Last month, we profiled one of the fastest-growing American Jewish organizations dedicated to combating Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, a group called IfNotNow. Yesterday, one of its co-founders, Simone Zimmerman, joined an exclusive but fast-growing club: Jews detained and questioned by Israeli authorities about their political beliefs. Zimmerman and a friend, both based in Israel on work visas, were traveling back from a weekend getaway in Egypt and were stopped at Taba Border Crossing, which straddles the line between the two countries. There, according to Zimmerman, she and her friend Abby Kirschbaum were held for roughly three and a half hours, had their phones inspected, and were asked a litany of queries about their opinions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, their involvement with human-rights groups, and their interactions with Palestinians, among other topics.
“All of it was really centered around, ‘Why are you a Jew interested in Palestinians, and who are these Palestinians you know and what do you do with them?’” Zimmerman told me in a phone interview — her first with an American news outlet since the incident — from Tel Aviv, where she lives. “It felt like the main goal of the questioning was to be gathering information and mostly to scare the shit out of me and ask questions about my relationships with Palestinians.” (The spokesperson for the Israeli department that handles border crossings could not be reached for comment, but Israeli immigration authorities confirmed to Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the detention did take place.)
It’s not entirely surprising that Zimmerman was flagged. Though Kirschbaum isn’t well-known, Zimmerman has become a bold-faced name in Jewish circles in the past four years. In the summer of 2014, the Los Angeles–born woman co-founded IfNotNow, a movement of American Jews that aims to end American Jewish support for Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian populations of the occupied West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. In 2016, she burst onto the international stage when she was named as the Jewish outreach coordinator for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. However, her job there only lasted six days due to the resurfacing of an old Facebook post in which she had vehemently denounced Netanyahu.
Since then, Zimmerman has moved to Israel to continue her activism and currently works with Gisha, a 13-year-old NGO that focuses on freedom of movement for Palestinians, especially those trapped by Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, but also those who face regular detention and questioning at West Bank checkpoints. It’s somewhat ironic that a Gisha activist would be held as Zimmerman was, given that she fights against these sorts of actions when they’re done to Palestinians. While border-crossing problems due to political beliefs are commonplace for Palestinians, they’ve historically been rare for Jews from either Israel or the rest of the world. Security agents always do some light questioning of people getting on flights to or from Israel, but that’s usually it.
That’s all changing. Left-leaning activists in Israel and abroad have noticed and decried the Israeli government’s recent tendency to hold or deny entry to American and Israeli Jews due to their activist work or progressive ideologies. The phenomenon began in February 2017, when the American vice-president of the left-leaning New Israel Fund was held at Ben-Gurion International Airport and, in her words, “interrogated” three times. The story became a scandal in Jewish circles and the government eventually apologized.
But detentions of Jews have experienced an astounding spike this summer. On May 31, Israeli anti-occupation activist Tanya Rubinstein was stopped and held by the Israeli security services, the Shin Bet, at Ben-Gurion. On June 10, they detained another left-wing activist, Yehudit Ilani. On July 2, American Code Pink activist Ariel Gold was denied entry to Israel despite her claim that she had already obtained a visa. On July 18, major American Jewish philanthropist Meyer Koplow was questioned at Ben-Gurion because he had a pamphlet about Palestinian issues in his bag. On July 30, an Israeli author named Moriel Rothman-Zecher was held and grilled at Ben-Gurion by the Shin Bet due to his leftist activities. On top of that, a prominent human rights attorney who works on these kinds of cases, Emily Schaeffer Omer-Man, told me there are more cases that haven’t been reported.
“I cannot overstate how incredibly big this is,” said a spokesperson for Israeli anti-occupation organization B’Tselem, calling the recent spate of detentions “a significant change from previous practice.” “It was quite unimaginable that the [Shin Bet] would monitor activists in human rights organizations that are all clearly committed to nonviolence. It seems that there’s a new policy intended to intimidate activists that oppose government policy that goes hand in hand with other recent legislation and expressions from officials to limit free speech and freedom of political activity.”
