Israel/Palestine is an issue where one cannot be neutral. You pick one side and ensure that the social and political solutions you are proposing are morally and intellectually sound. This also means that one has to be very cautious and careful about where one stands (or sits). The election of Amna Farooqi, a rising senior at University of Maryland to the presidency of J Street U (youth arm of J Street) has caused much consternation and opened up a proverbial can of worms. As a Muslim heading the pro-Israeli, pro-peace group, she has been the focus of intense debate and discussion since her election. Does this tell us something about the way (some) American Muslim youth are thinking? There is a general stereotype that American Muslims are pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel and at times, anti-Semitic. While these are generalizations, there is some grain of truth that many if not most Muslims around the world are pro-Palestine. Perhaps Palestine is the single most important unifying symbol in the ‘Muslim world.’ The question seems to be one of reconciling her Muslim, Pakistani, Zionist and American identities.
While no one but Farooqi can fully explain what is going on in her mind, it is amply clear that she considers herself a ‘Zionist.’ She says : “As someone who cared about Palestinians and wanted to contribute to ending this conflict, I know I needed to understand all sides.” But unfortunately, her entire intellectual journey seems to have been one-sided: that of learning of the ‘plight’ of the Israeli citizens and the nation-state, while the Palestinian struggle is seen as a sideshow, something that whiny relatives talked about over dinner table conversations. Her participation in Hillel, Israel Studies classes and the pro-Israel movement are all commendable, but again; her argument that she was learning about ‘both-sides,’ seems deeply flawed – her ‘background’ or heritage told her that she was supposed to be a ‘pro-Palestinian,’ but her mind and heart were ‘pro-Israel,’ without even considering the ramifications of the decisions she was making.
To be clear, Jewish and Israeli identities get conflated often, as do other identities in a complex society such as the U.S. While one must defend her right to feel ‘culturally Jewish,’ I am not too sure how I would feel about her feeling very ‘Zionist’ given that the movement has become something of an anachronism, today. She seems to be conflating Zionism, Israeli and Jewish identities, all at the same time. I am all for people having complex, multiple identities and defend their right to choose whatever identity that suits them. But with each choice, there is ‘responsibility’ and ‘accountability’, two concepts that Farooqi uses, but she doesn’t seem to fully understand. Speaking truth to power is the first responsibility of someone who is in a position of power.
Before we get to the question of what Farooqi’s election symbolizes, it would be worthwhile to look at what Zionism today stands for. Unfortunately, Zionism today has become a symbol of the Israeli settler, the land-grabber and occupier. While Zionism did (arguably) have secular origins and a revivalist nationalist sentiment — with liberalism and equality as its core values — all of this seems to have been lost, as settlements continue to grow and hope for a Palestinian state declining by the day. This ‘crisis of Zionism’ is a fact that Farooqi completely misses to acknowledge or chooses to ignore. Her vision of Zionism is antiquated, if not completely misinformed and distorted. What is going on in Israel is nothing short of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ according to scholars such as Ilan Pappe. As he pointed out in an interview in 2013: “Next month (June 2013), Israel is planning to push 30,000 Bedouins out of their lands and homes, to put them into some special centres. A little bit like the Native Americans reservations. What we have here is a constant policy since 1948.” How does one reconcile such actions with one’s sense of fair play and decency? How can one idolize David Ben Gurion, knowing fully well his role in orchestrating the expulsion of hundreds and thousands of Palestinians?
There is reason to celebrate – to the limited extent that a progressive Jewish organization has made it possible for a young Muslim woman to become its youth wing’s president. But there is also reason for contemplation, on her part, about what politics Farooqi will pursue. If she continues to advocate for a failed policy of a ‘two-state’ solution, which in reality has become a mere PR tool, then she would be as irrelevant as the ideology she espouses.
Additionally, there is also reason to celebrate – that a young woman of her background (Pakistani-American) can study and learn about issues that affect millions of people. The tradition of learning in Islam and Judaism should be drawn upon to justify her curiosity and willingness to engage with the ‘other.’ But neither her election nor her identity as a Muslim will serve any purpose of addressing the key questions at hand – the Palestinian statehood, safety of Israel, right to return for the Palestinians — unless she acknowledges the power differential between the Israelis and Palestinians and the role that Israel has played in perpetuating it. As well intentioned as J Street is, and I have been to their conferences more than once, I think their solution is not politically feasible.
While I fully support her right and choice to do what she pleases, it would be well worth for her to step back and consider her responsibility, given the privilege and power that she enjoys. On this account, I am not sure being the president of a pro-Israeli organization does much good to addressing the plight of the Palestinians. While I wish her all success, I do believe that in the system that she is operating in, without fully acknowledging the responsibility of the choices she has made, she may end up doing more harm, than good. By conflating Jewish and Israeli identities, she is furthering the divide between those Muslims who seek to engage with Jews who oppose Israeli policies. One can be Jewish without being pro-Israeli. One can also be Muslim without disliking Israel. One can stand for justice without siding with the oppressor. That is one lesson that I hope Farooqi learns. Finally, it is well worth ending with a question: Would Gandhi have been pro-Britain or would Mandela pro-apartheid South Africa? They were fighting to free the underdog. Not siding with the empire that was trampling on the rights of the oppressed.