Amna Farooqi, the new president of J Street U, the campus branch of the liberal, self-described pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby group, is a Muslim of Pakistani descent.
She has no plans to convert to Judaism, though she does consider herself “culturally Jewish,” having grown up in heavily Jewish Montgomery County Maryland.
She has long been open about her biography; she gave a keynote speech at J Street’s convention this past spring, in which she opened by highlighting her heritage, which makes her Zionism all the more remarkable to some and unbelievable to others.
Reaction to Farooqi’s election at J Street U’s summer leadership retreat roughly two weeks ago brought about swift backlash online. From the relatively mild “Weren’t there any Jews running?” to being labeled “an anti-Israel Muslim” and leader of a “Jewashed [Students for Justice in Palestine].”
“I know that I’m not Jewish and that’s very scary for a lot of people, and I do understand that in some ways, but I’m coming to this work because I care deeply about the people in Potomac and the people in Israel and the people in Palestine,” said Farooqi. “I’m doing this because I care, and I have an entire movement of people who care.”
Tali deGroot, a newly elected J Street U vice president for the Southeast Region who is Jewish, said that four students ran for J Street U’s presidency. Two were Jewish and two non-Jewish.
Farooqi brushes off the online criticism.
“J Street U is really the place where I learned to be pro-Israel, where I learned to care about Israel and securing its Jewish and democratic future and opposing the occupation, not just because it’s morally corrosive to Israel’s future, but also because of the threat it poses to Israel.”
She doesn’t shy away from using social media to voice her opinion; her tweets concerning “occupation” and her less-than-flattering opinion of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have raised eyebrows and been used by some critics as proof that J Street U is not pro-Israel.
Ultimately, she said, she doesn’t have time to focus on the backlash; she has a job to do.
As J Street U president, she explained, it’s her job to guide the group, strategize with her regional vice presidents and implement J Street’s goals on campus. Looking ahead, she said J Street U will continue to lobby American Jewish communal organizations and their leadership to be more transparent in where funds are going — especially if money is going over the green line — and to continue to press the larger Jewish community to “address the occupation.”
“We think that a lot of things that the American Jewish community is worried about traces back to the occupation, and they don’t put that together in their minds,” said Farooqi.
She reiterated that J Street U is opposed to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, does not co-sponsor Apartheid Week and similar events sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine.
(She said she attended one SJP meeting her freshman year and was “very turned off by the one-sided rhetoric.”)
Eric Rozenman, Washington director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, which is active on more than 55 campuses through CAMERA on Campus, agreed that the hype, particularly on social media, regarding Farooqi’s election has been overblown, especially, he said, because she’s not the first American Muslim college student to be vocally pro-Israel.
What would be more remarkable, he said, is if a Jewish, Zionist student were elected to the head of a Muslim Student Association. That’s never going to happen, Rozenman said, because so much of the “other side” isn’t about criticism of Israel, it’s about “delegitimization of Israel” as a Jewish state.
“J Street U [students] may be pro-Israel, but they have an inclination to want to bridge the gap with groups that are anti-Israel, like SJP,” said Rozenman. “I’m not sure you can split that difference.”
He continued that for J Street and J Street U to be “continually harping” other Jewish organizations about the two-state solution is an example of “Jews looking through the wrong end of the telescope.”
“If the ‘occupation’ was a huge stumbling block, the Palestinian leadership could have agreed to any one of those [previous peace] offers,” said Rozenman. “That they’ve never submitted a counter offer indicates something else is going on.”
Farooqi readily shares that her path to Zionism started as far more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
“My first, first Israel memory is a ‘We Support Israel’ sign outside of Har Shalom and these other places and knowing that I didn’t agree with that because I was reading about settlement expansion, Operation Cast Lead,” said Farooqi. “I knew that my parents were never anti-Israel because they were always sensitive that there are people in Israel who want peace, but they were critical of its policies, so I grew up knowing Israel as a place I did not have warm feelings toward.
“And I still came to love it.”
