A presidential inauguration has always been a celebration of the peaceful transfer of power. This year, after a crude and divisive election campaign won by Donald Trump, the idea of a peaceful transfer has emerged in high relief.
That’s what we read into the words of Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who explained why he accepted the invitation to offer a prayer at the president-elect’s inauguration on Jan. 20, and why he will not accede to the demands of Trump’s Jewish critics: “There are no tanks, no planes, no guns and that’s the way it is, so I was deeply honored and I accepted.”
Although our country was founded on principles that did away with the bowing and scraping before monarchs, we have developed our own pomp and circumstance relating to our elected leader, with particular emphasis on the president’s installation ceremony, called the inauguration. That process has more to do with honoring the office of the president than with the person elected to that role, and is one that has played out for nearly four dozen men who have filled the position, irrespective of their party, their religion, their particular personalities or even their policies. Quite simply, the inauguration celebration focuses upon the presidency itself. And, while individual office holders come and go, the presidency remains.
For that reason, we agree with Hier’s decision to accept the invitation of the president-elect, and to bring a Jewish voice to the peaceful transfer of power.
We recognize that Hier could have gone the other way. He is the founder of a well-known and respected organization which teaches about the Holocaust, confronts hate and promotes human rights. The Jewish critics who want Hier to reject the inaugural invitation say he should do so because Trump’s presidential campaign fostered the very hate and anti-Semitism that the Wiesenthal Center fights against every day.
Last summer, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, rabbi emeritus at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York, was sharply criticized when he agreed to deliver an invocation at the Republican National Convention. He ultimately withdrew his acceptance under intense pressure from congregants and his past and present students. Whether you agree with Lookstein’s decision or not, we are no longer at the convention. The presidential inauguration is different.
On Jan. 20 our nation will turn to the steps of the Capitol as we install our new president and honor the office in which he will serve. Hier said that he gladly accepted the invitation (along with five other religious leaders) to participate in the festivities because it “was the menschlichkeit thing to do.” He added, “I am proud to do it.” He should be.
WELL DONE. A THOUGHTFUL AND GENEROUS CHOICE THAT PUTS PATRIOTISM OVER POLITICS.
I SINCERELY HOPE THAT YOUR PRAYERS ALONG WITH THE OTHER 5 RELIGIOUS LEADERS HELP OUR
NEW PRESIDENT SUCCEED FOR ALL CITIZENS. LEADING BY EXAMPLE IS A SHARP AND POSITIVE CONTRAST TO THE LOWER MOMENTS OF THE RECENTLY CONCLUDED CAMPAIGN.
This is not an ordinary inauguration, and this is not an ordinary, peaceful transfer of power. There is overwhelming evidence that Vladimir Putin stole this election for Donald Trump in order to further Russian interests and strengthen his own autocratic rule. Even if this were not the case, Donald Trump is a candidate who has committed hate speech and bragged about sexually assaulting women–all of which has been documented on videotape. These are not Jewish values. My ancestors who fled oppression in Russia are rolling in their graves right now at the thought of a rabbi delivering a benediction for such a corrupt man.
I still cannot wrap my brain around turning the other cheek in this case, one that might find itself back in the same situation as we did back in the nineteen forties. I said you, I am frightened as to what may become of our United States of America under the new regime.
I agree with Alison. The facts about Trump are plain, and whether or not American democratic institutions are vulnerable to collapse, they have already proven vulnerable to significant compromise. Trump is following a the playbook of tyranny almost hauntingly to the letter, and I wish that every Jew in the world would organize as part of the resistance. I don’t imagine that I can reach the Jews who support him. But for the Jews who don’t support him but nevertheless feel that he should be treated with the same deference as any other U.S. president, I stand in anxious and rueful wonder. Since when has blanket obeisance to power been a Jewish value? Or an American one?
One of the lessons of the Holocaust is that many Jews, including my mother’s nuclear family, did not see the writing on the wall early enough. Rabbi Hier and the WJW editorial board are willfully looking away from Trump’s autocratic tendencies and movements, and his obvious lack of a moral compass.
Here is my open letter to Rabbi Hier:
I am the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who in late 1940 at the age of twelve fled Germany, traveled alone through Asia, and was taken into the United States as a refugee. Her parents, my grandparents, were not able to flee and they died in Auschwitz in 1942. We still have our mother’s passport with her middle name changed to “Sara,” the Nazis’ way of identifying and tracking Jewish females.
My father, like you, was a rabbi and led a major Jewish organization. Throughout his life he vigilantly defended and protected the rights of minorities, and watched for and responded to anti-Semitism and religious persecution in its many forms. He cherished the religious freedoms that our country affords all faiths, and jealously guarded the protections afforded by separation of church and state. He was well known for his fiery indignation in the face of ethically tone-deaf behavior, and, were he alive today, I feel certain that one of his forthright letters would have landed on your desk, Rabbi Hier.
My message to you is dedicated to my parents’ memory—
You have agreed to give Trump and Pence a blessing at the inauguration next week, and this should make anyone familiar with your work scratch their head, for your actions will tacitly condone the behavior of a public figure whose inflammatory rhetoric has incited the type of religious persecution you have dedicated your life to countering. I’m certain you have the historical perspective to see that despite Trump’s connections to the Jewish community—including the Kushner family’s philanthropic support for your Center—his political tactics have put minority races and religions in danger and have encouraged and emboldened the less enlightened members of our society to fear and hate “the other.” Whether or not the Trump regime will enact a plan to register Muslims, you are supporting the man who lured voters with the promise of doing so. You are publicly supporting the man who breathed new life into the once-dormant white nationalist movement.
I am astounded that any Jew in a leadership position, particularly a rabbi whose life is devoted to educating the world about the Holocaust, would be a part of this inauguration. The majority of the Jewish community, horrified by the specter of Trump’s demagoguery, will not view your actions the way you attempt to disarmingly frame them—as “the menschlichkeit thing to do.” You will be recorded by history as the rabbi who “gave his blessing” to a man who, without conscience, uses prejudice to gain power.
I cannot make sense of your decision. I pray that you will have a change of heart and rescind your offer.
The logic of Rabbi Hier escapes me: he proposes to honor the institutions of American democracy by blessing the accession to power of a man who debases and undermines these same institutions.
I too am very shocked at Rabbi Hier’s decision to take part in the inauguration blessing. Blessings bestowed to a man who has blatantly expressed xenophobic views, who has depreciated other religions, notably Islam, who has indulged in anti Semitic stereotypes is, according to me, In total contradiction with Jewish values. I am ashamed.