Last week, I was working out at the Jewish Community Center, as I do most nights. The JCC in Cincinnati, like many gyms, got really busy in January with resolution setters, but has been able to maintain the high attendance since. I’m used to getting to the gym and seeing people of all shapes, sizes, and demographics. While the JCC is clearly a Jewish space, it is filled with a great many people who aren’t Jewish, sharing the resources.
One individual jumped out at me this time. A white man, likely in his early to mid 40s, was lifting weights, wearing a shirt that caught my attention. The shirt was a white tank top, with an American flag at the top, and the words “No illegals” below.
I grew angry seeing that shirt, especially in a Jewish environment. I understand that people come to their political opinions for a multitude of reasons. But, to me, I felt like this shirt was an outward attack on a group of people, in an overly simple way that a t-shirt shouldn’t be.
“Illegals” are people, people who almost certainly came to this country for a reason. While I understand that we shouldn’t be encouraging people to break the law to enter this country, a line on a t-shirt undermines the humanity of those who are looking for a better life in America.
I also detest the use of the American flag as a sign of patriotism for those who want to shut the borders. The political right has commandeered the American flag, making it a symbol for selfish politics, for those who will defend “true Americans.” Can I not have pride in my flag and also want to help those fleeing oppression? Can I not love my country while also wanting to allow others the ability to love it as well?
The thing that made me most uncomfortable was the fact that this man was in a Jewish community wearing a shirt that seemingly undermined the humanity of others. We know that similar sentiments were used against the Jews in the 1930s and 40s. We know that the Jews have spent centuries fleeing from one place that didn’t want us to another. It is incredibly un-Jewish to see someone as “an illegal,” rather than as a human being. Jews have an obligation to do better for others than what was done for us, and to ensure that nobody has to experience what we experienced not so long ago.
We live in a society where anyone is allowed to wear a shirt stating their own political opinions. And I’m sure there are many in this country who would be made uncomfortable by t-shirts that I would see and not bat an eyelash. In many ways, I’m still grappling with why it bothered me so much to see a man wearing a shirt.
There is a time and place for policy discussions. There are appropriate avenues for discussing why someone believes what they believe. It’s pretty safe to say, though, that a slogan on a shirt at the gym isn’t the space and isn’t the way to have a meaningful conversation. And, in a Jewish space, this behavior so profoundly doesn’t match a community that must constantly remember that we are built on a foundation of values.