By Julia Kott
Rabbi Marvin Hier answers the phone and has to put me on hold. “Hold on one second, that’s the police calling in a hate crime,” he says.
As the founder and Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance that challenges anti-Semitism, prejudice and discrimination, answering these types of calls is apparently part of his busy schedule.
Hier has been somewhat of a contentious figure since giving the first inaugural benediction by an Orthodox Rabbi at President Donald Trump’s ceremony. Criticism abounds from Jews who do not support Trump, including a Change.org petition asking that Hier not “normalize Trump’s promotion of intolerance.”
Earlier this month, Hier attended Trump’s signing of the rollbacks to the Johnson Amendment, a tax code provision that prohibits non-profit organizations (including religious groups) from endorsing political candidates.
Moment speaks with Hier about Trump’s visit to the Middle East and tolerance in 2017.
In Saudi Arabia, Trump emphasized cooperation with the Muslim world in driving out “Islamic extremism.” What was your reaction?
It wasn’t a philosophical speech; it was very direct. He didn’t lecture the Muslim leaders of the Arab world, but he told them straight that most of the terrorist attacks around the world are committed by Muslims. It’s true that the majority of Muslims around the world reject that, but it’s also true that the Muslim leaders have to have a central role in fighting terrorism because most of the terrorists are from their religion. He did not lecture them. It wasn’t a question of superiority. It was a simple fact: You can’t ignore terrorism. Most of it is coming from your religion. This was a very strong message.
Can Trump really put together the “world’s greatest deal” or achieve peace in the Middle East?
It is the world’s greatest deal if you can make it happen. And President Trump has a better chance than anyone else. Former Secretary Kerry’s proposal was taken from Rivka in the Book of Genesis. Rivka knew that her husband, Isaac, was blind, and she was trying to get a blessing for her son Jacob. So she tells Jacob, ‘The only way you can get a blessing is if you put on your brother’s clothes. If you put on his clothes, he’s going to think you’re Esau, and he will give you a blessing.’ So what did Jacob do? He put on Esau’s clothes. What’s Kerry’s proposal? You take the Hamas leadership and you take them to the haberdasher for a change of clothing, then bring them back and say, ‘Now we’re running the government.’ That’s not a real solution.
What do you think Trump’s presidency meant to Israeli and American Jews at the time of his election, and how has that changed?
We all know, on the domestic front, there are many issues. But in terms of Israeli relations, and in terms of his trip to Israel and the speeches he gave, what he said about Iran, what he said about America’s commitment to Israel, the fact that he went to the Kotel—I think he came out of Israel with high numbers.
It’s not a question of supporting [Trump]; Jews support Israel. And is he good for Israel? The answer is, he sure is.
You recently told The Forward, “No President should do that,” regarding Trump’s alleged intelligence leak. Could you elaborate on your opinion regarding the leak?
People make mistakes. If he gave up Israeli intelligence and identified that, that was a mistake, clearly a mistake, if that happened. If it didn’t happen, there was no mistake. With all the press and writing about it, if he did make the mistake and gave up that intelligence, I don’t think it’ll happen again.
As the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance, would you give Trump any advice on tolerance?
I thought his performance, what he did in the Arab world was fantastic, and he should do more of that. Go out into the country, here into the United States and speak to cross sections of the country, embrace the three monotheistic religions. He should do a lot of that in the United States.