Rhyme and reason on the Middle East

Hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons and Rabbi Marc Schneier bring their synagogue-mosque twinning program to Israel.

Russell Simmons (photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
Russell Simmons
(photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
Russell Simmons has mediated his fair share of peaceful resolutions to often ugly and violent feuds in the hip-hop world he helped create. Only a few days before arriving for his first visit to Israel last week, the iconic culture mogul boasted on his Twitter page and blog about how he had brokered a truce between warring American rappers Drake and Chris Brown.
So it shouldn’t have been too surprising last week when, during a panel discussion at the Facing Tomorrow Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, the rap music pioneer and urban fashion magnate likened the complex Israel-Palestinian conflict to a sphere that he could relate to – a beef between rappers that can be solved through dialogue.
After all, the two worlds share some common themes, props and characters: bloody turf wars; eccentric, dangerous hotheads with colorful head garb (Yasser Arafat) or an avalanche of bling (Muammar Gaddafi) who often issue threats and macho boasts without thinking them through; the use of ballistics to make their positions more precise; and a seemingly endless and senseless cycle of violence and death, with both sides blaming the other for the mess created in its wake.
In the harsh urban environment that has spawned the world’s leading hip-hop artists and launched Simmons’s multimillion-dollar empire as founder of music industry giant Def Jam Records, either you sit down and resolve your issues or somebody ends up paying the price, often with their life.
Peering at our ongoing situation through the lens of his own experiences has fueled Simmons’s aspirations to help resolve the thorny Middle East conundrum – which is why he spent much of last week traipsing around the country with his partner in peace efforts, US rabbi Marc Schneier, talking up their plans to bring hip-hop mediation to Israelis and Palestinians via a mosque-synagogue, rabbi-imam twinning project.
But, amid his ambitious efforts to bring Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land closer together, the would-be peacemaker found himself embroiled in his own war of words.
His adversary? Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League in New York. And it’s unclear whether this feud – which cuts to the heart of the relationship between blacks, Muslims and Jews – can be resolved at all.
SITTING AT the breakfast table on the terrace of the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem a day after his arrival, Russell Simmons doesn’t have Abe Foxman or rap feuds on his mind as much as wiping a red ketchup stain off his fashionable white polo shirt.
Various hotel staff approach the VIP with seltzer water, towels and other cleaning aids, as he and Schneier recount their first day in the country – which included a walk through the Mahaneh Yehuda market and a meeting with Mayor Nir Barkat – and gather their resources for the remainder of the week.
The night before, alleged Jewish extremists had set fire to a mosque in the village of Jaba near Ramallah, and the duo were contemplating the feasibility of expanding their already bursting schedule to pay a visit of solidarity.
“In America, when a mosque is attacked, rabbis lead a delegation of rabbis to visit the mosque,” says Simmons, spooning salad onto his plate. When told that the same thing often takes place when a mosque is vandalized in Israel and the territories, he seems pleased.
Fifty-four years old and fighting trim thanks to a regimen of yoga, transcendental meditation and a vegan diet, Simmons doesn’t come off as flamboyant or outlandish like most of the music or fashion creations he’s put his name behind.
Raised in a middle-class family in Queens, Simmons had his first encounters with Jews when he regularly ran away from pursuing white gang members in his neighborhood and sought refuge among Jewish families in Queens Village.
“I had some friends there who would hide me from the white gangs who chased me; I didn’t really know any of the history about them until I was a bit older,” Simmons adds, noting that he eventually ended up going into business with many Jewish partners, including Rick Rubin and Lyor Cohen at Def Jam and fashion chain Phat Farm, and Scott Rauch in his jewelry line, Simmons Jewelry.
“I’ve had lots of relationships with Jews – I think I know more kinds of Jews than most Jews do.”
He made his millions by having the foresight to realize that mainstream white audiences were ready for the hip-hop sounds of Public Enemy, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys, among the biggest stars to whom he gave a voice.
The subsequent wealth has afforded him the opportunity to engage in a wide range of socially conscious endeavors, including acting as Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Slavery Memorial at the United Nations honoring the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, participating in 2011’s Occupy Wall Street protests and most encompassing, working with Schneier as chairman of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, an organization that for over 20 years has focused on relations between Jews and blacks, and Jews and Muslims.
For Simmons and Schneier, the organization’s president, last week’s attack on the mosque symbolizes the challenges facing the FFEU in attempting to transfer their programs to the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
Responsible for launching twinning programs between synagogues and mosques and their clergy throughout North America and 26 other countries, the FFEU professes to be a voice of moderation, believing that peace can be achieved only through dialogue which leads to understanding.
