Donald Trump's rabbi: Why is the founder of the Museum of Tolerance praying at the inauguration of a president who spews hate?

A study in hypocrisy: Rabbi Marvin Hier, who launched a major anti-discrimination nonprofit, will pray with Trump

Published January 9, 2017 11:00PM (EST)

Rabbi Marvin Hier; Donald Trump   (Getty/Tom Pennington/Eric Charbonneau)
Rabbi Marvin Hier; Donald Trump (Getty/Tom Pennington/Eric Charbonneau)

A shorter version of this article also appeared in the Forward.

When my children were growing up — during their elementary school through high school years — my wife and I frequently took them to Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance. I’ve also taken friends to this wonderful institution, which I consider an essential stop for out-of-town visitors. It attracts more than 250,000 people a year.

Although its roots are lie in educating people about the causes and consequences of the Nazi Holocaust, its exhibits and programs have a much wider sweep. The museum’s mission, according to its website, is to “confront all forms of prejudice and discrimination in our world today,” to “prevent hatred and genocide from occurring to any group now and in the future” and to promote “society’s quest to live peacefully together.”

So I was shocked and outraged to learn that Rabbi Marvin Hier, the museum’s founder and current dean, will be delivering a prayer at Donald Trump’s inauguration.

It isn’t hard to see the irony. Before, during and since his campaign for president, Trump has been a voice for bigotry, hatred and intolerance. He has directed insults at Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans, women, people with disabilities and Jews. He has retweeted messages from white supremacists. His incendiary comments were not offhand remarks, but a core and frequently repeated part of his campaign rhetoric.

It would be nice to believe that Rabbi Hier will use the occasion to condemn Trump’s bigotry. Doing so would be in sync with the words of the great theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehood.”

Many Americans will mistakenly view Hier, one of six clergy members who will speak at the inauguration, as representing the American Jewish community, even though Trump won only 24 percent of the Jewish vote. Inviting Hier to bless his inauguration was a smart public relations move on Trump’s part, another example of his genius at branding. From now on, whether he likes it or not, Hier will be known as “Trump’s rabbi.”

Rabbi Hier might not mind the association. After all, to build the Museum of Tolerance and its parent organization, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Hier developed close ties to wealthy donors and politicians from both parties. Indeed, his museum received at least $35,000 in donations from the family of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Trump and Rabbi Hier have something else in common: putting family members on the payroll. In addition to Hier's $827,408 salary, his wife Marlene earns $440,603 as the director of membership development, and his sons Alan and Aron are also on the Wiesenthal Center's staff. A report by the Forward called Rabbi Hier “by far the most overpaid CEO” of any major Jewish nonprofit organization.

Last summer Rabbi Haskel Lookstein — the rabbi who converted Trump’s daughter Ivanka to Judaism and who leads her synagogue in New York — backed out of giving the invocation at the Republican convention, bowing to pressure from Orthodox Jews who believed his presence would legitimize Trump.

Now, however, Trump isn’t just a candidate but the next president, although one who will take office with the lowest favorability rating of any incoming commander in chief. Simply by appearing at the ceremony, Hier will be giving Trump the legitimacy he craves and normalizing the bigotry he espouses.

Hier surely knows that the hate, stereotypes and insults that Trump has been spewing violate basic tenets of Jewish law, tradition and values, including the demand to treat “strangers” with respect and dignity. Hier should urge Trump to follow the wisdom of the prophets — “to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” — rather than focus primarily on the pursuit of profits.

If there is any lesson to be learned from Jewish history, it is the admonition against scapegoating: blaming innocent people or entire groups for one’s own or others’ suffering. Trump, however, has made scapegoating a core part of his rhetorical arsenal.

Trump has not only made ugly comments about entire groups of people but also mocked, bullied and belittled people with whom he disagrees, who have criticized him or whose looks or diabilities he finds troubling.

1. In addition to calling women “pigs,” “slobs” and “dogs,” he hurled insults at former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, calling her “Miss Housekeeping” and “Miss Piggy,” among other demeaning slurs. After then Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly asked Trump about his many anti-women comments over the years, Trump said, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.”

During the Republican primaries, Trump insulted his GOP rival Carly Fiorina, telling a Rolling Stone reporter, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?” And we’re all familiar with the tape revealing Trump’s boast: “I'm automatically attracted to beautiful [women] — I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. . . . Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything."

2. In addition to calling for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, Trump attacked Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son Humayun, a U.S. Army captain who was killed in Iraq and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart. He erroneously claimed that Ghazala Khan, standing next to her husband at the Democratic convention, was not allowed to speak because she was Muslim.

3. At a campaign rally, Trump flailed his arms and mocked Serge Kovaleski, a New York Times reporter who has a chronic condition that limits the movement of his arms. He was angry at Kovaleski for challenging Trump’s lie that Muslims in New Jersey had celebrated the 9/11 attacks.

4. In addition to calling Mexican immigrants “criminals” and “rapists,” Trump attacked Judge Gonzalo Curiel, a U.S.-born citizen of Mexican ancestry, who was presiding over a trial brought by people who alleged they had been scammed by Trump University. He accused the jurist of having an “absolute conflict” that should prevent him from overseeing the case because he is “of Mexican heritage.” Trump even attacked Pope Francis after the pontiff criticized Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border.

