NEW YORK — Rabbi Marvin Hier has a busy schedule. The Los Angeles-based founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center was in New York for a few days late last month, but he was able fit me in right between a meeting with The New York Times editorial board and lunch. Where he’d have lunch was something he’d figure out over the phone in the middle of our conversation.
The late Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who lived in Vienna, was more of a figurehead to the Simon Wiesenthal Center than an active leader. It has always been Hier’s show. Today the organization works as a monitor of anti-Semitism and arm of Jewish advocacy. It has produced over a dozen films, and maintains its Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance. (A controversial branch has been in the works in Jerusalem since circa 2005.)
Hier, a two-time Academy Award winner for the documentaries “Genocide” and “The Long Way Home,” is regularly spotted on cable news. He is an opinionated (and sometimes funny) man, and it takes about 11 seconds in his presence to feel completely at home. Eighty-year-old Jews who are extremely ready to share their opinions are, perhaps, my favorite people of all.
He’s also someone who still refuses to apologize for leading a prayer at US President Donald Trump’s inauguration. (Read on, as I offer him another opportunity here.) While he does condemn the president’s comments on Charlottesville and did rebuke Trump’s Muslim travel ban (with some commentary), the rabbi is clearly someone who, while not taking sides, has definitely taken sides.
With Hier was his wingman, Rabbi Abraham Cooper. “Forty-three years we’re together,” he said to me when the quick call to discuss lunch interrupted our chat. “Forty-three?” I asked. “And does he ever pick up the check?” Rabbi Cooper rolled his eyes.
While Cooper was quiet and cool, Hier spoke at window-shattering decibels. He wasn’t angry (or, at least I should clarify, he wasn’t angry at me) but also seemed ready for a fight should one ever break out. It’s worth noting that the relationship between Hier and Wiesenthal grew strained from time to time, though attempts to have Hier removed never succeeded.
Below is an edited (but not that edited) transcript of our discussion.
You were at the New York Times. Was this to yell about the cartoon?
Marvin Hier: Well, we were there to discuss many things on the agenda of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, one of which is anti-Semitism. The cartoon did come up.
Is this a case of, “Well, everyone makes mistakes”? Do you have an official stance on this?
MH: On the cartoon? The cartoon was horrible! You would think it belongs in a different time and a different country.
Abraham Cooper: Our center has some expertise on cartoons, particularly. We did an exhibition called “Portraits of Infamy,” about Jewish portrayals in the Soviet Union just before Gorbachev. We showed Nazi original cartoons, which included animalization of Jews, and how the Soviets ripped them off. The Soviets didn’t like the comparison, and perhaps the artists themselves didn’t consider themselves anti-Semitic. But this showed how animalization was introduced by the Nazis, then refined by the Soviets.
I have something of an over-arching theory about a lot of this, that some of it stems from Trump, who is so polarizing that it creates a ripple effect. Everyone is edgier, more angry and every grievance feels multiplied.
MH: Sometimes presidents get it right, sometimes they get it wrong. Speaking as a Jew, so many presidents talked about making Jerusalem the capital of Israel. They made nice speeches, but in the end they couldn’t deliver. Trump delivered.
Also, anyone who lives in Israel – where they are surrounded by Hamas, by Hezbollah, by the Iranians – they love the idea that an American president said the Golan Heights is now Israeli territory forever. That’s very important.
Now, as far as mistakes, listen, all presidents make mistakes. Trump’s Charlottesville comments, do I think they were done the right way? Absolutely not. You can’t compare demonstrators to the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis.
However, the question remains: when [former] president [Barack] Obama gave the deal of the century of $150 billion to a world leader [in Iran] who celebrates January 27 as “Holocaust Denial Day,” how much ink was written on that as opposed to Charlottesville? And which do you think was worse?
You aren’t a fan of how that went down.
MH: You want to spend $150 billion to prevent a nuclear attack? How’s this? “Dear Ayatollah, here is your $150 billion. From now on the United States wants a guarantee that there will never be a Holocaust Denial Day in your country that you or your government will participate in. Sign this, send it back and we’ll send you your money.” Never did it!
So all presidents make mistakes! Ronald Reagan was great, but he went to [the German World War II military cemetery] Bitburg. Shouldn’t have gone to Bitburg [where Nazis are among the interned].
