On the night of June 29, two months after he was drafted by the Jets, Oday Aboushi stood before more than 700 people at the El Bireh Society convention in Arlington, Va., and discussed his journey to the N.F.L.
Aboushi shared what it was like growing up in Brooklyn and Staten Island as one of 10 children. He spoke about graduating from the University of Virginia in three and a half years. He discussed his 2009 visit to refugee camps in the West Bank, how that trip inspired him even more to succeed and to represent his community.
“It was the classic American success story,” said Sarab Al-Jijakli, the president of the Network of Arab-American Professionals, who was in the audience that night.
Aboushi’s appearance at the convention, a three-day gathering of Palestinian-Americans that was described by another attendee as a “cultural networking event,” produced an outcry from some online who charged Aboushi with being a Muslim extremist. An article on the Web site The Front Page suggested that he had terrorist ties. A column on Yahoo Sports, since removed, said he held anti-Semitic views. An employee of Major League Baseball on Twitter compared Aboushi to Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end charged with murder, before later apologizing.
Waves of support for Aboushi started rolling in on Thursday, and on Friday, the Anti-Defamation League released a statement condemning the attacks on his character and applauding him for taking pride in his culture. The Jets also backed Aboushi, an offensive lineman they selected in the fifth round.
In a statement, Aboushi said he was upset that his reputation had been tarnished by people who did not know him, but that he was proud of his Palestinian heritage and to have been born and raised in the United States.
“Our judgment here was that he was falsely accused of being what he’s not, and the next thing to do is stand up and say so,” Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a telephone interview. He added: “There are two Israeli players in the N.B.A., and they stand up and affirm their Israeli identity. That doesn’t make them anti-Palestinian. He’s proud of his heritage, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
The politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are fraught, and that tension — more than anything he has said or done — seems to have thrust Aboushi into this furor. It is, perhaps, part of being a Palestinian-American athlete, a relative rarity, although his family is not willing to accept it.
“Our family’s never experienced anything like this, and I mean anything,” Tahanie Aboushi, one of Oday’s sisters, said in a phone interview. She said Aboushi had maintained a positive attitude despite criticism that felt like “pure venom.”
Tahanie said her parents, Eman and Ahmad, immigrated from Beit Hanina, a Palestinian section of the occupied territory in East Jerusalem, about 40 years ago. They ran a grocery store in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and Aboushi lived on 53rd Street in that neighborhood before moving about a decade ago to Huguenot, Staten Island. Aboushi, the ninth of 10 children, was raised mostly by his mother and his older siblings. His father has spent more than a decade in federal prison after being convicted of conspiracy to commit robbery, conspiracy to possess stolen property, theft from interstate shipment and transportation of a stolen vehicle, according to federal court documents.
Aboushi grew up in a home where Arabic was spoken as well as English. Like his three brothers, Aboushi, a practicing Muslim, attended Xaverian High School, a Catholic school in Brooklyn. Three of Aboushi’s siblings, including Tahanie, are partners in the Aboushi Law Firm in Manhattan. Other siblings have worked in teaching, accounting and entrepreneurship, and have entered medical school.
Linda Sarsour, a close friend of the family’s and the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, described the Aboushis as active in civic engagement but “in a behind-the-scenes, backstage” kind of way. She said that one sister, Diana, was instrumental in raising money for Representative Andre Carson, Democrat of Indiana, and Representative Keith Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota, the first two Muslim members of Congress. Tahanie, a lawyer in Manhattan, is involved in New York’s chapter of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.
“We’re not activists that need to be in the limelight,” Tahanie said. “We’re not into being on stage unless it’s required.
“We do what we need to get done, and we do it well.”
It was not required, then, that Aboushi speak at the El Bireh convention, but his family and friends viewed it as a great opportunity. The event reunites Palestinian-Americans from around the United States whose ancestors hailed from El Bireh, a village in the West Bank, for a few days of socializing and networking. Sarsour described it as “very secular.”
“It’s a classy hangout in a Marriott,” Tahanie said. “It’s not a religious convention. It’s not even a political convention.”
Sarsour said she was approached two months ago about Aboushi’s speaking. The organizers, after realizing most of the people who had signed up were from ages 18 to 35, were looking for a successful Palestinian-American who could speak with the younger generation. Other speakers included Representative Nick Rahall, Democrat of West Virginia, and prominent members of the arts.
“It’s similar to any other community, whether you’re Latino or Colombian or Chinese; if you’re someone who’s accomplished, your community is very proud of you, and you take those platforms to show pride,” Sarsour said. “He went to the conference as a Palestinian-American who plays professional football. He can’t be anybody else but Palestinian. His name isn’t Michael Smith. It’s Oday Aboushi. It’s not something he can stop being.”