Biking home from breakfast with my family last weekend, I caught sight of a neighbor perched at the top of a tall ladder, unfurling a giant red and blue TRUMP 2020 flag from where he’d just fastened it to a tree in his front yard.
My stomach lurched, my heart sank and my pulse quickened. Here we go, I thought. Welcome to your first election season in Texas, Melissa.
Over the past week, I’d noticed our quiet, suburban neighborhood slowly morphing into what feels like a giant, tree-lined Trump fan club, with new yard signs and flags sprouting up in our community every day.
I’m pretty sure the latest member of this “club” was proud of his handiwork, although I couldn’t see his face. But I do wish he could have seen mine. If he had, he’d have seen my profound sadness and anger. Yes, that flag — and everything it represents — may be a source of tremendous pride for him. But it’s also source of deep anguish for many Americans, like myself — an American Jew, married to a naturalized citizen from a sh*t-hole country, raising multicultural kids in America.
You can tell me it’s “just a flag” or “just a piece of fabric” or “just a political opinion.” You can tell me it’s “freedom of speech,” and that Americans have a right to hang whatever flag they damn well please. And you wouldn’t be wrong.
But whether intended or not, to many of us, that flag hanging from front porches, windows, and trees isn’t “just a flag” — it’s a symbol of hostile tribalism. To me, it represents a blanket acceptance of everything my heart and soul is against: bullying, lying, cheating, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, police brutality against Black men, mocking people with disabilities, denying climate change, denying the pandemic, QAnon/Deep State conspiracy theories, the list goes on and on and on.
In many ways, I feel these pieces of fabric and card stock have become the new tools of hate – no different than the white cloaks of the KKK or swastikas. Except now, there is no shame or hiding. Like the khaki-wearing, tiki-torch carrying neo-Nazis who stormed the streets of Charlottesville, these new displays of adulation — and, in my opinion, blind allegiance — are how hate is worn in 2020.
Now, before anyone calls me a “snowflake” or tells me to “get over it,” let me say this: I completely understand and appreciate that we live in a country where our freedom of speech is protected, and where we can vote for whomever we please. These are freedoms many have given their lives for around the world.
But that doesn’t mean your right to speak your mind doesn’t hurt others. I experience these signs as an uncomfortable, daily reminder that I’m an implant here. Last fall, for example, when someone scrawled insults and swastikas on our synagogue’s playground. It was a horrible experience, and when I see Trump signs around the neighborhood, I can’t help but recall this event and Trump’s Charlottesville comments about “good people on both sides.”
I can’t begin to imagine how our Black postal worker feels as he delivers mail to these pro-Trump homes, to say nothing of the experience of scores of Latin American contractors, house-cleaners, lawn care and pool maintenance workers, and so on, upon whom so many of my Trump-loving neighbors rely.
Here we are now, in the Days of Awe, when we are asked to look back on the year we had and the people we wronged along the way. And as I self-reflect, I’ve been finding myself struggling with the deep anger I have in my heart toward the President, whom I consider the antithesis of everything our Torah teaches us. I know everyone has a right to their beliefs and that this is a time I should be asking forgiveness for my own sins — but the sins of anger and judging his supporters is a real struggle for me right now.
I felt so ill-equipped to manage my own emotions, in fact, that I reached out to my rabbi for some counsel. I explained to him how I perceived the plight of our country, and how I felt uncertain about how to move forward while harboring so much rage and anger.
“What’s hardest about this moment is that we live in an age where we aren’t confident in our faith — and now our faith in democracy is being tested, and faith in other humans feels fragile,” my rabbi, Geoffrey Dennis of Congregation Kol Ami in Denton County, said. “But I have to believe our bedrock values that we hold dear are strong and can thrive.”
“Judaism teaches us about compassion and forgiveness — but know these tenets are not the opposite of justice,” he added. “The Torah tells us to look upon others with compassion — to recognize that they may be acting out of fear, misinformation, out of the ‘human lizard brain.’ Each of us has to recognize we have those same qualities in ourselves, and that justice and mercy go hand in hand.”
He reminded me of the story of Jonah. The prophet doesn’t want to forgive the people of Nineveh for all the wicked things they’d done, but after they repent and change their ways (teshuva), God — whose compassion is boundless — does forgive these enemies of Israel (much to Jonah’s dismay). Perhaps the election outcome will show us a reckoning of sorts, like the people of Nineveh experienced? One can hope!
Since our talk, I’ve had a bit of a mind shift. It still upsets me to see Trump signs and flags everywhere I turn, but I’ve started thinking of it through a more compassionate lens of it being fear that drives a lot of their support of the president. Somehow that helps. (That, and holding tightly to the amazing friends I’ve made here, who I can confide in and who share these feelings of outrage!)
And because harboring my own ill feelings solves nothing, I’m focusing on controlling the controllables. For example, I’ve decided to sprint when I walk past the signs and flags now, choosing to do something positive for my mind and body. And when I beat my chest during the Ashmanu on Yom Kippur, I will also be repenting for the abnormal levels of anger I’ve felt this year.
Beyond that, I will vote, as I always do — and I’ll encourage others to do the same. I’ll continue to speak out against injustice of all kinds. I’ll continue to write — my personal weapon of advocacy — and hope that maybe, just maybe, someone will read this and think twice about waving that Trump 2020 flag or wearing a red MAGA hat.
My rabbi also left me with some encouraging parting words of wisdom. He reminded me that the fight to end slavery began more than 50 years before slavery was abolished. Despite the anger, shame, and frustration of this moment, we need to keep pushing forward. We need to have a societal reconciliation, and it may take many years to get there — long after Trump is gone. But we have to believe it’s possible.
We all need to do our part and vote on or before November 3. We have to have faith that the democratic ideals our country was built on — many of the same ideals we Jews hold dear — will be restored. Our High Holidays are a time of renewal and spiritual growth. In this new year, 5781, we each get a blank slate; a fresh start. To that end, I have to believe that justice and love — and not hate of any kind — will prevail.
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