Terra Incognita: Why Israel should learn from the election of Amna Farooqi

A leader like Farooqi who is non-Jewish has a way to transcend this very personal Jewish struggle with Israel.

August 23, 2015 21:52
Amna Farooqi

Amna Farooqi. (photo credit: AMNA FAROOQI FACEBOOK PAGE)

Last week J Street U elected an incoming University of Maryland senior as president of its national student board. What has raised eyebrows is that she is a Muslim woman and her parents are from Pakistan.

Commentators have been divided on whether this is a “line” that should not have been crossed.

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Some pointed out that the NAACP had a Jewish leader for many years. But others see it as a nefarious example of how J Street U is anti-Israel, as if the mere presence of a Muslim in a senior position is problematic.

Both of these analyses are wrong. The election of Farooqi is a great accomplishment, for a number of reasons. From an American standpoint of diversity and the traditional Jewish-American commitment to multiculturalism and integration, this is a fascinating bridge that has been crossed. Farooqi explained in a speech she gave to J Street how she grew up feeling close to the Jewish community. In university she felt connected to Zionism and came to Israel. J Street isn’t a religious organization, its main goal relates to lobbying for “pro-peace” policies relating to Israel. There is no contradiction in having a Muslim woman running such an organization.

The larger symbolic issue relating to Farooqi has a lot more to do with Israel. In July Hanin Majadli, an Arab woman who lives in Haifa, attended a Peace Now event. Speaking in Hebrew before what seems to have been an almost entirely Jewish audience, she said she didn’t feel part of Israeli society and that it was difficult for her to attend. “I don’t feel part of the Left in Israel,” she said.

She was then interrogated while she spoke on the panel. Why? “I’m not a privileged, Ashkenazi.”

Is the Left privileged and Ashkenazi? “Yes.”

As Majadli plowed on, you could see the unease in the audience – an audience mostly made up of people who appeared to be the exact caste she had identified: upper class Ashkenazi Jews, or Jews of European descent, who have traditionally dominated the Left in Israel. Here was a young Arab woman speaking truth to power. It’s why Amna Farooqi could probably never exist in Israel, because the Israeli Left, despite its purported “left wing” commitment to diversity, has been remarkably homogeneous and never incorporated more than a few token Arabs into its ranks since 1948.

Farooqi tells a story of being asked to play the role of Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion in one class. It is interesting to see a Muslim woman asked to play the role of a Jewish leader, but it reminds us of the remarkable failure of including Arab citizens or many other minorities in the ruling structure of the State of Israel up until today. No one expects that Ben-Gurion would have been Arab or Muslim, but after almost 70 years, the status of the Arab minority in Israel, and the resulting cleavages in society, are so broad that they seem unbridgeable.

I think of the recent story of Isawiya in Jerusalem, the 15,000-resident neighborhood the police block off routinely due to riots. It’s only a few hundred meters from the Hebrew University, the country’s premier educational institution, but it might as well be on Mars. That is part of the “united” city of Jerusalem that, despite decades of unification, is more divided today than in 1967.

One of the problems Israel faces is that of ethnocentrism.

The country is often described as a “tribal” society. Rogel Alpher, a left-wing commentator, writes about his qualms regarding supporting African migrants. “Like many members of the white caste, consisting of liberals, lefties and tolerant people, as well as other champions of human rights, deep inside I welcome... the fact that the migrants didn’t infiltrate en masse into my apartment building.” When the organization Rabbis for Human Rights did a tour of the villages of Sussiya and Umm el-Hiran that were facing demolition, they asked online “what would be the just and righteous way to treat these non-Jews living in our midst? Are they ‘gerim’ or ‘reim’ or ‘oyvim’?” The insinuation, employing Jewish religious terms, is that human rights are predicated on a very “Jewish” sense of helping the “stranger” as in the Bible. When the concept of helping others is predicated first on being Jewish, there is no room for non-Jews to play a role, especially not a leadership role.

A lot of discussions get tied up with this homogenous “us and them” approach in Israel. An article on “converts” in a left-wing newspaper shows a misleading photo of an Ethiopian Jew and ponders about all these “non-Jews” in Israel. Another article talks about “wannabe Jews” and shows photos of Asian Bnei Menashe Jews. The soft insinuation is “they are not like us, they are not Jewish.” It isn’t uncommon on Israeli comedy shows to see characters dressed up in blackface shouting in mock-Ethiopian accents.

Almost no other country in the world still has comedy programs where people smear their faces with black makeup when they want to portray a black person.

This is because no one bothers to consult black Israelis and ask whether this “comedy” is viscerally offensive.

It is one more way that those who are different are subjected to ridicule.

Outside of Israel, in the American-Jewish context there is also a tendency toward over-emphasizing the “Jewish” aspect of activism. “Another Jew supporting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions... another Jew supporting the Iran deal... Not in my name, another Jew saying end the bombing of Gaza.” These are signs held up at protest events relating to Israel in the US.

Some pro-Palestinian Jewish groups say the mourner’s kaddish for the dead in Gaza (even though as Muslims one assumes the Gazans were not consulted as to whether they want mourner’s Kaddish said for them), others place a chair for an African migrant at Passover.

Activists prattle on about their view that Israel is not a “light unto the nations” and doesn’t “represent my Jewish values,” as if the only way the state can exist is a Jewish-utopia.

A LEADER like Farooqi who is non-Jewish has a way to transcend this very personal Jewish struggle with Israel.

Better policies can result from that. Beduin deserve rights, not because they are “strangers” in Israel but because they are citizens. It doesn’t matter that one is Jewish in terms of opposing the bombing of Gaza, being Jewish doesn’t give someone’s protest some special insight, just as it doesn’t give one a special weight in supporting the Iran deal. As Shmuel Rosner pointed out, “Rabbis have no advantage over plumbers when it comes to understanding and assessing the agreement with Iran.”

A non-Jewish Pakistani might wonder why there is such a strange debate about “wannabe Jews” in Israel.

A person of color might be better attuned to understand that blackface in comedy and constantly making fun of minorities is grossly offensive, not just some sort of Israeli historical nuance. They might understand that always illustrating articles about converts with dark-skinned Jews, rather than white people, stereotypes Jews of color. When confronted by acceptance committees and segregated education, someone not from an elite milieu may wonder about stories of “social justice” when they involve the importance of what one Israeli called “maintaining a familiar environment and educational continuity” – a euphemism for having only people from the same ethnicity in various areas.

The pro-Israel and anti-Israel dialogue has become so heated and strained that these groups like J Street U or Open Hillel are in hostile conflict with other pro-Israel groups. There are a lot of clichés thrown around in these debates, and many of them require nuanced eyes. The election of Farooqi should serve as a starting point to discuss whether the insular debates have been helpful to Israel. Maybe we don’t need to concern ourselves about the number of “wannabe” Jews in Israel; or whether Beduin are “strangers” in the land.

Maybe the better thing is to think about the future of the country. Israel isn’t going to be a “light unto the nations,” and it can’t set every policy based on whether or not, “as Jews,” it is better to take in African asylum- seekers because of the suffering of the Holocaust.

Less ethnocentrism on the Right and Left is needed badly. Having more diversity provides important new viewpoints. It is a good lesson for Israel.

Follow the author @Sfrantzman

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