American Muslim Student Elected to Head J Street on U.S. Campuses

Election of Amna Farooqi, 21, could prompt backlash; Farooqi found herself drawn into Jewish groups and the issues of Zionism in her freshman year at University of Maryland.

courtesy of J Street

NEW YORK – J Street U, the campus arm of liberal lobbying organization J Street, has elected a Muslim-American of Pakistani descent as the president of its national student board.

The vote for Amna Farooqi, a 21-year-old incoming senior at the University of Maryland, was held at J Street U’s Summer Leadership Institute in Washington, D.C., which ended Monday.

While three other J Street U members ran for president, Farooqi won “decisively,” said J Street spokesperson Jessica Rosenblum. Roughly 120 J Street U student leaders attended the four-day summer gathering. Some 1,100 participated in the larger J Street conference last March, and J Street U says it has at least 4,000 active participants on 75 college campuses nationwide.

Farooqi, who grew up in the Washington suburb of Potomac, Maryland, is majoring in government and politics and minoring in Israel studies. Her parents, both born in Pakistan, have raised Farooqi and her younger brother in a fairly religious Muslim home, the student leader said in an exclusive interview with Haaretz.

Potomac was a heavily Jewish community, she said. “I had a lot of Jewish friends and felt connected to that.”

But “growing up in a household sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, the Palestine-Israel conflict was always the elephant in the room,” Farooqi says in a TED Talk-style video filmed at the J Street conference last March. “This conflict evoked a level of anger and emotion in me and I needed to learn more. Everything I was learning about the conflict made me not want to be pro-Israel. As someone who wanted to contribute to ending this conflict I knew I needed to understand all sides.”

Farooqi’s election will almost certainly prompt harsh criticism from parts of the Jewish community where J Street is already controversial. Eric Fingerhut, Hillel International’s president, was scheduled to meet with J Street U students at last March’s J Street conference but backed out at the last minute, a move widely viewed as capitulating to pressure from donors. Intense media coverage followed and those 1,100 students marched on Hillel’s headquarters. But Fingerhut met with the J Street U student leaders at the just-completed Summer Leadership Institute, apologizing for “any hurt that occurred.”

“The election of a Muslim at the head of the most prominent left-of-center pro-Israel campus organization will evoke disparate reactions from conservatives and liberals,” said Steven M. Cohen, in an interview from Jerusalem. Cohen, a prominent American Jewish sociologist who made aliyah in 1992, works as a research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is on the board of the liberal American Jewish organization Ameinu.

“Pro-Israel conservatives, Jewish and not, will see confirmation of their suspicion that J Street specifically and the pro-Israel left generally is actually disloyal and subversive, lacking true commitment to Israel’s security. Pro-Israel liberals, Jewish and not, will see confirmation of their aspiration to reach across national, ethnic and religious boundaries to build a pro-peace coalition,” Cohen said.

Falling in love with Zionism

courtesy of J Street

As soon as her freshman year began, Farooqi met Benjy Cannon, who then co-chaired the University of Maryland J Street U chapter. Farooqi got involved in the group, started going to Hillel and taking Israel studies classes. In one of those classes, students “adopted” a character central to Israel’s founding. Farooqi was assigned to play David Ben-Gurion.

“The day in, day out of thinking like Ben-Gurion, arguing with ‘Jabotinsky’ and the British as if I were Ben-Gurion, completely changed the way I thought about this conflict,” Farooqi says in the TED Talk-style video. “Suddenly Zionism became about accountability. It was about the Jewish people taking control of their future after a history of being trampled on.

“I fell in love with Zionism, because Zionism became about taking ownership over the story of one’s people,” she says in the video. “If Zionism is about owning your future, how can I not respect that?”

That led her to spend a semester of sophomore year at Hebrew University’s program for international students. “My parents were a little bit surprised” she wanted to live in Israel, Farooqi said. “I wanted to meet people on the ground and understand the Israeli narrative from their perspective, and to put faces to things and see some of these issues up close,” she said. “I tried to escape the bubble [of the overseas student program] every opportunity I could.”

Over the years, Farooqi has picked up Jewish lingo along with a deepening commitment to Israel-Palestine justice. She describes her father as “orthodox” in his religious practice, her mom as more “conservative,” and the home she grew up in as “conservadox.” She herself is “a little off the derech (straight path) in some way,” she said with a laugh.

But has she thought about converting to Judaism? “No, never,” she replied. 

While growing up, Farooqi was aware that her parents were critical of Israel and more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause during conflicts like Operation Cast Lead. “We’re not Arab, though, so it’s not like they have a particularly more emotional connection to this” issue. In the Farooqi family home “the only things we talked about were religion and politics, it felt like, but my parents are progressive in their political views also,” she said.

The response to her Israel activism in her extended family – two of her grandparents live with her parents and brother in Potomac – and Muslim Pakistani community has been “confused but supportive,” Farooqi said. Her parents “were a little bit confused about why I felt this need to throw myself into” J Street U, she said. “But they’ve been supportive and agree with the work that we’re doing. They were ecstatic when I was elected.”

While at Hebrew U her sophomore year, Farooqi made Israeli friends and traveled through the area, hopping on buses to visit Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin, as well as Jewish settlements in the West Bank. She asked the program’s administrators to find her an Israeli family in a Jewish settlement for the Passover holiday, and ended up with a family in Pisgat Ze’ev for seder. “I wanted to have Pesach with an Israeli family,” she said.

This summer she lived in Jerusalem as a J Street U intern, co-leading day trips for American university students. One trip was to Hebron, where the group of 55 students met with a Jewish settler activist and a member of Breaking the Silence, an organization of anti-occupation Israeli soldiers. Another trip was to the separation barrier, where they met with someone from the IDF and also with a member of Machsom Watch, a group of women monitoring the behavior of Israeli forces in West Bank checkpoints, speaking to both about the effect of the wall on Israeli security and Palestinian life, Farooqi said.

“I am so excited to serve as J Street U’s president,” Farooqi said. “I’m very excited for the next year.”

After she graduates, Farooqi intends to contribute to resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, particularly the American role in the occupation. As part of that, she says she may move back to Jerusalem.