Sitting in a coffee shop not far from her parents’ home in Potomac, Md., Farooqi explains that her journey to Zionism began with a fight.
In the fall of Farooqi’s senior year of high school, the Palestinian Authority submitted a bid for statehood to the United Nations. As editor of Churchill High School’s student newspaper, Farooqi wanted to write an op-ed in support of the PA’s bid. This led to an unexpected shouting match with a close Jewish friend.
“Clearly, this is something that means a lot to me because I’m crying. It means a lot to her because she’s screaming,” said Farooqi. “That led me into learning more about the conflict.”
And eventually J Street.
A frequent volunteer at the Misler Center, an adult day center in Rockville, Md. where her grandparents received Jewish Council for the Aging services, Farooqi overheard another volunteer criticizing J Street as a “group of liberal bastards who want to annihilate Israel.”
“I was terrified because I thought it was some fringe right-wing Muslim group that was anti-Israel,” said Farooqi. “I went on their website and it was pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, two states and I was like, this lines up with everything I believe in.”
As a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park she began attending Hillel — where she says she continues to enjoy a welcoming atmosphere from the staff and UMD Hillel director Rabbi Ari Israel in particular — and taking Israel Studies classes.
“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,” said Israel. “I saw her again a few weeks later purchasing challah at Hillel on Erev Shabbat; I knew then and still know now that she is a unique individual. She genuinely participates in Hillel activities and is warmly embraced by our diverse student population.”
Her full Zionist conversion occurred spring of her freshman year when she was picked to take on the role of the first Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in a seminar led by Professor Paul Scham. The scenario revolved around the 1937 Peel Commission, during which the British investigated unrest in pre-state Israel. Students there role played prominent Zionists, Arabs and Britons, arguing, debating and negotiating their historical figures’ points of view.
Scham, executive director of the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studes at UMD, said he intentionally tries to have students take on historical figures who don’t share the same heritage in order to spur discussion.
“I got into fights with my [Ze’ev] Jabotinsky all the time,” said Farooqi, laughing.
In investigating her role, she stumbled upon the book “David Ben-Gurion: In His Own Words” in the stacks of UMD’s McKeldin Library. She recalled poring over the short book, a compilation of Ben-Gurion’s thoughts on Zionism, Judaism and philosophy, late into the night. Ben-Gurion’s message of communal responsibility resonated with her.
“Zionism stopped being certain political consequences,” said Farooqi. “It started being this entire ideology of taking responsibility for one’s people, and that’s something that really spoke to me.”
Scham, who taught Amna twice her freshman year, is not surprised by Farooqi’s election.
“Amna is surprising in the abstract,” he said. There are “a lot of students who aren’t Jewish who sympathize with Israel, but feel that the Palestinians need a fair shake as well, [so] certainly it’s unusual, but, knowing her, it isn’t.”
He added, “I think it shows a mature choice for J Street that puts non-Jews who strive for peace into leadership roles, even if they’re not Jewish.”
Her journey of discovery continued her sophomore year during a spring semester spent abroad at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
“I was meeting Israelis and Palestinians. I went into the West Bank a lot. I made Israeli friends. I wanted to actually understand.”
Inspired by her time in Israel and disheartened with the breakdown of Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed peace talks, Farooqi threw herself into J Street U, first as a representative to the student board and then as a J Street U intern this past summer in Jerusalem, helping lead the Ta Shema tours.
Back at school, she’s taken a step back from student government, where she served as a representative of her college for three years, in order to focus on J Street U and being a teaching assistant to Yoram Peri, Jack Kay Professor of Israel Studies and director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies.
Farooqi plans to return to Israel when she graduates this spring with a degree in government and politics and a minor in Israel studies.
She would love to go to graduate school at Hebrew University.
“I’m very, very scared that we’re getting to a point where it’s going to be impossible to be pro-Israel because pro-Israel will become synonymous with oppression. And I want to do the work that keeps that from happening,” she said.
Melissa Apter writes for Washington Jewish Week. She can be reached at email@example.com.