J Street U Has Not Crossed a Red Line in Appointing a Muslim President

Only extremists trapped in identity politics could be expected to object to Amna Farooqi's election.

Amna Farooqi, newly elected leader of J Street U. August 19, 2015.
Courtesy J Street

Much has already been made and more will undoubtedly be said and written about the selection of Amna Farooqi, an American Muslim of Pakistani descent, as president of the national board of J Street’s campus wing. Some have seen in this choice evidence of J Street’s deviation from the Jewish consensus and claim it demonstrates that the organization cannot be considered pro-Israel. But such an argument, which assumes that only Jews can be heads of Jewish organizations, especially those advocating for and concerned with Israel, is hard to square with the facts about Ms. Farooqi. 

The fact is that this University of Maryland freshman from Potomac, in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, who is minoring in Israel studies, is a Muslim who claims that "she fell in love with Israel" and spent a semester at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and made Israeli friends in order to understand the Israeli narrative from the Israeli perspective, even spending the Passover seder with a family living over the Green Line. She has returned this summer to serve as a J Street intern in Jerusalem.  All of this puts Farooqi way ahead of most American Jews of her generation, and especially those on campus, in knowledge of and concern with Israel.  Would an American Jew who knew less about Israel and the contemporary Zionist experience be a better choice, based purely on his or her religion of birth? 

I would argue that having an openly identifying Muslim representing a college Zionist organization certainly challenges those Islamists and boycott, divestment and sanction movement supporters who wrong-headedly claim that Zionism, contemporary Israel and Islam are necessarily in conflict if not diametrically opposed to one another. She reminds us that you don't have to be Jewish or an evangelical Christian (or even a politician seeking the Jewish vote) to appreciate Israel or care about its future, nor does this interest in Israel and positive feeling mean that you must oppose the idea of a Palestinian state or justice for Palestinians. There are certainly many Israelis who would agree with that.

If Haisam Hassanein, who was born and raised in rural Egypt and surrounded from childhood by anti-Israeli stereotypes at home and in the media, can become valedictorian at Tel Aviv University, and Salim Joubran, born in pre-state Palestine, can be a justice on Israel's Supreme Court, why can an American campus organization like J Street U not be headed by an American Muslim like Farooqi?

To those wags who will note that she has pointed out that there is racism among Israeli Jews, let us be honest: this is an accusation made by Israelis themselves, and surely the recent arson and murder in Duma of a Palestinian infant and his father apparently by Jews, the anti-Arab hate crimes, the Kahane element, the anti-Arab slogans at Israeli football matches, and even the comments made at election time about checking the vote of Israeli Arab citizens suggests that the presence of Jewish racism in Israel is a fact. Denying it does the Jewish people and the state of Israel no favors.

Moreover, the fact that Farooqi comes from a neighborhood near a Jewish community in the Washington, D.C. suburbs means she also can appreciate the nuances of Diaspora Jewish attachments to Israel. What exactly, then, should disqualify her? Only extremists trapped in identity politics could be expected to object.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.