A shameful blessing at Trump’s inauguration

Henry I. Schvey is professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University in St. Louis.

By Henry I. Schvey

When Rabbi Marvin Hier was asked to deliver the benediction at Donald Trump’s inauguration, he did not hesitate for a moment. 

“My parents escaped in the ’20s from Poland, where the climate for Jews was one of hostility and prejudice,” said Hier, 83, founder and dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance. “They came to this country where Judaism flourishes. Today in the United States of America, the Jewish community is the most vibrant Jewish community probably in the Diaspora in 2,000 years. 

“You have secular Jews, Jews who are atheists, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Hasidic Jews, Modern Orthodox Jews and every one of them is allowed to thrive in this country. When you’re called to participate in the inauguration of a president of the greatest democracy, there’s only one answer: yes.”

The problem with such patriotism is that it willfully chooses to ignore reality and history. By offering the benediction for Trump’s inauguration, Hierhas lent his name and, by extension, his reputation and that of his organization to a presidency that was deliberately built on an edifice of intolerance, racism and hate. 

History will not be kind to Rabbi Hier and will reject his shortsighted, self-serving tribute to a man who repudiates every one of the ideals the Wiesenthal Center stands for.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center is a global human rights organization researching the Holocaust in both its historic and contemporary context. The center, along with its educational arm, the Museum of Tolerance, founded in 1993, challenges its visitors to confront bigotry and racism, intending to “teach the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations.”

How, then, can its founder justify conferring his blessing to a man who has condemned Mexicans as rapists, called for banning Muslims, objectified women, has repeatedly spoken out against the “dishonest” press and has mocked the disabled, to name a few among his many violations against everything the Wiesenthal Center stands for in its mission statement: 

“The center confronts anti-Semitism, hate and terrorism, promotes human rights and dignity, stands with Israel, defends the safety of Jews worldwide, and teaches the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations.”

Prominent in Trump’s inauguration speech was a phrase that should make the blood of every American run cold: “We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.”

For anyone with a sense of the history of World War II, the slogan America First deliberately echoes one of the most shameful episodes in American history from the 1940s. Charles Lindbergh, hero, isolationist and Nazi sympathizer, wrote the following recommending America’s isolationism, specifically, its nonintervention in the war against Hitler: 

“It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. … Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences. … Their greatest danger to this country is in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.” 

This is what “America First” meant: isolationism and solidarity with fascist regimes, especially Hitler’s.

With Trump’s unrepentant hiring of the savvy right-wing extremist Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist and senior counselor, there can be no blithe assumption of ignorance in the verbally challenged Trump’s invocation of “America First.” 

This is no vacuous bumper sticker for patriotism. Rather, it is a transparent dog whistle to the extremist elements in our culture that bigotry and intolerance are not merely alive, but the new order of the day.

It is in this context that Rabbi Hier’s cowardly and shameful acquiescence to “bless” Trump’s administration must be viewed by the Jews of this country. He has single-handedly sullied the reputation of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in the eyes of the world and made it appear as though this nonpartisan organization, which he founded, is beholden to a bigoted racist who will stop at nothing to attain his ends.

Hyperbole? Ludicrous? This was what millions thought when Hitler rose to power. This is not business as usual for America, although many would like to make it seem as though the “peaceful transfer of power” proves that the principles of American democracy are somehow guaranteed to prevail. 

Instead, we should reflect on the words of Omarosa Manigault, Trump’s appointed director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison:

“Every critic, every detractor will have to bow down to President Trump. … It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.”

Does anyone who has followed Trump’s nomination and the election process closely think these words should simply be dismissed or not taken seriously? In the world we live in, organizations like the Simon Wiesenthal Center should give us hope that dictators will be resisted and their aims rejected at every turn. 

Sadly, Rabbi Hier has taught us a different lesson with his blessing.