September 15, 2019

The Muslim-Jewish side of Russell Simmons

Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons is bringing his passion for Jewish-Muslim relations to the West Coast.

Simmons, who co-founded record label Def Jam at the age of 26 and helped jumpstart the careers of the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J, relocated from New York to Los Angeles in January to pursue the development of film and television projects, he recently told the Journal. But while here, he also hopes to bring more visibility to the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a New York-based nonprofit that is dedicated to face-to-face dialogue between ethnic groups, including Jews and Muslims.

“The rights you take for granted are no good unless you fight to give those same rights to others,” said Simmons, the foundation’s chair. “And that’s the mantra we live by.”

One of the foundation’s initiatives, known as the Weekend of Twinning — which is held in partnership with the World Jewish Congress and the Islamic Society of North America — brings congregations at synagogues and mosques and young leadership groups together every November and December for joint programs. 

During the initiative’s inaugural year in 2007, 50 synagogues and 50 mosques from across North America participated. The Weekend of Twinning has grown steadily since then, with communities in 33 countries currently participating, according to Rabbi Marc Schneier, president and co-founder of the foundation.

Local twinning efforts take place each year. In 2010, Jewish teens from Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Muslim youth from the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City joined to feed the homeless of downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

Outside of New York, Los Angeles has the largest communities of Jews and Muslims, making the city prime for twinning programming, Schneier said.

But the foundation is about more than increasing dialogue between Muslims and Jews, Schneier said. Its most important work is urging Muslims and Jews to support each other when one is under attack by a third party. 

Muslims standing up for Jews can be more effective than Jews standing up for Jews, and vice-versa, Schneier said. He pointed to examples: In 2011, when Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) held congressional hearings on the radicalization of Muslim-Americans, the foundation responded by holding a demonstration in Times Square that gathered Jewish leaders under the slogan, “I am a Muslim, too.” That same year, the foundation worked with Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, in calling for the release of then-captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

“We believe that the great challenge for the 21st century for interreligious dialogue is strengthening relations between Muslims and Jews,” Schneier said. As the leader of the New York-based Hampton Synagogue and its Manhattan affiliate, the New York Synagogue, Schneier regularly visits the Islamic Cultural Center of New York and exchanges pulpits with Imam Shamsi Ali, a prominent Muslim scholar from the same city.

Founded in 1989, the foundation originally was focused on improving dialogue between blacks and Jews. Relations between the two groups deteriorated after the Crown Heights riots of 1991, which was the result of neighborhood tensions between African-Americans and Orthodox Jews.

Simmons, who is in his mid-50s, became chair of the foundation 11 years ago, and in 2007 he co-starred in a public-service announcement with rapper Jay-Z that denounced anti-Semitism, likening it to racism. The commercial aired internationally, but nowhere did it appear on television more than in Europe. Schneier had recently come back from a trip to France, where anti-Semitism was on the rise. 

“ ‘We have to do something,’ ” Simmons recalled the rabbi saying. “And I said, ‘You’re right, but let me come up with an idea that’s not … Jewish people defending themselves.’ ” 

This was in accordance with Schneier’s view that the foundation is not just “about dialogue. It’s about fighting for each other.” That tenet was central to the foundation’s rebuilding of black-Jewish ties.

Now that he is living in Los Angeles, the center of the entertainment industry, Simmons hopes that he can get Hollywood excited about Muslim-Jewish dialogue. He believes he can. 

Hollywood would “be very sympathetic to the cause. … There are so many people who are partners and my friends who can help me in furthering this work,” Simmons said. 

“This is a mainstream phenomenon waiting to happen,” he added.

And with Simmons’ help, the notion of bringing Jews and Muslims together will become more chic, more in vogue, according to Schneier.

“He’s the master brander,” the rabbi said. “This man created a whole culture in terms of hip-hop.” 

According to Schneier, the Weekend of Twinning’s boots-on-the-ground work will persist — the organization will continue to facilitate the exchange of pulpits between rabbis and imams and organizing joint community service projects — but “you also need the movers and shakers to say this has to be a priority issue for our respective communities,” he said.

It is the heated, elephant-in-the-room topic when Muslims and Jews are together in any space, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has to be part of any conversation between the groups, Simmons and Schneier agreed. The trick is that the communities find middle ground, such as that there should be a two-state solution. 

Demonstrative of what he brings to the table, Simmons is currently in pre-production on a hip-hop song that will feature Israeli, Israeli-Arab and Palestinian rappers. He could not say when recording will begin, but he said that legendary Jewish producer Rick Rubin — who has worked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and who co-founded Def Jam — and Palestinian record producer DJ Khaled, whose full name is Khaled bin Abdul Khaled, have expressed interest in participating.

“That’s our response to the BDS [movement],” Schneier said, referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which encourages artists to refuse bringing their work to Israel out of protest of the Israelis’ treatment of the Palestinians. 

Simmons said he “would never do such a thing” when asked about participating in the boycott movement. Instead, he said, we need “creative aggravation in terms of pushing people toward the center.”

Simmons said that his commitment to building bridges dates back to his early years in hip-hop. This desire drove his role in the recording of Run-D.M.C.’s cover of “Walk This Way,” one of the first rap-rock songs, and his managing of the Beastie Boys, an all-white hip-hop group.

Last July, Simmons took his first trip to Israel to discuss with Israel’s Foreign Ministry the possibility of bringing twinning to the Jewish state. Simmons and Schneier were also guests at Israeli President Shimon Peres’ Facing Tomorrow conference in Jerusalem, meeting the politician in person.

Simmons is neither Jewish nor Muslim. And he is not Christian, either. He calls himself a yogi, and says he believes in yogic scripture. But he has had his share of exposure to Judaism through his friendship with Brett Ratner (the “Rush Hour” director got his start shooting music videos for Simmons), who is the only child of Jewish socialite Marcia Presman. Additionally, Simmons said his professional relationship with Lyor Cohen, former CEO of recorded music for Warner Music Group and son of Israeli citizens, has taught him much about the religion.

But his true religion may be “culture.” He said that media can introduce people to ideas that are world-changing. The ideas just need to be delivered in a provocative way.

“People are unconscious in general,” Simmons said. “People do what the crowd does until they are challenged to think about their responses to the world.”