Hip-hop Mogul’s Ad Campaign Fuels Feud Between Groups

By Eric J. Greenberg

Published February 18, 2005, issue of February 18, 2005.
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The announcement that hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons is spearheading a celebrity-driven campaign to fight antisemitism has triggered a feud between two national Jewish organizations dedicated to promoting tolerance.

At issue is the participation of Simmons in the “I Am a Jew” ad campaign of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a New York-based group founded by Rabbi Marc Schneier that has focused largely on improving black-Jewish relations. The Anti-Defamation League issued a press release this week criticizing Simmons, the legendary recording executive who serves as chairman of the foundation, for failing to publicly distance himself from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

“Despite our meeting and repeated requests over the years, Mr. Simmons has continued to make apologies for Minister Louis Farrakhan and his long record of antisemitism,” ADL national director Abraham Foxman said in the statement. “It is hypocritical for Mr. Simmons to lead a charge against antisemitism while failing to denounce manifestations of anti-Jewish hatred within his own community.”

Foxman noted that, this past December, “in a typical conspiratorial diatribe against Jews, Minister Farrakhan said the war in Iraq was ‘Israel’s war.’ Yet, we have never once heard Mr. Simmons make any attempt to denounce Farrakhan’s antisemitism. Instead, he has continued to make excuses for it, or ignore it entirely.”

The ADL leader called on Simmons to “immediately and publicly distance himself from Minister Farrakhan’s hateful rhetoric.”

Asked Tuesday to comment on the ADL’s statement, Schneier said: “I wouldn’t dignify it. I wouldn’t waste my time.” Some Jewish organization officials have criticized Schneier for meeting with Farrahkhan in June 2001, a private affair arranged by Simmons. Repeated calls to Simmons’s office were not returned.

Simmons, 48, the founder of Def Jam Records, brought hip-hop culture into the American mainstream. He also runs fashion enterprises and has increasingly used his influence to promote various causes, including overturning New York’s punishing drug laws and battling inner-city violence and poverty.

Some of Simmons’s defenders privately described Foxman’s attack as bizarre, and recounted a series of efforts the recording executive and promoter has made on behalf of the Jewish community, including being honored by UJA-Federation of New York, working with the Israeli Consulate in New York and consulting with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying giant in Washington.

Schneier has said that the genesis of the foundation’s ad campaign was a 2003 meeting of Jewish communal leaders from across the world, in which Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel warned of growing antisemitism in Europe.

Schneier shared Wiesel’s concerns with Simmons, who immediately volunteered to launch a campaign. Celebrities invited to participate include actors Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington, Richard Gere and Leonardo DiCaprio. In addition, MTV and “Entertainment Tonight” have agreed to donate studio space.

The celebrity voices will be translated into French, German and Italian for airing in European nations. The public service spots are expected to be taped next month and could be broadcast by late spring.

The ADL ran a similar “AntiSemitism Is Anti-Me” campaign last year, featuring an Asian boy, a Protestant reverend and model Naomi Campbell denouncing antisemitism as an attack on all minorities. An ADL spokeswoman said that Foxman’s criticisms of Simmons were not related to the similarities between the two campaigns.

Foxman’s attack is not the first time that Simmons has been criticized for his association with Farrakhan. In 2001, Dov Hikind, a New York State Democratic assemblyman, urged candidates to reject Simmons’s support because of his ties to Farrakhan, who had just delivered the keynote address at a rap-music summit sponsored by Simmons.

In response, Simmons issued a release saying: “I have actively encouraged a dialogue between all of the leaders of the African-American and Jewish communities in hopes of improving relations.”

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