I’ve been watching out for articles about Amna Farooqi, the new Muslim-American President of J Street U, since she was elected last month. There’s more than a little bit of kvelling in that for me, since I taught the first two Israel Studies courses she took at the University of Maryland when she was a freshman, and she has publicly credited me with being instrumental in turning her into one of the few acknowledged Muslim “Zionists.”
So I was intrigued as well as puzzled to come across Yori Yanover’s Forward article, “Have American Jews Lost all Sense of Boundaries?” It made no sense to him that Amna could head a putatively “Jewish” organization. His angst, though, was seemingly assuaged when he discovered that J Street nowhere claims to be a “Jewish organization.” Implicitly, then, he could dismiss it.
I first put Yanover’s bewilderment down to his being an Israeli who has no coherent idea of American Judaism, but then found he has lived much of his life here. The article turned out to be something of a pastiche of some highly unrepresentative American Jewish incidents, which collectively led him to conclude that there is no coherence to American Judaism. One of the incidents involved his irritation with a liberal American rabbi being upset at Israel’s president, Reuben Rivlin, because all she knew about him was that he did not consider Reform rabbis to be “real” rabbis.
Yanover is right that American Judaism is a very different animal than its Israeli variety — long may it remain so. And it makes eminent sense that Amna is head of J Street U at this time because, without it necessarily being intended by anyone, it is a true expression of the best of American Jewish values, from which even Israelis can learn something.
Amna, by her own description, became taken with Zionism in a class I taught in the spring of 2012 that was, in part, a simulation of the Peel Commission discussions in 1937 that led to the failed First Partition Plan. Having already had her as a student in the previous semester, I knew her abilities and chose her to play the major role of David Ben-Gurion. Playing that role and negotiating with such disparate characters as “Vladimir Jabotinsky,” the “Mufti of Jerusalem” and “Judah Magnes” led her to see Zionism as not only a positive force but one that, properly applied, could be liberating for Palestinian Arabs as well as Jews.
I take great care to structure my classes as neither pro- nor anti-Zionist, and I don’t aim to change anyone’s belief system. Instead, I insist that students examine all sides of the conflict in order to understand it through very different perspectives. In Amna’s case, she learned that Zionism could be constructive and fair if it were to be utilized as a humanistic, tolerant, open ideology, and she chose to get involved with J Street in an effort to make it so.
J Street (whose “National Advisory Board” I’ve been on for years, though they never ask my advice) is filled with people with a similar outlook to Amna’s, but who are, of course, predominantly Jewish. At the core of their “Jewish values” are tolerance and humanism, so it would be inconceivable for J Street to bar the door of an office to a non-Jew who shared their values. Given Amna’s drive, intelligence, capacity for hard work and extraordinary people skills, it makes perfect sense that she was elected head of J Street U.
This part is what seems incomprehensible to Yanover. His Judaism, he remarks, is “best endeavored through [his] grandfather’s tradition.” But the best of American Judaism is filtered through American ideals of tolerance and color-blindness.
This is what Amna and I and the tens of thousands of supporters of J Street and similar organizations are trying to apply to Israel. Unlike Yanover’s liberal rabbi friend, we very much care how good for Israel President Rivlin is (surprisingly good) as well as how successfully Prime Minister Netanyahu pursues the two-state solution he claims to support (unsurprisingly badly). It is unusual that Amna is a Muslim Zionist, but it should be comprehensible that she, as an American as well, applies the best of American values to it. She attends a mosque and I attend a synagogue, but I’m gratified that we share similar values of what Israel can and should be.
J Street is indeed not strictly a “Jewish organization,” as Yanover correctly concluded, but it is comprised overwhelmingly of Jews who care enough about Israel to try to fix what is grievously wrong with its current path. A few, like me, are dual Israeli-American citizens and can vote there. Most, like Amna even though they’re Jewish, are simply trying to combine their Jewish and American ideals to Israel’s benefit.
Paul Scham is Research Associate Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland. The views expressed in this article are solely his own.