Admitting that bringing Jews and Muslims together in the cradle of their birthplace might be a tougher nut to crack, the unlikely team of a wealthy, black business magnate and a white, Orthodox New York rabbi are adamant that their model can present a breakthrough in eliminating more than a century of suspicion, mistrust and hate that has accumulated between the followers of the two religions.
THE 53-YEAR-OLD Schneier isn’t your everyday understated rabbi. A vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, he’s also known as the “rabbi to the stars” for his high-profile pulpits at The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, New York, and the New York Synagogue in Manhattan.
Schneier is also somewhat of a controversial figure in the Jewish world. He became entangled in a tabloid scandal in 2010, when his fourth wife divorced him for having an affair with a congregant – an indiscretion he blamed on bipolar disorder.
He founded the FFEU in 1989 at the height of black-white tensions in New York and claims that the work of the organization was greatly responsible for efforts to rebuild the black-Jewish alliance in the US that rose during the Civil Rights movement.
That alliance was subsequently fractured by a number of issues that Schneier listed as: anti-Semitic rhetoric espoused by black leaders like Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan; black resentment of Israel supplying arms to South Africa; and most of all, the 1991 Crown Heights riots, which saw the black community turn on the Orthodox Jews in their midst.
Schneier recruited Simmons to become involved in the foundation 14 years ago, after the businessman/philanthropist evolved into a black community leader in his own right, and on his own was attempting to engage people like Farrakhan in dialogue in an effort to nudge them toward moderating their views.
Over the past six years, Schneier and Simmons have begun shifting their focus from Jewish-black relations to Jewish-Muslim ties, and together, they’ve become the most high-profile rabbi and black cultural icon partnership since Shmuley Boteach and Michael Jackson teamed up two decades ago to promote family values and Shabbat as a day of rest.
“Russell has really inspired our work between Jews and Muslims – our targeted objective to bring the mosques and the synagogues together,” says Schneier. “We now have literally around the world hundreds and hundreds of mosques and synagogues that are twinning. We have imams speaking in synagogues and rabbis speaking in mosques, so we’re extremely sensitive to the significance of these religious institutions and that religion is very much at the base of this conflict.”
Simmons points out that while it’s about dialogue, the program has actually produced some concrete results: letters sent by New York imams to Hamas in Gaza in an effort to release then captive IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, and efforts by rabbis led by Schneier to vocally support the efforts to build a mosque at the site of the World Trade Center.
“When there’s so much Islamophobia in a country like America, for rabbis to step up and support something like that, and to have that on Al Jazeera spread around the world, it does so much good,” Schneier says.
Simmons’s and Schneier’s visit to Israel last week was undertaken in part to test the waters over interest in their twinning project.
In addition to outlining their platform at the Presidential Conference, Simmons met with Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, and Schneier traveled to Haifa to convene a meeting of 20 religious dignitaries, including former chief rabbi of Haifa Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen and Sheikh Mohamed Kuwan, chairman of Israel’s Council of Imams.
Schneier also met with a group of Gush Etzion yeshiva students, who convene regularly with Muslim peers from Hebron to study the Torah and Koran and address some of the more difficult passages regarding their respective religions.
“What Russell and I are doing is working on a parallel peace process,” says Schneier, “in terms of trying to create a foundation of trust, so that when you encounter members of the Jewish community who honestly believe that text after text in the Koran speaks disparagingly about Jews... or if you encounter Muslims who can’t deal with Jews because they hear we refer to ourselves as, ‘The Chosen People’ not knowing what that means – how do you expect people to trust the other? If there’s not some kind of communication, if there’s not some kind of understanding, if there’s just not some kind of exchange... and that is what’s sorely lacking, particularly on a religious level.”
“I was clueless that Islam has an oral tradition like Judaism has,” Schneier continues.
“No one within the Jewish community would read the Torah in a literal fashion, right? But we’re the first ones to read the Koran in a literal fashion, and that’s why people can say ‘not only do Muslims want to kill us, but it’s actually sanctioned in the Koran.’”
Jewish-Muslim dialogue is actually nothing new, having been fostered for years by various organizations and initiatives like the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel and its director, Rabbi Ron Kronish.
Although not involved in the FFEU’s proposed program, Kronish said there are indications that it could prove to be successful within limited goals of bringing the two sides together.
“From my experience, it’s possible to work with Jews and Muslims in Israel,” he says.
“The ICCI engages in a lot of dialogue with Muslims and Jews, imams, kadis and rabbis, and there are definitely people who have been interested in this kind of activity for many years. I wish this new initiative well, and I’d be interested in knowing the ‘tachlis’ about it.”