But with Israel’s security, Trump, instead of saying it, he’s been doing it. Jerusalem is the capital and now when Assad looks at the Golan Heights he can wave, “Bye bye, baby!”
What else did you talk about with The New York Times?
AC: We spoke about [Nation of Islam leader Louis] Farrakhan. And I don’t know how often, in meeting with the editorial folks, the name “Farrakhan” is heard. They haven’t done much of a job exposing him and his hatred, which goes back 30 years.
But how relevant is Farrakhan, really?
MH: Relevant enough! Relevant enough that he can sit on the dais of Aretha Franklin’s funeral next to the former president of the United States. He wouldn’t be relevant if he went and sat in the last row. Sit him in the front? Next to a president? Someone thinks he’s relevant.
Well this is part of the big question of the day, which is where is the most dangerous anti-Semitism coming from in America right now?
AC: There are three streams. Arthur Jones, the official Republican candidate for [the 3rd Congressional District in Illinois] last November, is an American Nazi and has been his entire life. He won uncontested and got 56,000 votes. So we have tsuris there. Holocaust deniers on the right.
Then, you have abject failure on behalf of the Democrats to deal with anti-Semitism in their ranks. And this is primarily because they are concerned that the progressive elements in their party don’t want to hear it. And that’s extremely troubling.
These are two main streams. On top of this: the Islamists, and the delivery system of social media makes everything supercharged. So we have our work cut out for us.
Anti-Semitism on the left is tricky, or maybe is more surprising. The social justice causes that the left promotes would seem incongruous. But when the topic comes to Israel – a country that, like all countries, is not perfect – the far left goes completely bananas. It’s a third rail and, unlike with any other topic, there is no room for discussion at all.
MH: Israel has been such a success in science and medicine and so many other fields that people forget this country is so small. We’ve forgotten the principals used from the time of Ben-Gurion. People think “Wow, wow, Israel, it’s so successful, it’s so powerful!” We need to remind people of the facts, that Israel’s neighbors live in 5 million square miles, and that Israel, including the West Bank, is 11,200 or so.
Israel has been such a success in science and medicine and so many other fields that people forget this country is so small
So when the far left says “They should withdraw to the pre-1967 borders,” what they are really saying is “We want the destruction of Israel, but we can’t say so, so we use code.” They want to put Israel in a territory so small it would self-destruct.
Well, thank you very much for your wishes that Israel should be destroyed. Guess what? Israel is not going to pay attention to you. Even [center-left politician and diplomat] Abba Eban, who was hardly [right-wing Likud founder and prime minister] Menachem Begin or [hawkish prime minister] Ariel Sharon or [former Likud prime minister] Yitzhak Shamir, said that “a withdrawal to the June ’67 borders is a withdrawal to the Auschwitz lines!” That should be the mantra of the State of Israel!!
There are a lot of people – rational people who support a Jewish State in good faith – who would disagree with that.
MH: Look, a lot of people can [laughs]. Listen, if I were to ask my wife, “How do you make a good potato kugel?” She would say, “You make it with this many eggs.” Somebody else can get up and say “I’m going to make my kugel with one egg.” Great! But it won’t be a kugel!
It’s very nice they give aitzeh [advice]. They are giving aitzeh on how to self-destruct!
So what suggestion do you have for Israel, then, to make the life of the average Palestinian a little easier? I think you’ll agree the average guy just wants to get to work without tsuris.
MH: I’m sorry to say this, but look: the Palestinian leadership needs to understand that their culture is not being obliterated. It’s captured all over the Arab world, in libraries and universities, the same language, the same culture, the same thing. The State of Israel needs to have livable quarters. And it can’t be, as I said earlier, “We request your kind self-destruction,” with a smile. That is just as cruel as an army doing that to the State of Israel.
The Palestinians would be much better off, instead of relying on help from the terrorist organizations, to rely on the State of Israel to come up with a solution that is equitable
So we say the following: the Palestinians would be much better off, instead of relying on help from the terrorist organizations, to rely on the State of Israel to come up with a solution that is equitable. The State of Israel needs to have the right amount of land to defend against enemies like Iran and Syria and Hezbollah with all their rockets. Maybe the Gulf states can help out by restoring the Palestinian economy that will raise the average wage. This might encourage them to say “You know what, let’s live with Israel in peace.”
