Billy Joel’s quiet protest reflected history’s truths

Billy Joel’s quiet protest reflected history’s truths

Billy the Kid wore a yellow Star of David, and the world took notice. At Billy Joel’s August concert, one of a series of monthly sold-out performances at Madison Square Garden, Joel appeared for his encore in silent protest, wearing affixed to his blazer a yellow star reminiscent of those the Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust as they penned them in ghettos, rounded them up, and murdered them. 

Joel didn’t say a word — he didn’t explain what he was doing, he gave no speech protesting the sudden rise of public Nazism as witnessed in Charlottesville, Va., one week earlier. His act was shocking and spoke for itself. It was poignant and effective. And it got noticed.

In its wake, two lower-profile celebrities flaunted their Judaism at the MTV Video Music Awards, which took place one week after the Billy Joel concert. Producer and songwriter Jack Antonoff wore a Star of David necklace, and producer, actor, photographer, and TV host Nev Schulman sported a yellow star on his suit jacket. 

I have no doubt that in following Joel’s lead, both were just as sincere in their intentions. The argument can even be made that both Antonoff, who attended Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, and Schulman, who comes from a strong Jewish background (Nev is short for the Hebrew name Yaniv), are more attuned than Joel to issues of Jewish concern. 

Joel, at least publicly, almost never acknowledges his Jewish ethnicity and has gone so far, at least once in his past, to (falsely) claim that he is “half-Jewish” when in fact both of his parents are Jewish. Joel has also (again in his far past) said he is “not Jewish,” said he “doesn’t believe in religion,” and for a short time wore a cross on stage. Not so with Antonoff and Schulman, who have never denied their Judaism. 

It is perhaps Joel’s past antagonism, or at the very least his ambivalence in dealing with his ethnic heritage, that made his protest seem more poignant. After all, Nazis didn’t discriminate. Jews who were atheists or born to a single Jewish parent went to the gas chambers alongside full-blooded and practicing Jews. 

Perhaps it is a good thing that the public sees that the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of that generation are here and have defeated Hitler’s plan to obliterate the Jewish nation. Perhaps it is a positive that the world sees Jews contributing in many forums, including in the world of entertainment, to society. We should not hide our heritage, as Joel often has; it should be visible and prominent. On the other hand, this calls for care and discretion. A yellow star is not a fashion statement and can never be allowed to become one. The moment the yellow star becomes this year’s fashionable cause-of-the-month emblem, it will have lost its meaning — and that would be a tragedy. 

Yes, one of the messages of the Holocaust is “Never Again,” and that is universally applied. We can never permit one subset of a nation to rise up to inflict a plan of genocide on another ethnic or religious group. But we can also not forget what the Holocaust was. “Never Again” happened once. Six million people were incinerated with scant protest from the world. They wore those yellow stars, not because it was trendy, but because they were forced to by a law enacted by a government that had seized control and by citizens who allowed it to happen. 

That is not the situation in the United States, and while we should be aware of Nazi groups and call them out on their hateful rhetoric, we should not be making them more powerful than they are or raise their stature by playing the role of the victim in the same manner they are play-acting the role of the oppressor. 

The statement has been made, but the day Katy Perry or Matt Damon walks on the red carpet wearing a yellow star affixed to their clothing, the meaning will be drained. Trends come and go, but the lessons of history are forever.

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