Ethnicity less important than ideology in debate over new Muslim leader at J Street U

Despite growing up sympathetic to the Palestinians, Amna Farooqi grew closer to Zionism during college, even going so far as to spend a semester studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Amna Farooqi (photo credit: AMNA FAROOQI FACEBOOK PAGE)
Amna Farooqi
Last week’s choice of a young Muslim woman of Pakistani extraction to head the board of J Street’s campus arm has divided Jewish and Zionist organizations both in America and abroad although thus far the debate seems to be restricted to issues of ideology rather than ethnicity.
Organizations to the left of the Zionist spectrum have embraced Farooqi’s appointment as a sign that the American Jewish community has begun reaching out to demographics not usually associated with pro-Israel advocacy.
Groups already critical of J Street have cited her political views as grounds for opposition.
“For both right and left, the election of Ms. Farooqi – a secularized Muslim with long, deep, and extensive connections with Jews and Israel – reads like a text, something to be interpreted,” explained Steven Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew Union College.
“For the right, her election symbolizes the extent to which the left will go in abandoning ethnic loyalty and commitments.
For the left, her service to J Street symbolizes the potential to cross boundaries and build coalitions for peace. As with much in life, good or bad is in the eyes of the beholder.”
Despite growing up sympathetic to the Palestinians, she grew closer to Zionism during college, even going so far as to spend a semester studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Farooqi is a “unique individual,” University of Maryland Hillel director Rabbi Ari Israel told The Jerusalem Post.
“I first met Amna three years ago when, as a first-year student, she reached out to me to inquire and understand more about the magnetism of Maryland Hillel,” he recalled. “She genuinely participates in Hillel activities and is warmly embraced by our diverse student population.”
Her election was “certainly unexpected” but is also a sign that Zionism has “a broad appeal, not only to Jews but to people of all faiths,” explained Gideon Aronoff, CEO of the progressive Zionist organization Ameinu.
“We have long accepted that Christian conservatives can be strong Zionists. Now we are seeing that Muslim progressives can be strong Zionists as well,” he said.
Farooqi’s engagement with Zionist and extensive study and travel here “puts her way ahead of most American Jews in her generation,” sociologist Samuel Heilman of Queens College said.
“She reminds us that you don’t have to be Jewish, an evangelical Christian, or a politician seeking the Jewish vote to appreciate Israel or care about its future, nor does this pro-Israel feeling mean that you must oppose the idea of a Palestinian state or justice for Palestinians,” he said, adding that “only extremists trapped in identity politics could be expected to object.”
Others, however, were less sanguine about J Street’s choice.
“While it’s encouraging and reassuring to know that there are Muslims willing to publicly identify with a pro-Israel advocacy group, it leaves me wondering what the ‘J’ stands for,” David Breakstone, vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization mused.
“I would have the same reaction had an evangelical Christian been elected to the position,” he continued, explaining that he believed it was important for the group to be seen as representing “a vital element within the Jewish community.”
While he would welcome the establishment of “‘Friends of J Street’ [group from] any religion,” the organization’s effectiveness may be compromised by being headed by someone from outside the Jewish community, he asserted, adding that he was speaking personally and not on behalf of the WZO.
The Zionist Organization of America came out strongly against Farooqi, citing posts on social media that it believed represented an unacceptable bias.
In one tweet from last November, Farooqi asked why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “a d***bag,” while in another she wrote that she “wonder[ ed] what Bibi would say if Palestinians applied his logic to their situation,” quoting him saying that Iranian “aggression” must be stopped at “all costs.”
“Bibi prefers war to diplomacy,” she posted.
Zionist Organization of America President Morton Klein accused Farooqi of supporting BDS, referencing a tweet in which she posted “I don’t oppose any form of nonviolent Palestinian protest, including BDS,” although she since placed the statement in quotation marks making it unclear if she was speaking for herself or quoting a third party.
“If she is quoting someone else’s belief, it means she is endorsing that belief or she wouldn’t quote it without condemning it,” Klein said. By appointing someone who uses such language, “J Street has relinquished any tenuous claim they had to call themselves pro-Israel [and] pro-peace.”
“I don’t think it means anything that a Muslim has been elected President of J Street U,” agreed Elliot Mathias, Executive Director of Hasbara Fellowships.
“There are Zionist Jews, Christians and Muslims, and there are anti-Semitic Jews, Christians and Muslims. I don’t know Amna so I have no comment on her. On the other hand, any student that continues J Street U’s one-sided blaming of Israel for the Middle Eastern conflict will only make peace harder to attain, as well as fuel those who demonize Israel on campuses,” he said.
While Farooqi told The Jerusalem Post that she would be happy to speak with the newspaper for this article, the organization later declined to facilitate an interview.
“As a primarily, but not exclusively, Jewish organization, we are thrilled to count talented, passionate pro-Israel advocates like Amna among our ranks.
Her leadership is a testament to how and why there can be no such thing as a zero-sum solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” J Street spokeswoman Jessica Rosenblum said.
The response from American Jews has been overwhelmingly positive, she continued, calling criticism “rare” and attributing it to “far-right” elements motivated by “base bigotry and a general dislike of J Street.”
Regarding her tweets, Rosenblum said that while they were “stark and, at times, overreaching and unnecessarily harsh,” she believed that they were “reflective of the growing frustration and disaffection particularly among young adults deeply committed to a peaceful and secure future for Israel and deeply concerned that the current Israeli government’s policies of settlement expansion and occupation are jeopardizing that very future.”
“You can legitimately dislike the words here, but to dismiss the sentiment that underlies them out of hand is done at the peril of the future of pro-Israel advocacy,” she said.
JTA contributed to this report.