As I write, at noon on January 13, we are exactly seven days – to the minute – to when Donald Trump will be sworn in as president of the United States of America.
Late in the U.S. election campaign, I wrote a column in which I noted that Trump’s candidacy had endured “despite a seemingly endless string of ongoing insults variously hurled at women, Hispanics, Muslims, the handicapped, prisoners of war, leaders of his own party, and so many others.” Like most observers, I had read the polls and predicted Trump would lose to Hillary Clinton. (From the Editor: Trump’s campaign is an attack on democracy itself, October 31, 2016)
And, like most observers, I was proven wrong on election night when Trump managed to reach and pass the magic number of 270 Electoral College votes (even though Clinton won the popular vote with about three million more votes from the U.S. population at large).
Among the clergy scheduled to offer prayers at the Trump inauguration is Rabbi Marvin Hier, apparently the first rabbi to take part in an U.S. presidential inauguration in 32 years. The conventional wisdom is that Trump wanted a rabbi to participate in the inauguration because his daughter, Ivanka Trump, and his son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, and their three children, are Jewish.
Rabbi Hier is well known as the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Named in honour of the famed hunter of Nazi war criminals, the Wiesenthal Center is a major institution dedicated to Holocaust remembrance and education, and to combating anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of bigotry and hatred.
Personally, I also remember Rabbi Hier from when I was a student at the Vancouver Talmud Torah in the mid-1960s and he was the spiritual leader of Congregation Schara Tzedek, a modern Orthodox shul just a few blocks away.
Many in the American Jewish community – particularly among the 71 per cent of U.S. Jewish voters who supported Clinton – object to Rabbi Hier’s participation in the Trump inauguration. They cite the divisiveness stirred by Trump during the campaign as well as his hiring of Steve Bannon – the former CEO of Breitbart News, a website that has blurred or crossed the line with anti-Semitic articles and is embraced by the so-called alt-right. A petition asking Rabbi Hier to withdraw from the inauguration garnered thousands of supporters.
Many of those in the Jewish community who object to Rabbi Hier’s participation in the inauguration would likely have objected to the participation of any rabbi in the event. Last summer, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the prominent New York Orthodox rabbi who sponsored Ivanka Trump’s conversion to Judaism, was scheduled to offer a prayer at the Republican Party convention that formally nominated Trump as the party’s candidate. However, Rabbi Lookstein cancelled his appearance at the convention due to the ensuing controversy.
But Trump was elected president, and I don’t object to there being some measure of diversity among the religious figures offering prayers at the inauguration; that there will be a rabbi among the clergy from various Christian denominations. But it would be an even better message of inclusivity if a Muslim imam and clergy of other faiths were also scheduled to participate.
However, I question whether Rabbi Hier, as founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, is the right rabbi for this role. So much of Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign, and over the years prior, would seem to be in direct conflict with what the Wiesenthal Center – and its Museum of Tolerance – is about. Will his participation be interpreted as the Wiesenthal Center’s tacit acceptance, if not approval, of Trump’s ugly rhetoric?
For his part, Rabbi Hier said he accepted the invitation to participate in the inauguration because “it was the menschlichkeit (honourable) thing to do and I am proud to do it,” adding that petitions and other calls for him to withdraw “are not going to change my mind.”
According to Rabbi Hier, his participation in the inauguration will not affect how the Wiesenthal Center does business – that politics and personal relationships will not be a factor. (The Wiesenthal Center did criticize Trump for his anti-Muslim rhetoric early in the campaign.)
I hope he’s right.