By Melissa Apter, WJW
ROSH HASHANAH EDITION
SECTION A PAGE 8
POTOMAC, MD. — J Street Us new president Amna Farooqi has made no secret of being a Pakistani American Muslim.
Thats how she described herself in a keynote speech this spring at J Streets national convention in Washington, DC, when she was a board member.
Still, Farooqis election to president at J Street U’s summer leadership retreat in August triggered swift backlash from Israel supporters online.
Negative comments ranged from bemused (Werent there any Jews running?) to belligerent (calling her an anti-Israel Muslim).
J Street U is the campus wing of J Street, a liberal Israel lobby group.
”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 [Maryland] and the people in Israel and the people in Palestine,” said Farooqi, 21, a senior at the University of Maryland.
“I’m doing this because I care, and I have an entire movement of people who care.”
She received supportive comments on social media as well, along with plenty of attacks from the other side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
Tali deGroot, a newly elected J Street U vice president, who is Jewish, said that four students ran for J Street Us presidency: two Jewish and two non-Jewish.
She said she has too much work to do to worry about her critics. As J Street U president, she explained, its her job to guide the group, strategize with her regional vice presidents and implement J Streets goals on campus.
Looking ahead, Farooqi said J Street U will continue to lobby American Jewish organizations to be more transparent in where their funding goes especially if its crossing Israels pre-1967 borders 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 dont put that together in their minds,” she said.
FAROOQI REITERATED that J Street U is opposed to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel and does not co-sponsor Apartheid Week and similar events sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine.
She said she attended a meeting of the Palestinian rights group her freshman year and was very turned off by the one-sided rhetoric.
But that doesnt mean she shies away from criticizing Israel. Her tweets about the occupation and less-than-flattering commentary on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have raised eyebrows and been cited by some as proof that J Street U is not pro-Israel.
Eric Rozenman, the Washington director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, which challenges perceived anti-Israel bias in the media and is active on campuses, said that the hype regarding Farooqi’s election has been overblown especially, he said, because she is not the first Muslim-American college student to be vocally pro-Israel.
What would be more remarkable, Rozenman said, is if a Jewish Zionist student were elected to head a Muslim student association. Thats never going to happen, he said, because so much of the other side isn’t about criticism of Israel, its about delegitimization of Israel as a Jewish state.
Farooqi recalled that her journey to Zionism began with a fight. As editor of her high school newspaper, she said she wanted to write an op-ed in support of the PA’s bid for statehood at the UN. When a close Jewish friend heard this it led to an unexpected shouting match.
”Clearly this is something that means a lot to me because I’m crying. It means a lot to her because shes screaming,” she said. ”That led me into learning more about the conflict.”
And eventually it led her to J Street.
A FREQUENT volunteer at the Misler Center, an adult day center in Rockville where her grandparents received Jewish Council for the Aging services, Farooqi said she overheard another volunteer criticizing J Street.
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, she said.
As a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park, she began taking Israel studies classes at the Hillel. The staff and director Rabbi Ari Israel have always made her feel welcome.
Israel recalled Farooqi getting in touch with him her freshman year.
I knew then and still know now that she is a unique individual, the rabbi said. She genuinely participates in Hillel activities and is warmly embraced by our diverse student population.
Farooqi attributes her full Zionist conversion to the spring of her freshman year, when she was picked to take on the role of Israels first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, in a seminar.
I got into fights with my [Zeev] Jabotinsky all the time, Farooqi recalled, laughing.
In researching her role, she said she stumbled on David Ben-Gurion: In His Own Words in the stacks of the university library. She recalled poring over the short book, a compilation of Ben-Gurions thoughts on Zionism, Judaism and philosophy, late into the night.
Ben-Gurions message of communal responsibility resonated with her, she said.
Zionism stopped being certain political consequences, Farooqi said. It started being this entire ideology of taking responsibility for ones people, and thats something that really spoke to me.
The professor of that seminar was Israel studies scholar Paul Scham. Having taught Farooqi in two classes her freshman year, hes not surprised by where she ended up.
”Amna is surprising in the abstract,” Scham 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. Certainly its 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.”
Farooqi ended up spending the spring semester of her sophomore year at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
”I was meeting Israelis and Palestinians. I went into the West Bank a lot. I made Israeli friends. I wanted to actually understand,” she said.
Inspired by her time in Israel and disheartened by the breakdown of Secretary of State John Kerrys Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Farooqi said, she threw herself into working for J Street U.
”I’m very, very scared that were getting to a point where its 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.
Back in Maryland, Farooqi has taken a step back from three years of student government to focus on J Street U and assisting Israel studies professor, Yoram Peri.
She plans to return to Israel when she graduates this spring with a degree in government and politics and a minor in Israel studies.
Shed love to go to graduate school at The Hebrew University.