There was some recent encouraging news in Gaza, where there were protests against Hamas from Palestinian citizens.
MH: Yes, but Qatar gives them a new infusion of money. Millions and millions.
AC: There’s something else to consider. Years ago the rabbi and I went to the Jabaliya Camp in Gaza. Then we went to Gaza City, and then, when we were done with our business, we left. There was no wall. If there’s a wall today remember one thing: it’s the Hamas wall. The only reason it is there is because of Hamas. All the lines and checkpoints – it’s not because 19 year-old Israelis are bored and want to be there.
We have great sense of empathy, not only for our own. That what makes us Jews. But we also have a short memory
We have great sense of empathy, not only for our own. That what makes us Jews. But we also have a short memory. We forget, “Why do we have to do this?” We have to do it because, unfortunately, the world continues to allow corrupt Palestinians to run the West Bank and for terrorists to run Gaza. The minute that changes, we can all go back to buying Shabbos vegetables and fruit in the Gaza market as we did for decades.
MH: Hezbollah boasts they have over 150,000 rockets. So the world says to Israel “What are you getting so excited about?” So let’s flip it. Let’s say tomorrow that Cuba has rockets. What do you think the reaction of our Democrats and Republicans in the United States would be? I suggest that it would be as follows: “This is a violation of our agreements, and we’re coming in to take them out.”
But when Hezbollah announces “Now we have 150,000 rockets!” Israel is just supposed to sit there? To be cool? Like that’s what the United States and England and France would do? The world wouldn’t bat an eyelash if these countries took action!
So why does every country care so much about Israel? Even if you think Israel is wrong wrong wrong, you don’t see so many people tearing their hair out about Myanmar or Central African Republic or so many other places? Why is this everyone’s favorite topic?
You are asking the question that has been asked for centuries. Mah nishtanah halyla hazeh mikol halaylot? [Why is this night different from all other nights?] Only, [the question is] “Why is Israel” [different from] “other nations?”
[The Rabbi then gives me a big shrug as if to say “next question.”]
I suppose this makes me think of your first film, “Genocide,” which I watched again last night. P.S., I don’t recommend watching it at one in the morning as I did, it’s a little depressing.
MH: It’s not even good at ten in the morning for that! Orson Welles can scare anybody.
I saw it in school decades ago, but I was surprised how much stayed with me.
MH: It was the first Holocaust film to win an Academy Award. Right after the Holocaust no one wanted to make films about it. Too tragic. With Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Welles doing narration it went worldwide, so for some it was their introduction to the Holocaust. When you see it, you see an intelligent nation building gas chambers, putting children into gas chambers, some of them were doctors, from the finest universities. A lot of this footage had never been seen before.
AC: Something interesting happened with Iran and “Genocide.” For decades, this regime has been Holocaust deniers. We live in Los Angeles, which has the largest Iranian population outside of Iran. And there’s never been an Iranian institution that has spoken out against this denial.
But three years ago the Mujaheddin, a Muslim group in France, asked for our film. We subtitled it into Farsi, and they broadcast it into Iran on January 27 on two satellites. So that was encouraging.
From a filmmaking point of view, it is strikingly different than movies today. But also from a Hollywood involvement angle. Elizabeth Taylor was Jewish at this point in her life. Orson Welles was not, but always supportive, and I know Frank Sinatra was always very supportive of you. I feel like that sort of support would be hard to come by from non-Jews today.
MH: Not necessarily. Our newest film on Shimon Peres (“Never Stop Dreaming: The Life and Legacy of Shimon Peres”) is narrated by George Clooney. So when this gets a theatrical release people will know his name. That’s why we do it, we want to get viewers who maybe aren’t familiar with the Jewish story; a brand name helps.
So Clooney has enough clout, I suppose, to push back against people accusing him of being pro-Israel.
MH: Well, Shimon Peres was a man of peace. But before any of these actors take an assignment they read the script; they sees that it’s fair, that it reflects the man.
