It’s a sweltering day in Jerusalem. Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, founder of a major record label and clothing company, sits fanning himself with a magazine. Next to him is Orthodox rabbi Marc Schneier, vice president of the World Jewish Congress.
The two men seem an unlikely pair. Simmons is sporting plaid shorts, yogic beads, sneakers and a Yankees baseball cap. Schneier is wearing a well-pressed dark suit, a black kippah (a skullcap worn by Orthodox Jewish men), and freshly shined shoes – without so much as a bead of sweat in sight. Schneier is the founding rabbi of the Hamptons Synagogue in New York and the scion of a well-known rabbinical family. Simmons is a multimillionaire vegan who hails from Queens, New York, and practices Transcendental Meditation.
Yes, they seem an unlikely pair. But only at first glance.
For the two are clearly in sync, completing each other’s sentences, volleying answers back and forth with the ease of a yearslong friendship, and frequently poking the interviewer sitting between them in the shoulder to emphasize their points, which are more often than not being made with great passion, at the exact same time and in full volume.
This is Simmons’ maiden voyage to Israel, but one that he has been working toward for a long time. Although he himself is not Muslim, Simmons is a longtime advocate for greater tolerance and understanding toward Muslims in America. He has come with Schneier to promote the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU), an organization that they co-founded, which is dedicated to strengthening Muslim-Jewish relations around the world.
The FFEU’s flagship project, called the twinning program, brings together Jewish and Muslim communities for weekend-long engagements during which they build joint programs and partnerships designed to launch long-lasting cooperation.
Working with the World Jewish Congress and the Islamic Society of North America, the FFEU has “twinned” hundreds of communities, sending imams to meet with Jewish congregations in synagogues and rabbis to speak in mosques.
“It’s a simple idea but it’s not being done,” says Simmons, sitting down for a glass of water at the President’s Conference, an annual four-day gathering of thinkers and leaders in Jerusalem focusing on the Middle East. The two men were invited by the Israeli presidency. “We share the firm belief that it is high time Jews and Muslims learned how to trust and fight for each other – not against one another,” explains Schneier. “And for that, you have to actually know each other,” adds Simmons.
Simmons is a seasoned activist, fighting for vegan and environmental causes as well as for animal rights, gay rights and recently, the Occupy Wall Street movement protesting economic inequality. But, he says, “Nothing that I have fought for has spread nearly as quickly as our work with blacks, Muslims and Jews. We have over 100 programs in America and have branched out into over 30 countries around the world.”
Israel-Palestine always seemed a particularly challenging topic, both men admit, but one they were always keen to engage with. And now, feeling the time is right, they have come to the Holy Land. In Haifa, Schneier met with a consortium of rabbis and imams interested in the twinning project. Meanwhile, Simmons met with the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammad Ahmad Hussein, to explain the project and suggest he set a personal example by sitting down with one of Israel’s chief rabbis.
“In Haifa I saw lights going on in people’s heads during our meeting,” says Schneier. “It’s so obvious, this twinning. But sometimes it takes someone from the outside to see the obvious.”
The mufti was positive about the project too, says Simmons. “I was encouraged. There is potential,” he added.
“His rap about religion was the most tolerant I have heard. We talked about his love for the Jewish people and the potential for peace. When you hear this message from the grand mufti and when you hear a similar message from the chief rabbi you feel hopeful,” concludes Simmons.
Simmons knows that there are limits to what the foundation can do. Neither he nor Schneier can promise that the grand mufti and the chief rabbi will sit down together. But they have faith.
Danna Harman is the former Europe correspondent for Haaretz and is currently a feature writer for its new digital edition. Danna has also worked for the Christian Science Monitor as their Africa and Latin America bureau chief. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).