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From left to right are Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Imam Feisal Rauf, Rabbi Marc Schneier, Russell Simmons Photo by Jeanette Friedman

Newark ““ A dialogue on Black-Jewish relations by the leaders of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding – Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Hamptons Synagogue and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons – expanded its focus with the unplanned arrival of Imam Feisal Rauf of the controversial Cordoba House planned for Lower Manhattan.

The event, which also featured Newark Mayor Cory Booker, was held at the Newark Art Museum and was attended by members of the Newark Municipal Council, local activists, and a handful of concerned Jews.

Rauf entered the museum hall as Schneier, rabbi at the Hamptons Synagogue, was describing the media storm surrounding “the mosque at Ground Zero.” Schneier made the point that media can be used to almost instantaneously change the public perception of a group. “Overnight you could see how credibility could be shattered. There are so many examples of how the media can influence people to turn,” he said.

Simmons echoed those concerns. “The level of tolerance has dropped dramatically in the last twelve months. Things that were unacceptable twenty years ago are now allowed,” he said.

After being invited to join the panel, the imam described how his efforts downtown were intended to connect people. “Members of the Cordoba community had wanted, for years, to build a community center like the YMCA or the 92nd Street Y that would be open to everyone, with a dedicated prayer space that would serve as an interfaith chapel.” He later added that “there were those who took advantage of the situation to promote hatred for their own uses.” He was specifically referring to media outlets that sensationalized the issue for the sake of ratings or sales.

Simmons talked about “that jerk in Florida [Terry Jones], the one who wanted to burn the Korans on 9/11. Why did the media make him the global face of America? Fear of Islam is worse now than it was on 9/11-it is at an all time high.”

Rauf, discussing the origins of American Muslims, pointed out that most Americans associate Islam with African Americans like Mohammed Ali and Malcolm X, and suggested that there may be a subliminal carry-over from racism.

There was agreement among the speakers that anti-Islamism and anti-Semitism are on the rise, accelerating recently as events in the Middle East heated up. Schneier and Simmons expressed fear that the Congressional hearings on home-grown Islamic extremists in America, called for March 7 by Rep. Peter King, D-N.Y., will only make matters worse.

“I am deeply troubled by the hearings called for next month and worry that Muslims across America will come under attack. While I understand that Congressman King has a responsibility for Homeland Security, the way the issue is being presented to the American public is most un-American,” said Schneier.

In speaking of bridge-building among the Black and Jewish communities, which he insisted must also apply to the Muslims, Schneier said that the advances in civil rights would probably not have taken place as quickly if African Americans were left to fight that battle alone, and wondered out loud at “Why should American Muslims have to defend themselves against the hatred alone?”

Simmons said that the real battle is against extremists. “The extremists from every religion or ideology are the people we have to fight.”

Booker insisted that everyone needs to learn more about each others’ cultures. “We can’t have love without knowledge. We know so little about each other. We should read the Koran and see the loving message that is in it that is the same as our own religions,” he said.

The mayor described his first encounter with Orthodox Judaism at a Simchas Torah celebration in London. “It’s where I learned we are all children of Abraham, and that you should go outside your comfort zone to learn about others. I was surrounded by people wearing funny looking black hats who had fringes coming out of their clothes as if they were badly tailored. I wanted to leave because I was so uncomfortable. But the rabbi invited me to the holiday meal, and I ended up dancing with the Torah. After that we decided to do a book exchange. He sent me ‘Night’ by Elie Wiesel, and books by Maimonides. I began to see the parallels and that deepened my values and my ability to love the other. It does take time, but we all have to work on ourselves, because we still have a long way to go,” he said.

The imam described how the Abrahamic faiths worship the one God, and express the same basic values with the same basic tools-prayer, good deeds, fasting, and song.

Simmons pointed out that “Abraham wasn’t Jewish, Jesus was Jewish, and Mohammed wasn’t a Muslim. All these religions were invented later, but all of these people preached the same thing. It has to start with each one of us, from inside our hearts.”

The rabbi used the occasion to address the Jewish community at large. After describing how some of his congregants were upset when he first proposed that they visit a mosque, an attitude that later dramatically become positive, he said, “Don’t walk away from events like this thinking this is all pie-in-the-sky dialogue, there are also practical considerations. We cannot do everything alone, especially when we are fighting anti-Semitism and especially Holocaust denial. When Palestinian students came to America to visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage/Living Memorial to the Holocaust, Hamas blew a gut. But it was the Islamic Society of North America who stood up to Hamas and said every Muslim should know the truth of that event.”