5. Many military veterans were offended when Trump — who sought and received five draft deferments during the Vietnam War that exempted him from military service — mocked Sen. John McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner in North Vietnam. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, OK? I hate to tell you. He’s a war hero because he was captured, OK?”

6. In 1989, after five New York teenagers (four African-Americans and one Latino) were arrested for raping a white woman who had been jogging in Central Park, Trump paid a reported $85,000 to buy ads in all four of the city’s major newspapers with the headline “Bring Back The Death Penalty. Bring Back The Police!” In those ads, Trump wrote, “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.”

Trump’s inflammatory ads contributed to the racism and lynch-mob hysteria that led jurors to convict the defendants, whom the media dubbed the “Central Park Five.” In 2002 a career criminal serving a life sentence confessed to the 1989 rape, and all five men had their convictions vacated by the New York Supreme Court. Last October when Trump was confronted with the facts about the case, including the DNA evidence establishing the defendants’ innocence, he refused to apologize and insisted that the men were guilty

Rabbi Hier cannot be unaware of the Trump campaign’s persistent anti-Semitism. Trump verbalized it, enabled it, tolerated it and made excuses for it. What he never did was denounce it.

During the campaign Trump retweeted an image taken from a white supremacist and anti-Semitic website that depicted Hillary Clinton with a Jewish star and $100 bills in the background and the headline “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever.” In a campaign speech, Trump said, “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors.”

Trump didn’t need to use the word “Jew.” The imagery of a global banking cabal will be familiar to anyone who has read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the anti-Semitic forgery that has fueled anti-Jewish violence for over a century. Rabbi Hier certainly knows that these are anti-Semitic code words. The speech, typical of Trump’s paranoid conspiracy theories, was designed to fire up Trump’s white nationalist, anti-Semitic base.

At his campaign rallies and during the debates, Trump frequently identified three people as Hillary Clinton’s strongest supporters: Sidney Blumenthal, George Soros and Debbie Wasserman Schultz. All three are Jewish. This was not random name-dropping. They were dog whistles aimed at his racist and anti-Semitic supporters.

Trump once tweeted: “I promise you that I’m much smarter than Jonathan Leibowitz — I mean Jon Stewart @TheDailyShow. Who, by the way, is totally overrated.” While Stewart has often referred to himself as Jewish, only an anti-Semite would refer to Stewart’s Jewish-sounding real name in this way.

During his campaign, Trump feigned ignorance of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, the well-known racist and anti-Semite. He refused to condemn and reject Duke’s political support until pressured to do so.

Asked in an interview if he’d read any of Adolf Hitler’s speeches, Trump said: “If I had these speeches, and I am not saying that I do, I would never read them. . . . My friend Marty Davis from Paramount gave me a copy of ‘Mein Kampf,’ and he’s a Jew.” (In fact, Davis is not Jewish.)

During Trump’s campaign, anti-Semitic comments on social media skyrocketed, because Trump brought these ugly stereotypes, once relegated to the lunatic fringe of the internet, into the mainstream. A study by the Anti-Defamation League uncovered more than 2.6 million tweets with anti-Semitic comments and images from August 2015 to July 2016, a huge upsurge from the previous year. Many of these Twitter users identified themselves as Trump supporters or Clinton haters, and many (including death threats) were directed at Jewish journalists who had been critical of Trump.

In response to Trump’s repeated claim about the election being rigged, the white supremacist site Daily Stormer wrote, “People aren’t going to quietly go home if the Jews steal this election from us.” Other sites supporting Trump have posted similar slurs.

During the campaign the country witnessed a dramatic spike in racist and xenophobic harassment across the country. A report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on Our Nation’s Schools,” found that immigrant and Muslim students experienced more bullying from their peers. The report noted that Trump’s campaign was “producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom.” The center’s survey of teachers discovered that more than half of them had seen an increase in hostile speech during the campaign.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the epidemic of hate — including incidents of bullying, physical assaults, graffiti and vandalism at schools and colleges, synagogues, churches and mosques, museums, places of business and elsewhere, targeting Muslims, immigrants, blacks and Latinos, LBGT people, women and Jews — has increased since Trump’s election in November. In its latest update, covering the period from  Nov. 9 to Dec. 12, the center has documented 1,094 bias-related incidents of harassment and intimidation.

It is unlikely to stop once Trump takes office. Stephen Bannon — the chief strategist for Trump’s campaign, who will soon be his closest White House adviser — has a well-deserved reputation as a bigot. Before joining Trump’s campaign, Bannon was the chairman of Breitbart News, which he boasted was “the platform for the alt-right,” a movement that promotes white nationalism, racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. In a sworn statement, Bannon’s ex-wife claimed that on three separate occasions he expressed opposition to sending his daughters to schools with Jewish students.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Jewish-sponsored civil rights group the Anti-Defamation League, called Bannon “hostile to core American values.” Republican strategist John Weaver called Bannon part of the “racist, fascist extreme right.”  

On Jan. 20, Rabbi Hier will have the biggest audience of his career, speaking not only to the crowd in Washington but also to tens of millions of Americans and millions more around the world watching on television.What will Rabbi Hier say about Trump’s triumphant torrent of intolerance? If he is truly a crusader for tolerance, Hier will use this opportunity to remind viewers of Trump’s ugly campaign of bigotry, call on him to end his vicious rhetoric of hate and remind him that as the most powerful person in the world, he has a responsibility to heal, not exploit, our nation’s divisions – to build bridges, not walls.

By Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame" (Nation Books).

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