SCHNEIER AND SIMMONS intended to disclose some of those details during their Presidential Conference appearance, but the headlines instead focused on a remark Simmons made about ADL leader Foxman which touched on the elephant in the room of Jewish- Muslim and Jewish-black understanding: should repeat anti-Semitic offenders be condemned and cut off from discourse, or courted for dialogue in the hopes getting them to see the error of their ways? Simmons defended his relationship with Farrakhan, and said that just as the Muslim leader had alienated Jews with his remarks and slurs over the years, so had Foxman alienated African-Americans. Foxman responded to the unprecedented public comparison with his own tirade against Simmons.
“We’ve heard this kind of doublespeak before, so it is not surprising to hear Russell Simmons once again making excuses for the polarizing anti-Semitic and racist speech of Louis Farrakhan,” Foxman said in a statement.
“He’s been doing that for years.
What’s outrageous is how divisive and ugly his attack on us was.”
Foxman also laid into Schneier, claiming that he stood by in silence over Simmons’s statement.
“Where was his defense of this 100-yearold organization that has not only defended against anti-Semitism but has worked alongside the African-American community on some of the most important civil rights struggles in our nation’s history? Shame on Simmons, and shame on Schneier.”
Days before, at the David Citadel, Simmons had tried to explain the rationale, the reason he continues to engage Farrakhan, despite his obviously anti-Semitic statements – because making an issue of it only strengthens his followers.
“It’s funny... there haven’t been many black leaders that haven’t been called an anti-Semite. I’m not going to defend anyone here,” he said. “But when you attack someone, you’re also attacking their followers.
Don’t get into a fistfight with him because he’s been the funding source of Abe Foxman’s work. You need a bogeyman.
If you get into these big fights, you escalate back and forth. And the black community thinks that Abe Foxman is the Jewish community.”
Whenever someone says something “stupid,” whether it be Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton or Will Smith, Simmons added, the solution is to have a dialogue.
“Fix it! Whatever anybody said that was not quite right, you can fix it. And you can fix their followers, which is more important.
These people have millions of friends, and you don’t want to get in a fight with them if you can help it.”
Simmons evidently didn’t want to get into a fight with Foxman either, because in an email to The Daily Beast upon his return to New York after the conference, he attempted to partially make amends.
“Abe Foxman [who I respect] and I provide different and equally important functions [in promoting tolerance]. Abe is a staunch defender and I am a determined mediator. I see the good in every sincere leader, and I seldom even attack those who seem to some like hypocrites. There is much I disagree with in many messengers, but I fight to bring them to the table just the same, not the least Minister Louis Farrakhan.
I choose, as a mediator, to give more relevance to his moral standing as a defender of black people around the world and his faith. I fight every day to foster dialogue, understanding and the humanization of all faiths whatever their past positions.
“My statements at the President’s Conference were not meant to ‘compare Abe Foxman to Minister Farrakhan,’ as some in the press liked to note. They were 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. I would say it is easier to change the leadership without angering all their followers – namely to call them up and meet with them personally instead of attacking them publicly.”
Reached at the end of his stay in Israel, Schneier called Simmons one of the greatest friends of the Jewish people and an advocate for the State of Israel, and said it was “sad that Abe would spend so much time and energy attacking him.”
“As an Orthodox rabbi, I am not afraid to engage in conversations with people I don’t agree with – people like Farrakhkan,” said Schneier. “To really have an authentic affiliation between people on earth, we must have a dialogue – that is a very basic principle of our foundation.”
Schneier expressed satisfaction at his and Simmons’s meetings with the Jewish and Muslim religious leaders in Israel, saying that “lights went off” when he explained the twinning initiative.
As for Simmons, his dream is for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to sign on as honorary chairmen of the program, a desire that prompted chuckles by some of those with him at the table at the hotel. For the first time during the breakfast, he seemed ruffled.
“Why is that funny? If you can’t do that, than you’re worse than any rapper that comes into the room. You talk no matter what’s gonna be playing. You gotta talk.”
His polo shirt once again pristine white, Simmons rises from breakfast to begin another busy day in Jerusalem, including a visit to a Peres Center for Peace soccer game between Jewish and Arab youth, and a reunion with fellow hip-hop survivor Shyne, now living in Israel, practicing Orthodox Judaism and signed to Def Jam.
Simmons’s road is an uphill one. The idea of sitting down and talking with adversaries in an effort to understand them is one that he’s confident can produce results. But reconciling between Drake and Chris Brown is one thing – bringing Middle East combatants together is a whole other ball game, and Simmons may find that when it comes to overcoming the biases, animosity and mentality of the feuding factions in our region, he may not yet be ready for the major leagues. ■
Elle Yahalom contributed to this report.