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Queens College hosts Def Jam founder, renowned rabbi

The black and Jewish communities in the United States need to promote the goodwill that formed between the two groups during the civil rights movement to combat prejudice, especially against Muslims, hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons and Chairman of the World Jewish Congress United States Rabbi Marc Schneier said at Queens College this week.

“There was an alliance between the blacks and the Jews because of a shared experience of suffering,” said Simmons, the founder of hip-hop label Def Jam Recordings. “They’re aligned because of their suffering and potential of new suffering.”

Simmons spoke with Schneier at a Queens College Hillel event celebrating the 20th anniversary of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, of which Simmons is chairman and Schneier is founder and president.

Simmons, who grew up in Hollis, is a United Nations goodwill ambassador. Schneier is a leading personality in the Jewish Community, and Newsweek Magazine has named him one of America’s top 50 rabbis. The Forward, a Jewish newspaper, named him one of the 50 most prominent Jews in the country.

Black and Jewish individuals often worked together during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s, Simmons and Schneier said, and it is time for them to use that common history to highlight a growing bias against Muslims in the United States and Europe.

“The next step for us is to fight Islamophobia,” Simmons said of the future of black-Jewish relations. “… The main focus cannot only be between two communities but a light from two communities that spreads.”

Though the black and Jewish communities have experienced tension following the civil rights movement, including the Crown Heights riots in 1991 that began after the child of Guyanese immigrants was accidentally struck and killed by a motorcade of a Hasidic rabbi, Schneier said the groups are once again working together.

“Thank God after some 50 years we’ve witnessed a restoration of that alliance,” Schneier said. “Programs like this afternoon help to rediscover our shared values.”

Queens College Rabbi Moshe Shur, who mediated the event, noted his school has a “beautiful opportunity here” to work on communication between a multitude of ethnic and racial groups at one of the country’s most diverse institutions.

“We have an opportunity to meet people from all over the world here,” said Shur, who traveled with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to register black voters in the South in the summer of 1965. “We have a wonderful possibility to open our hearts.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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