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JERUSALEM–Though hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons came to Israel last week to promote Muslim-Jewish dialogue, the end of his trip was marred by comments he made likening Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s alienation of Jews to Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman’s alienation of African Americans.
Representing Rabbi Marc Schneier’s Foundation for Ethnic Understanding—for which Simmons has served as chairman over the last 12 years—Simmons spoke at a panel titled “The Tent Protest and the Israeli Tomorrow” during Israeli President Shimon Peres’s June 19-21 “Facing Tomorrow” Conference in Jerusalem.
Foxman said in a statement that hearing “doublespeak” from Simmons was not surprising because “he’s been doing that for years.” However, what did surprise the ADL leader was the venue Simmons chose for his words.
“What’s disappointing is that someone who has a history of having a blind spot to one of the most vociferous and ugly anti-Semites would be given a platform in Jerusalem,” Foxman said.
Schneier, whose organization pioneered rebuilding black-Jewish relations through the 1990s and over the last seven years has focused on creating partnerships between Muslim and Jewish leaders, stood up for Simmons in a statement to JNS.org.
“It’s very sad to see that Abe Foxman as head of the ADL, the self-proclaimed protector of Jewish rights, is spending his time and energy on attacking a proven friend of the Jewish people and Israel like Russell Simmons rather than focusing efforts on combating our many foes,” Schneier said.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Simmons said his comments regarding his friendship with Farrakhan were misunderstood, and that he did not intend to compare Farrakhan with Foxman.He said he only meant “to point out the kind of results you get from the public attacks of many African-American leaders by Abe over the years… namely that these attacks have alienated millions of blacks. Many black people around the country believe that when Abe attacks their leaders, it is an attack by the Jewish community on them as well. This type of behavior stings for a long time.”
Prior to Simmons’s controversial comments, the hip-hop mogul and Schneier sat down for an interview with JNS.org. During their trip to Israel, Simmons and Schneier met with Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger, Jerusalem’s Grand Mufti Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, and a group of 10 imams and 10 rabbis from Haifa, Acre and Jaffa to launch a “twinning” program that will kick off in November. In Muslim-Jewish twinning programs, which Schneier and Simmons have piloted in more than 35 other countries, imams and rabbis exchange pulpits for speaking engagements and promote collaboration between their communities.
Calling Israel “the holy grail” for Muslim-Jewish dialogue, the 54-year-old Simmons, wearing a New York Yankees cap and an Om necklace symbolizing unity, told JNS.org that he was surprised to see the greater extent to which religious leaders exert influence in Israeli society and can shape the political agenda toward peacemaking.
“These two in my opinion could be the peace makers,” Simmons said of Metzger and Hussein. “They have less political burden but they have the simple desire for peace.”
Metzger, Schneier said, was excited at his suggestion that he visit the great mosque in Nablus.
Schneier said his interfaith work with Simmons has galvanized Muslim and Jewish leaders to defend each other when under attack, citing American Muslim leaders who last September sent letters to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Khaled Mashaal to free then-captive soldier Gilad Shalit, and Muslim twinning participants in France who marched arm in arm with their Jewish counterparts after the terrorist attack in Toulouse.
The pair are confident that their work in Israel will be instrumental in laying the groundwork of trust between the rank and file for a future peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians, work they said already exists to a large extent among the leadership in Israel, but not enough among those sitting in the pews.
“When Muslims believe that Jews are the chosen people and they define chosenness as being superior or when Jews believe the Koran is inherently anti-Jewish, then how can you expect to execute any kind of agreement, when one community does not trust the other?” said Schneier. “It is so powerful, it is such a significant paradigm when you have a rabbi coming into a mosque, when you have an imam coming into a synagogue, when the two communities experience and engage in ways they’ve never done before. We have seen the results of this and we are here to try and bring this to the holy land.”
Simmons, a self-proclaimed yogi who meditates twice a day, said he “practices spirituality religiously” and is the older brother to Reverend Joseph Simmons, “Run” of hip-hop group Run-DMC. He said that too often, the moderates are quiet and only extremist voices are heard.
“With those people who realize that there’s a different route and who have in their heart for reconciliation, for peace, they’re quiet, [and] we have to ignite a flame under them,” Simmons said. “We can’t sit still if there are people around us who are terrorists. We can’t sit still if there are people in settlements who are aggressive and hurtful. We can’t support them by silence. We have to uproot them by our voices.”
Simmons, who has come under fire for his support of the Occupy Wall Street movement, said it was not an anti-Semitic or deeply radical movement despite media portrayals of it as such. These were attempts to undermine a legitimate movement to make politicians more accountable and less loyal to corporate funding, he said.
“I would say as a person who fights anti-Semitism for a living, I would say there was not a lot of that there,” he said. “I saw a sign on television and I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it because I’d been there so many days in a row and I’d never seen anything like that.”