AC: I think it’s important to remember that the BDS-ers reside in a bubble. Many have started to believe their own propaganda. They forget that our museum – the Museum of Tolerance – we feature true progressives. We have a clip of a young George Clooney when he spoke at an event about Darfur. He has all the right instincts. We didn’t check to see if he’s a Zionist. But he’s certainly not a “hater” of Israel.
Any updates on the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem?
MH: It should be ready in a year and four months, maybe a year and six months.
And any additional expansion plans in other cities?
MH: [laughs] No. Not for the moment. But we have remodeling plans in Los Angeles.
You had something here in New York for a while.
MH: We rented a place, but the rent went up.
Oy, the rent. Tell me about it.
MH: The rent, the rent.
Maybe the left and AOC are correct? We should have protested.
MH: Yeah, maybe.
What do you think of AOC?
MH: Who is that?
MH: Oh. Okay, let me say something. First of all: [Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan] Omar.
I’m not asking about Omar. That’s her friend, but that’s not her.
MH: She supports her fully.
Wait, time out. Just because you have a friend who says something – everybody has a friend that puts their foot in it. I have a friend who always messes up, but he’s still my friend, I try to work with him –
MH: But when you support a person who says anti-Semitic things, that means you support their anti-Semitism. Otherwise you speak out against it.
She did! She called her friend out. She said – I’m paraphrasing – she needed to learn, to walk it back.
MH: And then say what? Walk it back and say what? The progressives –
Wait, Omar’s a bit of a mess, sure, but –
MH: A mess? She’s basically using Hitler’s language. When she said “the Benjamins” that’s exactly what Hitler said in his first letter. In September 16, 1919, he said “the Jews use their capital to persuade nations.”
I’m not defending Omar, I’m not, but… it was a play on words. Come on, “Netanyahu, Benjamin,” “the Benjamins” is a rap phrase… it’s not as black and white as Hitler.
It was not a righteous thing to say, I’ll give you that.
MH: She said it deliberately. It was no accident.
AC: And she raised a lot of money off of that.
Well, I hadn’t thought of that.
MH: We need to do everything that was not done in the 1930s. We must learn from history. When Jabotinsky went to Poland in 1938 and said “Get out!” the world didn’t listen. Our big mistake was that we didn’t see the earliest strands of anti-Semitism. And now you see anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism isn’t just in Europe. First it was in the House of Commons. Then in France. But not here!
Well, guess what, it crossed the Atlantic. And it’s not just in the extreme right, which for so long has been covered and discussed. But also in the progressive left. The party of Hubert Humphrey and Scoop Jackson? That party is becoming a party that says, “What do we need with Israel?” This is what we have to pay attention to.
If Israel had to rely on England and France today? Oy vey. The United States always had bipartisan support on Israel, always. The progressive left is going to cause problems with that bipartisan support. They are, to say the least, lukewarm about Israel. It’s a danger.
The United States can’t become France, where 55,000 Jews left recently because they felt unsafe. If this should happen in America it’s the worst thing that could happen to Israel.
AC: At [former Jewish Agency head] Natan Sharansky’s retirement dinner recently I heard a story. He said, “It’s not our job as Jewish leaders to be to the left or right. It’s not our business. But when you see anti-Semitism in your own ranks, it is your responsibility as a Jew to call it out.”
It’s very easy for a Trump supporter to come after Omar. But you can’t be silent about it if it’s in your own camp. Plus, if you do this, you have the legitimacy to speak out against the other shvitzers [troublemakers].
Okay let’s end this where we started, with President Trump. Let’s say he is reelected, do you speak at his inauguration again if asked?
MH: Let me answer very clearly. Get this correct.
It’s on tape.
MH: If a president asks me to give a prayer at an inauguration, I would do exactly what the former presidents of the United States have done. They all show up and honor the inauguration. That is the right thing to do for a country that has treated Jews so well.
It would be the epitome of an insult to say to a president of the United States, who invites you to a prayer, “I’m not coming.”
I don’t think the Obamas got along very well with the Trumps, but they were there. Jimmy Carter was there. The Bushes were there. The Clintons were there. So one should not say that a rabbi should say no, even though America has treated Jews so wonderfully. So every rabbi, whoever he or she is, if invited, whether it is by Trump or anyone else, they should say, unequivocally: Yes.