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Eliot Engel Should Turn His Back on Trump — Not Reach for Handshake

When Donald Trump takes the oath of office Friday, dozens of members of Congress will not be there, including at least three Jewish lawmakers.

Sadly, my representative will.

By his presence, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), who represents Riverdale and other parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, will honor a president who declares women are willing targets for sexual assault; who depicts black communities as cauldrons of crime; and who calls for mass deportations of immigrants.

This Jewish congressman, a fervent supporter of Israel and the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is willing to show deference to a president who calls for barring refugees from our shores, as earlier politicians prevented thousands of Jews fleeing Hitler from reaching the safety of the United States.

The growing number of Engel’s colleagues who plan to boycott the inauguration understand what he does not. To follow tradition as though the 2016 election was a normal exercise of political change is to normalize Trump’s authoritarianism, his racism and fondness for white nationalists, and his misogyny.

Many made it clear that they respect the presidency and the peaceful transition of power, but, like Engel’s Bronx colleague, Rep. Jose Serrano, could not “celebrate the inauguration of a man who has no regard for my constituents.” Or like his fellow liberal Jew Jerrold Nadler (D-New York), who found Trump’s rhetoric and actions “so far beyond the pale, I cannot in good conscience participate in this inauguration.”

Engel’s office did not return calls for comment. But his relationship with the incoming administration can most charitably be described as flexible.

In December, he denounced the choice of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. But when Trump appointed the white nationalist Steve Bannon to be his chief advisor, the congressman’s initial reaction was: “Let’s see how Trump does in other things. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

In response, a social media campaign urged people to call Engel’s office to complain.

I was among his constituents who did. The congressman soon changed his mind and signed on to a letter of protest. “We’ve had a lot of calls about this,” remarked an aide who answered his office phone.

That episode demonstrates that if citizens join together they can change their representative’s behavior.

For better or worse, Engel is best known is shaking the president’s hand. For 28 years he has camped out in an aisle seat at the State of the Union Address looking to gain a few seconds of face time on national television.

Engel’s constituents “love to see their member of Congress on TV. They love to know their member is right there participating,” he told PBS last year.

This year, Eliot Engel should do something a bit braver than stretching out his hand. He should turn his back on Trump — and resist an administration that presents an unprecedented threat to American values.

Bernard L. Stein was editor of The Riverdale Press, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, and of The Hunts Point Express and Mott Haven Herald, South Bronx community newspapers staffed by students at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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