Those policy changes have been a much-discussed feature of the Israeli government’s overall rightward drift since Netanyahu’s election victory in 2009. The central player is the country’s ministry of strategic affairs, which has been cracking down on supporters of the international, Israel-criticizing Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Last year, the Israeli parliament passed an amendment to the country’s entry laws that barred anyone who actively supported BDS from coming to Israel. The strategic affairs ministry even went so far as to publish a list of 20 pro-BDS organizations whose members are forbidden to enter the country.
It all leads to a common response from left-leaning Israelis and progressive observers around the world when it comes to the Netanyahu government: bitter resignation. “That a democracy would have political litmus tests at its borders? That would’ve seemed really extreme just a handful of years ago. Now you just shrug and say, ‘This happens now,’” said New Israel Fund vice-president for public engagement Libby Lenkinski. “Israel is often thought of as this super-unique place with super-unique circumstances, and it is in a lot of ways, but also, these measures are part of a right-wing playbook we see in other parts of the world.”
In light of all that, Zimmerman and Kirschbaum’s experience begins to make more sense. Zimmerman said she was first questioned by a woman behind the counter at the border crossing. She said she was asked about what she does when she visits the West Bank, why she goes there, why she studied Middle East studies in school, and a barrage of other queries. “She asked me, ‘You’re a Jew, so why did you come to Israel to work with Palestinians?’” Zimmerman recalled. Zimmerman said she was asked whether she’d ever made her views public and Zimmerman responded that she had recorded a video with Haaretz decrying the BDS blacklist, which further raised the woman’s suspicions.
Eventually, Zimmerman said, she was transferred to another room where a woman who Zimmerman believed to be the first woman’s boss further interrogated her and obliged her to unlock her phone, after which the woman searched through the device. Throughout the process, Zimmerman said, she was threatened with being sent back to Egypt. (The Shin Bet confirmed to Haaretz that they were aware of the questioning and provided some questions, but that they didn’t advise the border officials to ask about the women’s political views. They did vaguely refer to wanting to know whether the women were involved in “a violent protest against security forces in Judea and Samaria” — alternate geographical terms referring to the West Bank — but declined to specify what that meant.)
According to Zimmerman, when the questioners were done with her, they moved on to Kirschbaum, during which time Zimmerman tweeted extensively about what was going on and contacted various people in her networks. Soon, the attorney Omer-Man was helping them with their situation, and eventually, a parliament member named Mossi Raz got involved. According to Zimmerman, even Raz struggled to get the women released, but he contacted Haaretz reporter Noa Landau, who began reporting on the case. There was more questioning for both of the American women and Zimmerman said she was ordered to write down personal information including such oddities as her father and grandfather’s names and phone numbers.
As the detention approached the four-hour mark, according to Zimmerman, one of the women questioning her got a phone call. “All I heard was her say, ‘Oh, both of them? So why am I working so hard right now?’” Zimmerman recalled. “Then she hung up the phone, looked at me, and said, ‘Okay, we’re done, you can go.” They were dismissed with their passports and that was that. It was 11:30 and they had missed their flight back up to Tel Aviv, so they were forced to take an overnight bus.
Zimmerman isn’t sure what will come next for her as a result of yesterday’s events, but both she and Kirschbaum went out of their way to point out that it could have been a lot worse — and would have been if they’d been Arabs. As Kirschbaum put it in an official statement, “The level of surveillance and intimidation we experienced tonight was unsettling, but it is a fraction of the lived reality for the Palestinians I know and am proud to work with.”
Zimmerman is especially haunted by what she judges to be the cynical subtext of the whole interaction. Of the first woman who questioned her, Zimmerman said, “For her, the idea that Palestinians and Jews can work together and that that is connected to some kind of belief in the future of this place? I think that’s beyond her frame of reference. That’s not something she could even comprehend, so she had to say, ‘I don’t want to hear your idealism, I want to hear what your agenda is.’ But that is my agenda.” Overall, Zimmerman is concerned about what her experience portends for the Jewish state, a country she says she loves: “This attitude is leading Israel into dark places.”