WASHINGTON – A dovish pro-Israel lobby that has struggled for acceptance by more established Jewish groups has elected an American Muslim as president of a core initiative — its chapter program on college campuses, where debates rages over Israel and Palestinians.
Amna Farooqi, a senior at the University of Maryland, was voted president of the seven-member J Street U National Student Board on Sunday. Farooqi, who is from Potomac, Maryland, and of Pakistani descent, had previously served as a regional representative on the student board for the lobby, which formed in 2009 to counter harder-line pro-Israel lobbies and has been attacked by critics since as disloyal to Israel.
J Street has affirmed its commitment to the Jewish state, positioning itself as a liberal voice for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and a freeze on Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories. J Street supports President Barack Obama's nuclear agreement with Iran, an accord that has split U.S. Jews.
In the past couple of years, J Street's college chapters have taken on added importance as the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement, known as BDS, has gained steam on campuses by protesting Israeli policies toward Palestinians and focusing public attention on their plight.
Farooqi, 21, said she grew up in a house that was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but as she grew older, she wanted to learn more about Israel and the conflict. She said she wanted to contribute to ending the conflict and got involved in J Street in college, where she is majoring in government and politics and minoring in Israel studies. She spent the spring 2014 semester in Jerusalem, studying Hebrew and political science at Hebrew University. This summer, she lived in Jerusalem and interned with J Street U's Israel program. Farooqi said she hopes to continue to work on the conflict either in Washington or Israel after her graduation.
Farooqi said in a phone interview that her family was initially "confused" by her interest but has become "very supportive," and while she has seen negative comments online following her election, she don't think that will get in her way.
"This isn't about me. It's about the work that needs to be done," she said.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's president and founder, said in an interview that he and the group are excited about Farooqi's election and that he hopes it serves as a symbol and a signal about future inclusiveness. Some nasty online rhetoric over the decision is "despicable," he said, adding that he believed the majority of Jewish organizations will react positively.
Farooqi said in her year as president she hopes that along with the student board she will work to push the Jewish community and organizations to be more vocal and active about their support for a two-state solution. Other students on the board come from Yale, Stanford, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Massachusetts, Carleton College and Occidental College.
"Anyone that is pro-Israel and pro-peace can do this work," she said.
AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll contributed to this report from New York.