Amna Farooqi speaking to J Street U students outside the national headquarters of Hillel International. March 2015. Photo by Moshe Zusman for J Street

University of Maryland senior Amna Farooqi became worldwide news when it was announced a few days ago that the 21-year-old Muslim had been elected president of the student wing of J Street, a prominent liberal pro-Israel group. Some long-time Israel-watchers said it was the first time a primarily Jewish U.S. pro-Israel group had elected a non-Jew as leader.

Obviously there are significant non-Jewish groups dedicated to Israel, notably evangelical Christian groups such as Christians United for Israel and interfaith efforts focused in different ways on ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But J Street’s membership and leadership are primarily Jewish – and liberal. Farooqi is also left-leaning on Israel, whereas evangelical Christians who are involved in pro-Israel activity generally lean to the right.

[Winning a place at the table for J Street]

Farooqi’s election Thursday to lead the J Street U board set off intense reaction from various corners. Some focused on her criticism of elected Israeli leaders, questioning the qualifications of someone who tweeted that Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu was a “douchebag.” Others praised her election as transcendent, something Israel could learn from.

The Post interviewed Farooqi about her historic election:

Why would a Muslim, specifically, want to make Israel their cause?

I grew up in Potomac [Maryland, a D.C. suburb], which is very Jewish. My parents are from Pakistan, and Israel was always the awkward elephant in room in Potomac. I knew we were Palestinian-sympathetic, that we were more critical of the Israeli government than many.

I’m the one in my family that’s super-interested, it wasn’t a major issue in our house. We’re not Jewish or Palestinian.

When I first came to this, it was about Palestinian solidarity and Palestinian suffering and I wanted to challenge myself more. I knew I had to learn more if I wanted to do something in this conflict. And I really came to understand the Israeli side better. I want Palestinians to be able to live freely but I also want Israel to exist as a Jewish and Democratic state. The American Jewish community is one I grew up part of in Potomac and I want that community to be better and take responsibility.

You have been involved with J Street since your first year at the University of Maryland, where you are now a senior studying politics. When did you become actually involved with Israel?

I had this fight with a friend my senior year [of high school], over a [failed] effort in 2011 by the Palestinian Authority to achieve statehood [recognition] at the United Nations. I was in favor and my friend wasn’t. We had a fight. I reacted so emotionally to it.

[That summer], I was volunteering at a [Jewish] senior citizens’ center, and people there were talking about Israel and politics and they mentioned J Street, saying it was fringe. I had no idea what it was, so I looked it up. I’m like: ‘Two states, pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace, this seems pretty normal.”

There were three other candidates you beat out for leadership of J Street U, the group’s student arm. What is your platform? What would you like to get done in your yearlong term?

J Street’s specific purpose is to achieve a two-state solution.

I want to focus on transparency in the Jewish community. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t strongly support the Jewish community and love it. It’s matter of being transparent about where its money is going, and pushing organizations to stand up and support their values, and offering a way for students to engage in [Israel activism] that’s not BDS [a Palestinian-led movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel] and not ignoring the occupation.

One thing is putting green lines on maps at Hillel [Jewish student centers on college campuses]. A lot of maps in Hillels don’t have green lines [a demarcation established after Israel’s independence]. Starting to have that conversation.

What’s your religious and spiritual life and community like? Do you come at this work from a religious perspective?

I was raised very much with religion, learning to read Arabic so I could read the Koran, we were very traditional in that way. But very progressive. My Dad was always like: It’s OK to question things, you get to define a lot of [your faith.]. We were encouraged to have non-Muslim friends, they wanted me to have a strong identity outside of [my faith].

Are you part of any organized Muslim spiritual community?

[laughs] I’m ‘off the derech’ (a Jewish expression for someone who deliberately goes off the religious path, or “derech” in Hebrew, or Yiddish). I’m Muslim and identify strongly that way, I don’t eat pork, for example. For me this is Muslim work in many ways. The work I do [about Israel] is the best expression of Islam.

Do you see yourself as a mediator between Muslims and Jews on this topic? Is that part of your role?

Not really. We’re focusing on the American Jewish community and specifically holding the U.S. Jewish community to its values and transparency. I think me being a Muslim is interesting, but the focus is mostly the work we’re doing.

But aren’t you driven to this because you are Muslim?

