie Sanders campaign announced it had hired a new director of Jewish outreach: twenty-five-year-old Simone Zimmerman*, an outspoken lefty activist with and a long history of work within the American Jewish community. Shortly thereafter, the Washington Free Beacon published a screenshot of a year-old Facebook post in which Zimmerman called the right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu “an arrogant, deceptive, cynical, manipulative asshole,” among other not-so-niceties. Abe Foxman, the retired director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), called for her immediate dismissal. Thursday night, shortly before the Democratic debate between Sanders and Hillary Clinton got underway in New York, the New York Times reported that Zimmerman had been suspended. The incident looks now like it was a two-day blip on the radar of a year-long Democratic primary battle. In the context of the overlong, meme-ridden 2016 election, that’s fair.
On Wednesday evening, seventeen young, left-leaning Jews got themselves arrested in the lobby of the Manhattan building that is home to the ADL office. They were members of a Jewish anti-occupation collective called IfNotNow, whose name is a reference to a proverb of the Jewish sage Hillel: “If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” Virtually all its members were raised in the Jewish community, and many spent time in Israel on study-abroad programs, synagogue tours or trips for Jewish youth. Many speak Hebrew or Yiddish. Simone Zimmerman is a member.
IfNotNow emerged in the summer of 2014, during the last round of intense conflict between Hamas militants and the Israeli military, a devastating war that left more than two thousand Gazans, including hundreds of children, and seventy Israelis dead. Outraged by the American Jewish establishment’s reflexive defense of Israeli military action, the group then staged a sit-in at the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization.
Ahead of this weekend’s Passover celebration, IfNotNow held “Liberation Seder” protests in five cities (New York, Chicago, Boston, Oakland and Washington). Their goal was to use civil disobedience to apply pressure to major American Jewish institutions — Hillel International in Washington, an AIPAC office in Boston — to question how military occupation can be reconciled with values of social justice and equality.
4:00: About forty people gathered at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 40th Street, just outside the entrance of the New York Public Library. Most of them were dressed in white, per instructions. Organizers handed out t-shirts that read “No Liberation With Occupation” to protesters who planned to be arrested.
The group comprised mostly twentysomething Jews, many of whom grew up attending the same day schools, summer camps and synagogues. There were more women than men present, and a handful of yarmulkes (on both men and women).
4:15: Ben Wolcott, a bearded twenty-five-year-old Maryland native who now lives in Crown Heights planned to get arrested (he succeeded). He wore a patchwork sweater that he later swapped out for a “No Liberation” shirt. Wolcott said he spent fourteen years in the Labor Zionist Jewish youth movement, Habonim Dror. After high school, he spent nine months in Israel, an experience that he says “politicized” him, forcing him to “witness occupation firsthand.”
After graduating from Swarthmore, he joined IfNotNow, which he said had reinvigorated his interest in Jewish causes. “I haven’t felt moved by my Jewishness… this is the first time I’ve been excited in many years,” he said, his voice rising. “This is a Jewish space that lives up to the values that I was taught as a kid.”
4:30: The event planners, Tom Corcoran and Lizzie Horne, stood on the steps of the library, and called the growing crowd to attention. They asked people to take a moment “to ground themselves.”
“This marks the beginning of Passover. This proves as a community, as IfNotNow, we say ‘Dayenu!” (or, enough), Corcoran said. “For too many years, Jews around the world have celebrated our own freedom while denying it to the Palestinian people.
He went on, “And what we’re going to do now is march down to the ADL, and take over that space, as a community. A radical, loving liberation seder.”
4:45: The crowd begins the walk over to the ADL, a few blocks southeast of the Library. Avner Gvaryahu, an ex-I.D.F. paratrooper studying for a master’s degree in human rights at Columbia, told me, “there are people in Israel who are following IfNotNow and what’s going here, and they’re hopeful.” Back in Israel, Gvaryahu lead tours in the occupied city of Hebron, parts of which are off-limits to Palestinians. It is a deeply violent place — late last year, the Guardian called it a “pressure cooker” and “the West Bank’s most troubled city.”
5:00: The lobby of 605 Third Avenue looked like any other in a high-priced midtown office complex: high ceilings, revolving doors, keycard access turnstiles, and stocky security guards. The protesters quickly formed a large oval in the lobby, careful to avoid blocking the entrances and exits. They set down a mock Seder plate with drawings of the shankbone, bitter root and other Passover ritual items, and began a series of readings about Jewish obligations to social justice. There were several back-and-forth chants of “Dayenu.”
“This is an institution that ought to belong to us,” one protester said. “Let’s make it a little bit harder for the ADL to keep doing what it’s doing!”
5:15: The protesters linked arms and began chanting classic songs of the American Left (“Which Side Are You On?”) and Passover hymns (“Avadim Hayinu,” or “We Were Slaves”), dancing around the lobby. An older man on his way out of the building stopped to ask an IfNotNow member about the protest. Holding up a phone with stickers identifying him as both Jewish and an alumnus of GWU, he asked if the demonstration was “pro-Israel or anti-Israel.”
“It’s against the occupation of the West Bank.”
“So it’s anti-Israel.”
“No, it’s — ”
“So you’re a left-wing, communist pinko. You’re full of shit,” he said, backing toward one of the revolving door exits. As he walked out, he did not break eye contact with demonstrators, pointing violently and mouthing “You’re full of shit.”
5:33: The first police officers showed up, from the nearby Seventeenth Precinct. Over the next twenty minutes, designated liaisons to the police informed the officers of who planned on being arrested. About a dozen cops stood outside the entrance.
5:50: The police count increased and those planning to be arrested hugged their comrades. They sat down, linked arms and began chanting. The crowd, by that point between 90 and 100 people, exited the lobby and began chanting in solidarity.
.@IfNotNowOrg, there’s more we agree on than disagree on.
Let’s talk about it. When are you free?
— ADL (@ADL_National) April 20, 2016
6:04: The Strategic Response Group, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton’s trained “protest police,” began arriving. The arresting officers were identifiable by the bundles of zip-ties attached to their belts.
6:15: Toby Irving, whose job was to stand outside the building during the demonstration and field questions from passersby, told me that her job was mostly fine, except for one guy who came up and asked her what the protest was about. She “I said it was against the occupation. He asked, ‘Occupation of what?’ I said, ‘the West Bank.’ And then he looked at me and said, ‘Fuck you, you fucking bitch.”
6:20: Arrests began. The activists formed a set of two Red-Rover-like lines, creating a path between an exit of the building and one of the vans they would use to take the arrested protesters to jail. The SRG officers zip-tied the hands of seventeen demonstrators and walked them through the two lines and into the paddy wagon. As the arrested demonstrators were marched to the vans, the IfNotNow activists began chanting the Jewish hymn, “Hine Mah Tov”:
Behold, how good
and how pleasant it is
for brothers to sit together.
As the protest wound down, a voice in the crowd shouted: “We told them we were free, when they supported freedom and dignity for all Palestinians.”
6:36: The vans with the arrested protesters drove away.
*Disclosure: When I was at U.C. Berkeley, I and a group of others that included Zimmerman co-founded the school’s chapter of J Street U, the student organizing arm of the center-left political advocacy group J Street. The year after Zimmerman served as president of the J Street U National Board, I served as the board’s West Coast Representative. I have known many of the people in this story for years. I have not been associated with J Street since finishing my term in 2014, and I have not worked with Zimmerman or anyone else in this story since then.