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Oddly enough, it all started about the same time that Simmons and celebrity rabbi Marc Schneier announced the launch of "I Am a Jew," an ad campaignfronted by Beyoncé, Halle Berry, and Jay-Zthat's scheduled to air this summer. Foxman kicked off his public correspondence with Simmons on Valentine's Day, when he issued a statement on the ADL website challenging Simmons's anti-anti-Semitism:
"It is unfortunate that one of those promoting this campaign is Russell Simmons. Despite our meeting and repeated requests over the years, Mr. Simmons has continued to make apologies for Minister Louis Farrakhan. . . . It is hypocritical for Mr. Simmons to lead a charge against anti-Semitism while failing to denounce manifestations of anti-Jewish hatred within his own community. . . . Mr. Simmons needs to immediately and publicly distance himself from Minister Farrakhan's hateful rhetoric."
Simmons tells the Voice that he didn't want to respond at first. But Foxman continued to criticize, he says, and last month the veteran ADL director sent letters to dozens of black politicos, asking them to distance themselves from the Millions More Movement. That's when the gloves came off.
"I didn't want this to become a pissing match between me and Foxman," Simmons says. "I don't want to take the focus off the positive message of the march. But I had to respond, or other [black leaders] would haveand I know the Jewish communities better than some of them do. Foxman doesn't represent all of them."
Simmons's reply, widely seen on the Internet, called Foxman "misguided, arrogant, and very disrespectful of African Americans." He cautioned that Foxman's meddling could deepen any existing rift between the two communities. (Foxman has not returned Voice calls for comment.)
A lot of African American and lefty Jewish bloggers and Web commentators have the same opinionthat Foxman should pipe down. Dan Charnas, a hip-hop writer in Harlem, says the ADL should pick its battles more selectively.
"As a Jew," says Charnas, "I wouldn't trust Farrakhan as far as I could throw him, but he's gone on the record tempering his [anti-Semitic] comments. Why denounce him? For what? What is the threat to the Jews in this march? It's not good politics to try and get leaders to denounce each other. Does the ADL want to be right, or effective?"
Some black activists say Farrakhan has made overtures to Jews, women, and gay people in recent years, but no such claims have been made on behalf of Millions More Movement co-organizer Malik Shabazz of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, whom the ADL criticizes as racist and anti-Semitic. Larry Kopp, executive director for Schneier's Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, says that while Farrakhan has made sincere efforts to mend fences, Shabazz's "hateful rhetoric is beyond the pale." (Shabazz didn't return Voice calls.)
Insiders say that Simmons has a fractious history with Shabazz, dating at least as far back as the 2003 Million Youth March. Shabazz was reportedly angry that Simmons declined to support it.
Foxman, in his most recent open letter to Simmons, says: "There is a need for good people to stand up and not give credibility to hatemongers. . . . [M]oderate leaders need to demonstrate what true leadership is about and not be dragged along by the demagogues."
Simmons tells the Voice, "I won't respond to him ever again. I don't want to inciteI don't want this to be an angry march. This is about uplifting people from poverty, overcoming obstacles, and practicing more self-love. That's Farrakhan's message."
Others echo him. Riverdale physician Linda Rock says that she had never heard of Malik Shabazz but that she respects Farrakhan's work in the African American community and thus will donate time and money to the October event.
"I regret comments [Farrakhan] has made that have been interpreted as anti-Semitic," says Rock, "and I regret that Mr. Foxman appears to be placing Simmons in an untenable position."