I grew up with Israel all around, friends going to Israel on trips, it was always there. Because I was Muslim I had a sense of Muslim solidarity with Palestinians, but that led me to try and understand it more, so I went to Hillel on campus as soon as I got there. I also went to [a Palestinian-led student group] and they said something disparaging about Zionism and I didn’t like it. It didn’t seem productive. It felt more productive to go to Hillel and actually talk to people who wanted to do something about it. To talk about: Why do Muslims care about this issue? Why do Jews? Those conversations are far more productive, to be fighting for everyone than for me to me in an echo chamber. Then I went and studied in Jerusalem [at Hebrew University].

Growing up in Potomac, I really believed the Jewish community holds so much influence over this conflict.. I really do understand the importance of that relationship and for Israel’s sake it can be used much more productively.

Were people at Hillel ever like: What are you doing here?

It was never negative. It was never like: ‘Leave’; it was sometimes confusion. People were like: Why do you care about the occupation? The University Maryland Hillel was very welcome and made me feel I could come. We have Israel roundtables there for pro-Israel groups and I’d go and represent J Street.

It’s not about my identity as much as about what I’m saying..you don’t have to be Jewish to do this work, you just have to believe in the idea that the American Jewish community has a role to play in this..all you have to have is a deep, deep sense of respect for the American Jewish community.

Is you being elected anything like like white people taking on leadership of a primarily African-American group to promote racial justice?

I think it’s compelling because J Street U taught me what it means to be pro-Israel. For a lot of U.S. Jewish groups that are stressing about disaffiliation among youth and Jewish kids on campus becoming more apathetic about Israel, I came to love Israel through this work. I didn’t have a relationship with it, and through this I came to develop one. I’m not Jewish and won’t pretend to understand the connection [between Jews and Israel], but it’s not that I don’t have relationships and connections to the U.S. Jewish community. The majority of American Jewish students care about two states, and J St reflects those values.

At times American Muslims who have become partners with Israelis in dialogue have been criticized.

What’s frustrating to American Muslims is that — there’s nothing wrong with being pro-Israel, but when you talk about that without the reality on the ground…When institutions want to erase the conflict because it’s controversial and because of donor dynamics which is what’s going on most of the time, that’s when [Muslims] get frustrated and check out

I don’t think [being pro-Israel] is OK at all [among American Muslims] right now and it’s because right now the American Jewish establishment is acting like being pro-Israel is supporting every Israeli government which makes Palestinians very uncomfortable. If Jewish groups would say they’d support a two-state settlement or where their funding goes over the green line, that would redefine pro-Israel right now.

American Muslims have had mixed views about Israel even when two-state solutions were underway in the past, though.

I wasn’t alive then so I can’t speak to that. But what’s missing is actual [White House] leadership on this. Once you see that, people will come and fall in line.

What about leadership among American Muslims?

American Muslims should be as financially responsible as the American Jewish community. But [U.S. Muslims] are more diverse, made up of different nationalities, ethnicities. American Jews are far more organized. For Palestinian Americans, this is an issue, but they’re not financially supporting the occupation the way the American Jewish community is.

Do you see impacting the American Muslim community as your cause?

I got involved in this because I want to make change and I think the American Jewish community has more agency. If I thought moving the American Muslim community would move this – they just don’t have the role in it.

Do you believe Israel be a Jewish and democratic state?

I believe that, certainly. I also really love Israel and I want it to be democratic..There are ways you can incorporate Jewish character. I’m not the person who will dictate what that will look like, though. There’s a way to be Jewish and Democratic that Israel can decide.

Would you call yourself a Zionist?

Um, it’s complicated..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.

Your job is to engage in conversations and actions about Israel on U.S. campuses, where some of the most intense disagreement seems to me. How can you fit into that?

It’s becoming far more polarized. BDS is gaining more steam and it’s becoming harder to fight it because it keeps coming up. Hillels don’t know how to respond to it in a way that’s productive..maybe those who are curious and want to have a productive conversation – it’s tense on campuses right now because no one is talking about what can be productively done to protect Israel AND end the occupation..There is no place to act on your values. That’s the charming thing about BDS, it’s action..We oppose [BDS] because we don’t think it’s productive for many, many reasons. But the average student wants to be doing something.

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