Before last summer’s Republican National Convention, the widely esteemed Rabbi Haskel Lookstein was asked to deliver the invocation. He was reportedly honored and graciously accepted, but soon, petitions and protest led the rabbi, who served as Ivanka Trump’s sponsoring conversion rabbi, to rescind his acceptance. Despite the fact that the role has traditionally been apolitical, not an endorsement for a party or a candidate, Lookstein unfortunately relented to those affiliated with his synagogue and school.
It is this illiberal behavior, preaching acceptance while refusing to extend it to those with whom you disagree, which inspired many of Donald Trump’s supporters to vote as they did just a few months later. These lessons of the election, unfortunately, do not seem to have been learned by many of Trump’s opponents.
Now that he has been elected, another rabbi who has dared to extend his gravitas towards making the ceremony inclusive of Jews is facing the same backlash Lookstein did. Rabbi Marvin Hier, the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, named for the heroic Nazi hunter, and the Museum of Tolerance, has accepted an invitation from the Trump administration to deliver a reading, prayer and benediction for President-elect Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence on January 20.
A petition began circulating about Hier’s participation in the inauguration, and begins “Those who have signed this petition are concerned that your participation in the Inauguration helps to ‘normalize’ the dangerous and hate-fueled Trump administration.”
Unfortunately for his many opponents, Trump became ‘normalized,’ whether they liked it or not, on November 8. In just a few weeks, he will be President of the United States, and no amount of boycotting the inauguration festivities will change that fact. Because he is not president yet, calling his administration dangerous and hate-fueled is premature, at best.
The petition names the appointment of Stephen Bannon, former head of Breitbart News, as a White House chief strategist as the most egregious of the transition’s decisions; and on this point, I don’t disagree. It is a troubling sign, but does not mean that a Trump administration is a lost cause for Jewish organizations like Hier’s.
The reason Hier was asked to deliver the invocation is likely due to his close and personal relationship with the Kushner family, with whom he has broken matzo at Passover seders at the Arizona Biltmore over the years. The Kushner family members are donors to the SWC as well, to the tune of over $35,000 according to JTA.
If Bannon does possess alt-right sympathies (I have heard mixed reports on this from those who know him personally), having Hier deliver the prayer and stay close to the First Family is in the best interest not only of the SWC, but also of Jews who believe in its mission of confronting anti-Semitism, hate and terrorism. The Kushners prior support of SWC indicates their commitment to SWC’s founding principles, and is a positive sign that there is a friend of these views in Trump’s inner circle.
To date, the most troubling decisions out of the Trump administration are several undesirable appointments, starting with Bannon. The moment to worry about normalizing Trump has past, and now, especially for Jewish groups like the SWC, it’s time to work with the President-elect and mitigate as much damage as possible. We know that having the President-elect’s ear is of the utmost importance and it behooves Jews and Jewish organizations to spend these weeks and months, until we learn what kind of president he will be, to be pragmatic by trying to shape his decision-making as much as possible.
This means showing up at the inauguration, and especially at non-political functions like Hanukkah parties, which a great number of Jewish groups recently boycotted. The Trump administration should have as many friends of the Jewish people in its orbit as possible; and if Jewish groups want to shape the president’s policies, they are best served being viewed as partners, not obstructionists married to political ideology instead of their respective missions.
Last week JTA, in reporting of his decision to deliver the prayer, wrote that “[Hier] said it’s in the interest of all Americans to ‘pray and hope that Donald Trump is a great president.’” With Trump’s election, this is a desire all Americans should have; friends and foes alike.
This is why Hier is participating in the inauguration, and why Jews should support him doing so. We should want the president to be as successful as he possibly can be for our own well-being and for the nation. In order to do so, having individuals like Rabbi Hier praying for the success of the administration at its outset and continuing to be trusted friends of the First Family is an important step in making that hope a reality.