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Stephen Miller’s Former Rabbi Speaks Out About Trump’s Adviser and Immigration

Co-published by International Business Times
Before Stephen Miller, who is said to be an architect of Trump’s zero-tolerance border policy, began espousing far-right views as a teenager, his family belonged to Santa Monica’s progressive Temple Beth Shir Shalom.




January, 2017: Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels at Los Angeles International Airport. (Photo: Judith Lewis Mernit)

Co-published by International Business Times

White House speechwriter and senior adviser Stephen Miller did not grow up poor in a rural town, anxious over his father losing a manufacturing job to a trade agreement — a popular origin story for the nativist movement led by Miller’s boss, President Donald Trump. Before reportedly devising the plan to separate immigrant children from their parents, Miller, 32, grew up in socially liberal Santa Monica, a beach city that is whiter and wealthier than the rest of the United States.

According to a Los Angeles Times profile, it wasn’t a bad economy but the “culturally sensitive environment” that “infuriated and ultimately shaped” a young Miller. High school announcements in Spanish as well as English, for example.

Before he began espousing far-right views as a teenager, Miller’s family belonged to liberal places of worship, the Jewish Journal reported, including Beth Shir Shalom, a progressive Reform temple.

“The Judaism that we teach here is a liberal, progressive Judaism based on longstanding, Reform Jewish values. That of course includes respect for all human beings, respect for families and respect for children,” Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, organizer of a planned Thursday protest against the Miller-Trump policy of separating and detaining foreign children, said in an interview. “The message was clear,” he said, and it was the opposite of what Miller espouses today.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a phone interview with Comess-Daniels.

Capital & Main: As an educator and a man of faith, what lessons do you take from the fact that maybe some of the people you teach grow up to be Stephen Millers? Does that make you hopeless at all?

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels: Oh, it doesn’t make me hopeless at all. What it continues to underscore is that I have a lot of work to do. We teach people to have respect for other people — by respecting them and respecting their perspectives and their input. I don’t really remember anything about Stephen Miller as a kid — I have no recollection of him being part of who we are. That may tell you a lot too, that he sort of kept it under wraps or it wasn’t even really developing yet.

But the reality is that when you tell kids their opinion matters, and you take that risk of allowing their perspectives to flow forward, you have to be able to give that respect to them so that they can give it to other people. That may well be part of the lesson that he didn’t pick up.

Do you think bigotry, or anti-immigrant sentiment, manifests itself differently in a wealthy, socially liberal environment?

There are people in Santa Monica who have been here quite a while, and people who are here as rather newbies. There is a certain degree of NIMBYism that’s going on here, and a certain resistance to growing this little city literally, physically upwards, because it’s really the only place it can go, and also to being inclusive of people at many levels of the economic ladder. Those of us who are working on that are doing everything that we can to try to make that happen.

People who have been here for a while and see it as a haven and very nice place to live, they hear of people coming from other economic levels and they get frightened. It’s not just xenophobic — in a lot of ways, it comes out racist too. And fear is easily stoked among people. That’s what we’re experiencing on a national level and it takes a lot to combat it.

I live not too far from Santa Monica and it’s my sense that some of these nationally progressive people that live there might support the idea of a wall — around Santa Monica. There was some opposition to even building out the Expo [light rail] Line to the beach for fear it would bring a bunch of people from a different economic class.

I think the progressive work that people try to do has to base itself in the reality that every single one of us is prone to pull inwards and prone to self-select our friends and neighbors. But for the sake of an American model, and a Santa Monica model and an L.A. model that we want for the future, this is something that we have to deal with every day. A future, inclusive America means we’re going to have to get comfortable with something else.

White people are going to be a minority, despite this administration’s current efforts. Is this the last-gasp backlash of a minority that has, for now, power?

I don’t think that this is any kind of a last gasp. We constantly have to be vigilant to make sure that all of our institutions, from the bottom up, are transparent and treat their neighbors, their workers fairly. People need to have a living wage and have a decent standard of living. And like I said, intolerance is very easy to unleash; it’s always waiting in the background.

What’s happened is that this xenophobia, this racism, this anti-Semitism, has been let loose from the top down and people who have been hanging on to it more secretly have felt bolder over the last two years. But it is going to ebb and flow. It’s never going to go away. That’s what humanity is, unfortunately.

What is your reaction to a powerful person claiming their reactionary politics are a product of everything you stand for and have done?

You catch me having just seen the movie about Fred Rogers. That happened to him, from Fox News. They went after him for acknowledging the specialness and wonderfulness of each individual, and saying, “that’s not America. In America, kids need to earn that — and he’s destroying that American value of earning your place in society.”

That whole conservative cliche of “everybody getting a merit badge for participation, and that’s ruining our children.”

Look, I get that. But I’m going to respond the same way [Rogers] did: It’s very, very sad. And the kids who grow up under that cloud need my outreach. The baton has been passed to those of us who are going to take care of these kids who are being separated from their parents. I’m involved in creating an action downtown on Thursday morning, a prayer vigil, at the Department of Homeland Security. What we are going to do is just let these people know there are values and perspectives that are deeper and more important than theirs, and we will never go away. We’re just not. And we’re not going to become them, in terms of their tactics. We’re going to hold on to our integrity and do this the right way.

What are you doing in reaction to what is going on in our country?

Number one, sign every petition you can. When you sign a petition, give a small donation to that organization to keep them going. Constantly call your senators and congresspeople, even if they agree with you. They count up those emails and they count up those phone calls.

But also we should march every time there’s a march…. We all need to “pray with our legs.” We all need to just do something and set that example for our kids and grandkids. That’s really, really important, that they pick up this baton.

The other thing is to personalize it. There is this story of a rabbi who was on his deathbed — there’s all these stories of rabbis on their deathbeds in literature — and students are gathering around and he’s starting to cry and they ask, Why? He says, “Well, when I was a young rabbi, I thought I could make change all over. I tried to do it in our region. I tried to do it in our city. I tried to do it in our little community. I tried to do it in my family. And then I realized I should have started with myself and worked outwards.” We need to do that.

Without falling into solipsism.

Right. I know so many people who, unfortunately, have just become cynical about all of this. And I don’t blame them. My tradition says when you doubt, climb out of it. We need to climb out of it and get to work. That’s again what my tradition teaches: We’re not expected to complete the work, but we’re not free to desist from doing it.

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