US Jewish organisation picks Muslim as campus president
Washington - A prominent Jewish organisation has elected a Muslim woman as president of the board of its college-outreach branch, sparking praise and controversy. The move comes amid an unusually polarised period for American Jews, who have long valued a unified voice on Israel but have recently faced serious divisions over the Iran nuclear agreement.
Amna Farooqi will begin this autumn her term as president of the board of J Street U, which describes itself as “the student organising arm of J Street, the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans”. Her priority will be to hold other liberal American-Jewish organisations to their commitment to a two-state solution.
J Street U works to organise the next generation of liberal Jewish thinkers through chapters at universities throughout the United States. Its parent organisation, J Street, was founded in 2008 in the face of a widening, sometimes generational gap between liberal and conservative American Jews.
“Part of what J Street is doing is redefining what it means to be pro-Israel, doing so with the two-state solution and fighting for Palestinian rights,” Farooqi said from her family’s home near Washington. The 21-year-old is about to begin her senior year at the University of Maryland.
Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now, another Jewish organisation that promotes the two-state solution, declined to comment directly on Farooqi’s election but had this to say about J Street U: “One of the organisation’s chief accomplishments is its contribution to depolarise the conversation about Israel on campuses. As such, it is a huge asset for the pro-Israel community in the United States and for Americans who support Middle East peace. It is also a huge asset for Israel and its interest in the United States.”
Farooqi’s election has generally been well-received by Muslims and Jews in her community, though she has encountered harsh language as a result of her appointment.
“People have been supportive, though the fringes on both sides are not happy,” she said.
The right-of-centre Jerusalem Post ran a favourable opinion piece titled 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,” wrote Seth Frantzman in the editorial.
Farooqi grew up in the affluent Washington suburb of Potomac, MD, in what she describes as a religious household. For a time during her youth, Farooqi even wore a hijab and she says she remains a devout Muslim. She recalls awkward moments growing up with Jewish friends in a neighbourhood where Muslims are a small minority.
“I got into a fight with a close Jewish friend my senior year of high school because that was when the Palestinian Authority submitted a bid for statehood to the UN. I supported the bid and my friend opposed it,” said Farooqi. “But then I started to realise it was more than an issue in the news and I started reading more about it.”
Farooqi’s curiosity sent her to Jerusalem and the West Bank, where she spent time studying and immersing herself in Israeli and Palestinian communities. One day at university, Farooqi was surprised to find herself in David Ben Gurion’s shoes.
“I took a class where everyone was assigned to role play and I got David Ben Gurion. It was through that process of having to be him and reading a lot about him that I understood how Jews felt very strongly about their community at a time when the Jewish people were in crisis,” she said. “In short, that’s been my evolution.”
Farooqi identified J Street as an ideal place for her to begin her career as an advocate for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli issue.
“You can oppose the Israeli occupation and still understand Israel’s right to exist. Because to me being a Zionist also means Palestinian rights,” she said.
Asked if she reflects a trend among Muslim Americans embracing Zionism or at least starting a meaningful dialogue with their Jewish counterparts, Farooqi reserved her optimism for the future.
“For most Muslims, they see pro-Israel in the way that American organisations project that, which is a frustrating way for Muslims. So there’s a hesitancy to call yourself pro-Israel,” she said.
She added that she sees her role primarily as an American committed to pushing both sides towards common ground, something she says she will pursue as a career.
“For this year, the focus of J Street is holding Jewish-American institutions to their values. They say they support two states, but it’s pushing them to be transparent… pushing leaders to be accountable to their community because the majority of American Jews support the two-state solution,” she said.
“And America plays a huge role in this conflict, so I have a responsibility as an American,” said Farooqi.