Right of Reply: An off-hand comment

Mr. Leibler appointed himself spokesperson for world Jewry, proclaimed that Rabbi Schneier should be named persona non grata.

Russell Simmons 370 (R) (photo credit: Fred Prouser / Reuters)
Russell Simmons 370 (R)
(photo credit: Fred Prouser / Reuters)
In the wake of our joint visit to Israel last week where we worked to promote our activities to bridge the divide between the Muslim and Jewish communities, significant press coverage has been diverted to a three-second off-hand comment made during a panel at the President’s Conference in Jerusalem.
In that discussion, which explored a variety of issues concerning our decades-long campaign to promote tolerance between races and communities, the focus has turned to a very brief exchange with the moderator in which Russell Simmons alleged that the head of the Anti Defamation League (ADL), Abe Foxman, had alienated some in America’s African-American community.
This 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. 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.
The statement at the President’s Conference was never meant to “compare Abe Foxman to Minister [Louis] Farrakhan,” as some in the press have baselessly suggested. The comments were intended to point out the kind of results one gets from public attacks on many African-American leaders over the years, namely that many African-Americans around the country believe that when Foxman attacks their leaders, it is an attack by the Jewish community on them as well.
This approach can sting for a long time. We have spent much of our adult lives strengthening the relationship between Blacks and Jews. We sincerely hope this latest issue doesn’t escalate because such a public debate is not helpful to our communities and it also undermines the work done on behalf of the Jewish community – namely the hundreds of twinning programs we have helped to create in the synagogues and mosques in over 30 countries around the world.
WE FEEL it necessary to use our “right of reply” through this column to a scathing and superfluous personal attack against us published online this week in The Jerusalem Post by Isi Leibler. Mr. Leibler appointed himself as a spokesperson for world Jewry and promptly proclaimed that Rabbi Marc Schneier should be named persona non grata because of our friendship and the comment made last week in Jerusalem.
Rather than debate the substance of our work, Leibler launched a string of petty attacks against us – all of which were steeped in ignorance. Mr. Leibler’s summer rerun of canards and outright lies are set to flight by the most cursory examination of press coverage of our activities over recent years, including extensive news reports appearing in this newspaper.
Rather than focusing on the facts and the role that Rabbi Schneier has played in inspiring and leading thousands of people as a rabbi and communal leader over the years, Leibler lashed out.
Mr. Leibler then alleged that we laughed off the comment made about Mr. Foxman. We both knew then and there that the comment was made off-the-cuff, as is Russell’s style in decades of activism on behalf of a myriad of worthwhile causes. Rather than allow the overall message of our panel and our visit to be waylaid by this one fleeting phrase, we remained focused on our agenda of working to promote dialogue.
In retrospect, we regret that the comment came out as it did, but far more deeply regret that individuals like Leibler have pounced on the comment to obscure and denigrate the genuine focus of our work and our time in Israel – which was the actual subject of our talk.
We have never shied away from legitimate criticism. Those who wish to debate the value of our work – based on its real merits – are welcome to do so. After witnessing years of success in bridging communal divides, there is no time more pressing than the present to promote dialogue between the Muslim and Jewish communities.
We know that the large gathering of rabbis and imams from across Israel who came together last week in Haifa for this purpose will certainly agree that the concept of promoting co-existence is both viable and critical. We have always believed that to achieve real peace and dialogue we must be prepared to speak with those who think differently than us.
Those like Mr. Leibler who wish to silence openness to opinions different than his are unlikely to ever successfully promote any real resolution of conflict with our enemies. For those of us who firmly believe that peaceful co-existence is possible and attainable, silence can never be an option.
Rabbi Marc Schneier is the founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. Russell Simmons is the FFEU’s chairman.