Can a Nice Muslim Girl from Maryland Really Identify as Jewish?

Amna Farooqi, Muslim head of Israel-advocacy group J Street, says she is "culturally Jewish."


The campus arm of J Street, the liberal group that describes itself as "pro-Israel, pro-peace," and that positions itself as a leftist Zionist alternative to the more conservative AIPAC, has "decisively" elected a new president, Amna Farooqi. She's a 21-year-old Pakistani-American, and a Muslim. When Farooqi addressed J Street's national convention in Washington last spring, Farooqi described herself not only as a Muslim, but also as "culturally Jewish."

While she is certainly no Rachel Dolezal, the white Spokane woman who adopted a black identity and ended up heading the local NAACP branch, Farooqi has opted publicly to cross an identity border of sorts in a time when such borders are increasingly porous, and her surprising self-description was sufficiently dramatic to catch people's attention.

A columnist for the Jerusalem Post, for example, was delighted, writing that Farooqi's election "is a fascinating bridge that has been crossed," and that it "is a good lesson for Israel" in diversity and multiculturalism. A more suspicious observer argued that Farooqi's claims are a sham, and that she has "decided to work through Jewish groups which have more 'agency' [than Farooqi believes Muslim groups have] and more power to push her anti-Israel agenda."

Her claim to being "culturally Jewish" has predictably made some headlines, though what exactly she means by the phrase remains hazy. "Cultural Jewishness" is a commonly recognized category, describing many secularized Jews who identify with the religion's community while rejecting its theological foundations. Speaking at a J Street convention in Washington last spring, Farooqi suggested rather light-heartedly that because she grew up in the D.C. suburb of Potomac, Maryland, with its large Jewish population, she could make a claim to the credential. The implication is that she gradually came to see herself, at least in part, as a member of that community, though she does not actually say so.

She did tell The Washington Post, "The American Jewish community is one I grew up part of in Potomac and I want that community to be better and take responsibility," suggesting that she not only regards herself as part of a greater Jewish community, but that she seeks the role of improving it. As for Potomac, it seems to play an outsize role in a number of her statements about Israel. "I know that I'm not Jewish, and that's very scary for a lot of people, and I do understand that in some ways," she told the JTA wire service. "But I'm coming to this work because I care deeply about the people in Potomac [Maryland] and the people in Israel and the people in Palestine."

She also noted in her J Street address that, "In high school, I fell in love with Philip Roth." It was seemingly offered as a laugh line, but Roth's novels really have become barter for American Jewish street cred. When Barack Obama—"America's first Jewish president," you'll remember—was seeking Jewish votes during the 2008 primaries, he cited his own admiration for Roth in an apparent effort to connect with Jewish voters. Anyway, in the end Farooqi said little else about the contents of her cultural Jewishness.

She said a good deal more about the Zionist side of her self-presentation, however. Essentially, she became an admirer of Zionism by channeling David Ben-Gurion, the primary founder of Israel and its first prime minister. Farooqi grew up in a "fairly religious" home that she describes as sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, though the political issue was taboo at home. "I was never supposed to bring it up," she remembers. Seeking a better understanding of the issue from the other side, she enrolled in an Israeli Studies course at the University of Maryland, and was assigned to play the part of Ben-Gurion in class deliberations. She immersed herself in the role with lasting consequences, she says, for her view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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"The day-in, day-out of thinking like Ben-Gurion, writing papers as if I were Ben-Gurion, arguing…as if I were Ben-Gurion, completely changed the way I thought about this conflict," she told the J Street convention. "Suddenly, Zionism became about accountability. It was the Jewish people, taking control of their future after a history of being trampled on. It was a small group of Jewish people who grappled with their identity and the communal obligation that it entailed, who identified a threat to the future of their people, and did everything they could to save that future, at a time when it seemed like everything might be lost.

"I fell in love with Zionism because Zionism became about taking ownership over the story of one's people. If Zionism is about owning your future, how can I not respect that?"

Yet when The Washington Post asked her directly if she called herself a Zionist, things got more contingent. "Um, it's complicated," she replied. "I really came to love and appreciate Zionism and if I was Jewish I would be a Zionist. I'm not Jewish, I don't feel comfortable calling myself a Zionist. I support Zionism but I think there are things that can be critiqued."

Among the places where Israel has been critiqued is Farooqi's own Twitter account. Her tweets and retweets include, "Wonder how many American Jews hear of the horror inflicted on Gaza this summer?" and "Wonder what Bibi would say if Palestinians applied his Iran logic to their situation?" According to one critic, "She also implied support for Palestinian terrorism when she tweeted, 'Every movement exercises a range of acts of resistance.'" Among her more frequently cited tweets, at least among her critics, is one where Farooqi reportedly called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a "douchebag."

"Weren't there any Jews running" to head J Street U? some skeptics asked when Farooqi's election was announced. J Street actually answered that question, saying that there were four candidates, that two of them were Jewish and two weren't, and that Farooqi ran away with the election. Other people have argued that a Muslim president of such an organization is not really a big deal, noting previous cases of Muslim-American students who have been vocally pro-Israel.

Farooqi, who has already spent time studying in Israel, says she hopes to attend graduate school there, too. If she does, she will have been preceded by other perhaps unexpected scholars from the United States. One such, Egyptian-American Haisam Hassanein, was the valedictorian speaker at this summer's graduation ceremony for foreign students at Tel Aviv University. Here are his remarks.