JERUSALEM -- Since his “off-hand remark” charging that I supposedly antagonized millions of African-Americans through my outspoken criticism of the anti-Semitic and racist Minister Louis Farrakhan, Russell Simmons, the hip-hop mogul and self-styled leader of interracial dialogue, has attempted to walk back his words.
“The remark was in no way intended to disparage Mr. Foxman or to dismiss the respect we have for him as a communal leader who has achieved a great deal for the Jewish people,” Mr. Simmons wrote yesterday in a joint op-ed with Rabbi Marc Schneier in The Jerusalem Post. “The intent was rather to remind our audience that true dialogue is not about speaking with those with whom we always agree, but about being prepared to speak with people with whom we might not see eye-to-eye on one issue or another.”
This is a bit disingenuous, to say the least. His “off-hand remark” landed like a rhetorical hand-grenade thrown into the midst of the most important annual gathering of Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers in Jerusalem, the “Facing Tomorrow Conference” sponsored by President Shimon Peres. It was met with stunned silence, and many people in the audience who spoke to me afterwards said they believed he was directly comparing me to Minister Farrakhan.
Trying to lighten the moment, Rabbi Schneier, who was a speaker on the same panel, excitedly proclaimed, “There’s your headline!”
The following day, clearly relishing the media controversy stirred up by his words, Simmons added insult to injury. He wrote on his Twitter feed: “Just had tough exchange w/ abe foxman. That man never met an african american leader he didn''t label an anti-semite."
His remarks, accusing me of antagonizing not just one African-American leader -- namely, Farrakhan, a notorious racist and anti-Semite -- but the entire African-American community and of labeling all Black leaders I have met as anti-Semitic, exudes a tone-deafness that is shocking and shows tremendous disrespect for me and the organization I lead.
The Anti-Defamation League has worked for decades to build positive relations with the African-American community. We have led the charge on a myriad of civil rights issues that have had a tremendous impact for minority Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike. I and my organization have routinely stood up for the Black community against white supremacists and racists, sometimes at personal risk, because we believe that one cannot remain silent in the face of racism, prejudice and bigotry. Silence equals support.
More to the point, Simmons’ words speak volumes about the elephant in the room: his longtime admiration of and support for Farrakhan.
Rabbi Schneier and Mr. Simmons hold themselves up as the paragons of Black-Jewish interrelations “working to promote dialogue” between the two communities through their efforts with the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. And there’s no doubt Simmons has done laudable work speaking out against anti-Semitism.
Yet working for positive relations between ethnic groups begins with respect. And respect starts with having the courage and the moral fiber to stand up on behalf of our friends to say “no” to the racists and bigots of the world, particularly those in our own midst.
It may be painful sometimes to speak out against leaders in our own community who slip into bigotry, but it is necessary. One cannot pay lip-service to fighting anti-Semitism on the one hand while giving legitimacy and credibility to someone who routinely engages in anti-Semitism on the other.
Unfortunately, Simmons has had for many years a blind spot when it comes to Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. Over the years I have met with Simmons and urged him to use his megaphone and stature in the community to speak out against the hateful, ugly anti-Semitic invective Farrakhan has unleashed on the Jewish community time and time again.
In the past few years, Minister Farrakhan has stepped up his anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish people, and the Nation of Islam has followed suit, churning out libelous and hateful publications such as “The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews,” accusing Jews of being satanic and of having secretly masterminded the slave trade.
Farrakhan has accused Jews of controlling the media, controlling Hollywood and profiteering from Black entertainers while debasing the culture.
Not only has Simmons remained silent in the face of these assaults, but he has continued to defend Farrakhan as “a great hero of mine” and an inspirational figure who deserves to be noticed by all African-Americans. In 2007, Simmons appeared on stage with Farrakhan and made what organizers later described as a “significant charitable contribution” to the Nation of Islam.
Simmons says he believes that you can enter into dialogue with anyone, even those with whom you disagree. But in the case of Farrakhan we are not simply talking about policy differences; we are talking about a bigot and an anti-Semite. Would Simmons sit down and dialogue with David Duke or any other avowed white supremacist?
Simmons has written that he is hurt by my criticism, calling it “guilt by association.” He wrote recently, “I pretty much love everybody, so I don’t expect all of my friends to love each other (although that is my goal). I love Abe Foxman as well and he knows my door is always open.”
Well, Simmons knows what he needs to do in order to reach out to me – and that is to condemn anti-Semitism spewed by anyone, beginning with Minister Farrakhan.