On March 5, 2019, the Israeli NGO B’Tselem announced the hiring of Simone Zimmerman to lead the group’s US political operations. B’Tselem opened its US lobbying office in 2008, but the visibility of this operation has been minimal. To date, this Israeli political group, funded primarily by European governments, has primarily gained influence in Europe and the UN.
The hiring of Zimmerman to expand the impact in the US is entirely consistent with B’Tselem’s increasing emphasis in promoting the isolation of Israel and agitating for international sanctions against the country.
Zimmerman is a co-founder of IfNotNow (INN), a US-based fringe group using highly polarizing tactics in attacking American Jewish institutions citing supposed “support for occupation.” In February 2019, group members went so far as to picket Shabbat prayer services at the University of Texas-Austin, which included a scheduled talk by an IDF veteran. In addition to staging noisy protests and sit-ins, the group has gained notoriety for harassing Birthright participants and staging publicity stunts during Birthright trips.
Although largely rejected or ignored by the mainstream Jewish community, INN has cultivated links with radical Palestinian groups. It’s “Liberation Syllabus” includes books by the late Ghassan Kanafani, a spokesperson for the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), designated as a terrorist organization by the US, EU, Canada, and Israel.
Zimmerman also very, very briefly served as “national Jewish outreach coordinator” for US Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. She was dismissed as a result of profanity-laced social media posts, accusing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of sanctioning “the murder of over 2,000 people” during the 2014 Gaza War.
In her new position, Zimmerman will expand B’Tselem’s efforts to shape “soft power” pressure against Israel, adding to the efforts of Executive Director Hagai El-Ad and other B’Tselem staffers. The new anti-Israel members of Congress are prime targets for B’Tselem’s strategy, as well as increasing lobbying with UN and other international frameworks for international intervention against Israel.
The addition of Zimmerman “to amplify B’Tselem’s voice among U.S. policymakers and the broader public,” is additional evidence that the Israeli organization has eschewed genuine human rights work vis-à-vis Israeli audiences, in favor of fringe political advocacy that seeks to add to the polarization in both Israel and the American Jewish community.
In turn, given B’Tselem’s reliance on funding from European governments (approximately two-thirds of the NGO’s total annual budget) the hiring of Zimmerman is likely to sharpen the conflict between Israel and Europe over the latter’s role in promoting NGO interference. As B’Tselem seeks to further polarize the relationship between Israel and the Jewish community in the US, the criticism of European funding will become even more salient than it has been already.