On Jan. 7, Harriet Zimmerman, a lifelong devotee of strengthening the U.S.-Israel partnership, passed away at the age of 86. Zimmerman was the second woman to serve on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) National Board of Directors and the first female committee chair in the organization’s history.
“She was passionately dedicated to the U.S.-Israel relationship,” said AIPAC Chief Executive Officer Howard Kohr. “She was tough, but she had a heart of gold. She had an unbelievable pride in promoting AIPAC and was able to hold her own in a male-dominated scene. She was one of AIPAC’s trailblazers.”
Born on Dec. 13, 1930, Zimmerman grew up in Brookline, MA. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in religion from Boston University and subsequently attended the Harvard Divinity School's doctoral program in Old Testament studies. She was all but dissertation when the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, which inspired her to embark on a life of pro-Israel activism.
“Harriet realized that she could make a unique and meaningful impact through pro-Israel politics,” said AIPAC Vice Chief Executive Officer Richard Fishman. “At every opportunity, she would go to the country club and social venues for the sole purpose of discussing the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
Over 35 years, Zimmerman also held leadership positions with the United Jewish Appeal, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In the early 1980s, she joined AIPAC’s Board of Directors, where she exuded a commanding presence on the board, serving as a pioneer and role model for many of her successors. As one of the first female board members, Zimmerman served as a mentor for younger women and encouraged them to take leadership roles in the pro-Israel community.
“I know the term is overused, but Harriet was a ‘force’…a force in that she earned her way to becoming one of the first women AIPAC Officers [now known as board members], a force when it came to building strong, personal relationships with so many in Congress who went on to become leadership in both parties, and a force in the way she believed so passionately in a strong U.S.-Israel relationship that, when she addressed a gathering, people wanted to join her...and AIPAC,” said former AIPAC President Amy Friedkin.
Current board member Russell Holdstein said Zimmerman had a “real influence” on his initial involvement at AIPAC: “Harriet was a kind, gracious and savvy person. I immediately knew she was someone I would learn from. She took me under her wing when I joined the board. She introduced me to Sen. Tom Carper from Delaware. I still have a strong relationship with him. She had such a unique personality and always stayed focused on AIPAC’s mission. She accomplished more than any two people I ever knew.”
Zimmerman was later appointed to the National Endowment of the Humanities and served on the Board of the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University, the Board of the Democratic Leadership Council and the Board of the United States Institute of Peace. She also attended Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meier's funeral as part as the U.S. delegation.
In addition to pro-Israel politics, Zimmerman played a major role in fundraising for the Democratic Party. She worked on Sen. Harry “Scoop” Jackson’s campaign in the 1970s and served as Chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Presidential Campaign during Jimmy Carter’s run for office in 1976.
Through her involvement in Democratic politics, she was able to build relationships with key members of Congress on pro-Israel issues.
“Harriet had real relationships with members of Congress, their families and their staff,” said Kohr. “She recognized the importance of establishing relationships with members of Congress across the country. She would travel to small states like Iowa and South Dakota to get to know Senators Tom Daschle and Tom Harkin. She reached out to states with little to no Jewish communities and really knew the senators on a personal level.”
Calling her an “early mentor,” former AIPAC President Tim Wuliger said, “After joining AIPAC's board, I accompanied Harriet periodically on some of her Hill visits. She had developed a close relationship with Senator Tom Daschle, and she coached me on the art of relationship-building before and after our visits to his office. She was sophisticated, approachable, articulate and quick to laugh. I miss her wisdom and her friendship.”
Zimmerman was also deeply involved in AIPAC’s regional network of activists, serving as AIPAC’s Palm Beach County Chair for approximately 20 years. “She was as passionate as any AIPAC professional. During the years I worked in Florida, I would spend hours at her kitchen table discussing ways to promote the pro-Israel movement,” said Fishman. “She truly believed in the partnership between AIPAC staff and lay leadership. She thought of us as part of her family.”
She was predeceased by her husband, Jerome Zimmerman, and is survived by her children, Claire Marx, Robert Altschuler and Nancy O'Leary; stepchildren, Layne Zimmerman, Ellen Kaufman, Scott Zimmerman; 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
May her memory be a blessing.
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