Sitting in his office at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where he’s founder and dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier pushed a stack of printouts across his desk — blessings and invocations he’s delivered on behalf of four sitting U.S. presidents.
“I’ve done invocations for President [Bill] Clinton, both Bushes, Ronald Reagan,” he said. “I wouldn’t make any exception.”
The Dec. 28 announcement that Hier would offer a benediction at the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump — the first rabbi to appear at an inauguration since Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk at Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985 — was greeted immediately with controversy: Why would the head of an organization dedicated to fighting hate bless a politician whose candidacy faced repeated accusations of ethnic and religious intolerance?
A petition on Change.org calling on Hier to back out gathered more than 2,000 signatures in three days.
“By speaking at his inauguration, especially as a hero of a half-century battling hate and intolerance, we feel you lend those elements of your ‘brand’ — if inadvertently — to help create a smokescreen for Trump,” the petition reads.
But Hier remains unfazed. For him, the decision to appear as one of six faith leaders at the Jan. 20 swearing-in — and the only non-Christian — was an easy one. The peaceful transition of power is “the trademark of democracy,” he said, and he was honored to receive the invitation.
“Who’s sitting on the platform [at Trump’s inauguration]?” he asked. “His worst opponents, sitting in the peaceful transfer of power: Hillary and Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, President and Mrs. Obama, George W. Bush and his wife — and they say that I shouldn’t partake. Come, come! Isn’t that the height of hypocrisy?”
His appearance shouldn’t be viewed as an endorsement, Hier said. He pointed out that he criticized Trump during the campaign, for instance when the candidate suggested a registry of Muslims in the United States.
“I’ve stated my views and I was invited to give the prayer anyway,” he said.
What’s more, he said, his appearance won’t impede his willingness to criticize the Trump administration in the future, just as he has criticized past presidents. For instance, in 1985, the Wiesenthal Center was among the most vocal opponents of then-President Ronald Reagan’s decision to visit a German cemetery where Nazi troops were buried, despite Hier sharing a close personal relationship with the president.
“The same will happen under the Trump administration,” he told the Journal. “But what we’re not going to do is play this game that only when the president of the United States is a Democrat, then everyone should go to the inauguration.”
He said he would not be swayed by critics.
“They’re entitled to their points of view,” he said. “They’re not influencing me. Marvin Hier is going to the inauguration. They’re not influencing me at all. And they need to know, tremendous amounts of people have emailed me and called me and said, ‘Don’t you dare listen to these people.’ ”
He addressed concerns about the so-called alt-right, a loose-knit group of white supremacists emboldened by the Trump campaign, saying right-wing anti-Semites have received too much attention in recent months relative to anti-Semitic criticism of Israel on the left.
“We’re very concerned about the alt-right,” he said. “We’re also concerned about the loonies on the left that never get any play, the ones who hate Israel. … Both extremes can do great harm to the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”
President Barack Obama’s decision to allow a U.N. Security Council resolution to pass condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank was the “biggest anti-Israel thing ever done,” he said, though he stopped short of labeling it anti-Semitic.
Hier is optimistic that the next administration will represent a change in tone.
“If I were Hamas, I’d be very nervous,” he said, referring to the terrorist group that governs the Gaza Strip. “The new president is going to do the opposite of President Obama. He’s going to mention Hamas 1,000 times and forget to mention the settlements, evening the score of the way it’s been all these years.”
Hier dismissed news reports linking his inauguration appearance to $35,000 in donations made to the Simon Wiesenthal Center by the family of Jared Kushner, who is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka.
“They’re longtime supporters of Simon Wiesenthal,” Hier said of the Kushners, whom he considers friends. “It’s got nothing to do [with the inauguration]. They were supporters before Ivanka met Jared.”
He declined to preview his remarks except to say that he would draw on an argument by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik regarding a discrepancy in Exodus. According to the Torah, God observed the Israelites’ suffering in Egypt when Moses fled after striking down a cruel slave driver, but didn’t send the prophet to their aid until 60 years later. “What’s this business of the respite of 60 years?” Hier said.
“God waits on his human partners,” he explained. “If his human partners are not willing to assume their proper role and act, He’s prepared to just wait it out — 60 years, 600 years, 6,000 years. So one of the themes will be that when a human being is born, they do not collect Social Security at birth, because the expectation is: Do something first. That’s the point.”