Thursday, September 7, 2017

Billy Joel and the Yellow Star

A few weeks ago, Billy Joel surprised his audience at Madison Square Garden by returning to the stage at the end of a concert wearing a yellow star specifically tailored to resemble the ones the Nazis forced Jews in occupied Europe to wear. Clearly, the point was to make a statement—a stark, wordless one, but one that would (and did) get the attention not only of his audience at the Garden but of the wide world beyond the arena’s walls as well—about the rising tide of white supremacism, neo-Nazism, and anti-Semitic and racial intolerance in our American republic.  As wordless protests go, it couldn’t have been more well-timed: the nation was still reeling from the sight of white nationalists, neo-Confederates, and undisguised neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville while carrying semi-automatic weapons, waving Confederate and Nazi flags, and chanting overtly anti-Semitic slogans when Billy Joel donned his star at the Garden not even two weeks later.

The response to Joel’s gesture was mixed. In the non-Jewish media, it was generally lauded as a dramatic non-verbal statement about a serious national issue by a personality who found himself in the right place at the right time to make it. TMZ, the celebrity news website, referenced it as “a bold statement about the times we live in.” Billboard referred to it as “a powerful political statement.” MSN, The Microsoft Network, said Joel’s gesture was “a strong statement against the growing Neo-Nazi and White Nationalism movement.” People Magazine called it a “strong statement” against intolerance.

The response in the Jewish media was far more equivocal. 

Andrew Silow-Carroll, writing on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency website, focused almost exclusively on his fear that Joel’s gesture, no doubt heartfelt and sincere, might accidentally trigger an unfortunate trend: “I don’t think anybody wants the yellow star to become this year’s AIDS ribbon or Livestrong bracelet,” he wrote. “The wearing of the yellow star seems the kind of gesture that can be made once, or sparingly, lest you diminish its shock value or begin to insult the experiences and memory of the people who are purporting to identify with an honor.”  But that dismissive response qualifies as restrained and measured when compared to the response of Stephen Pollard in the Jewish Chronicle, the U.K.-based newspaper of which he is editor, who labelled Joel’s gesture “crass, infantile, ignorant, stupid, and offensive.” And that was just the headline. Later on in the piece, he explains his position in slightly more detail: “[You] do not express your pride in being Jewish, or your revulsion against hate, by donning the Nazi yellow star as a fashion statement of that supposed pride. All you do is insult those survivors who lived through the Shoah, and who did not wear their yellow stars to draw media attention to themselves but because they were forced to do so by the Third Reich.” Nor was Pollard at all impressed when Nev Schulman, an actor and the producer of the popular MTV television show Catfish, showed up at the MTV Movie Awards wearing his own yellow star, a gesture that prompted Pollard to label him a “half-wit” and which only seemed to confirm Silow-Carroll’s fear that the yellow star could yet become a widespread symbol of opposition to intolerance. 

Other Jewish responses varied.  A piece in the Forward earlier this week by the anonymous blogger who writes as Jewish Chick described herself as “flabbergasted, outraged, and frankly puzzled,” by Joel’s and Schulman’s gestures. “For myself,” she wrote, “and [for] many others, [the gesture of donning a yellow star] represents a slap in the face for [sic] those who perished during and [those who] survived the Holocaust, no matter what the intent.” On the other hand, Aryeh Kaltmann, a Chabad rabbi writing on the Algemeiner website, labelled Joel’s gesture as “an inspiring surprise” and explained himself as follows: “By boldly wearing the startling image of the star that the Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust, Joel was decrying anti-Semitism in particular—and, by implication, racism and other forms of hate.”

I think Rabbi Kaltmann got it right. Yes, it was shocking to see Billy Joel (who has hardly worn his Jewishness on his sleeve in the course of his many years of fame) appearing on stage willingly wearing something that symbolizes the barbarism of Nazi intolerance and anti-Semitism. But isn’t that the point of dramatic gestures in the first place, that they trigger emotions in the people who see them that might otherwise have lain dormant?

I’ve read in many places that there is no apparent historicity to the story I heard a thousand times as a child about how Denmark’s King Christian X chose to express his solidarity with his Jewish subjects after Denmark was invaded by the Germans by donning a yellow star himself. When I was a boy, that story stirred me mightily…and the reason I responded to it so viscerally, now that I think back carefully, is precisely because it was so unexpected, so dramatic, and so intense a gesture for someone outside the Jewish community to make in public on behalf of those on the inside. King Christian wasn’t a Jew, obviously, but he—in the story, at least—was expressing his solidarity with the victims of Nazi anti-Semitism personally and publicly. So why should it not be equally moving to contemplate a pop star—and particularly one whose Jewishness has been so low-key over the years that I myself was slightly surprised the learn that he even was Jewish—by such a person standing up to oppose neo-Nazi anti-Semitism…and particularly when he personally had nothing at all to gain by making such a public statement? That the story about King Christian isn’t true (click here for the details) hardly matters and, indeed, the fact that the story was apparently just a fantasy speaks volumes about how meaningful a gesture it would surely have been had he really made it.

The back history of the Jewish badge goes back a long way. In 1215, for example, the Fourth Lateran Council headed by Pope Innocent III decreed that henceforth Jews in all Christian lands under papal control would be obliged to adopt some specific article of dress that could vary from land to land but that in every place would set them apart from their Christian neighbors. In 1222, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton (who is otherwise remembered for inventing the chapter divisions in the Hebrew Bible that are used today in all Christian editions and most Jewish ones) decreed that English Jews were required to wear a white band across their clothing minimally “two fingers broad and four fingers long.”  In 1227, the Christian Synod of Narbonne in France decreed that Jews in France wear an oval badge; just the next year, James I ordered the Jews of Aragon to wear a similar badge. In 1294, the Jews of Erfurt in Germany were similarly required to wear the Jewish badge, the first mention of such a thing in any German city. You get the idea…one way or the other, the practice spread across Europe, constantly being cancelled and then re-introduced over the course of almost the entire medieval period. And then, of course, after centuries of disuse, the Nazis re-introduced the idea in many of the countries they conquered in the early 1940s as well as in Germany itself.

There is something particularly vicious about the use of the star. The Jews of Germany (or France or anywhere) were not physically distinct from the people among whom they lived. And the sense of fitting in, of being one of the masses, of being able to circulate easily in society without arousing the ire of whatever anti-Semites they might encounter in the course of one’s day’s affairs—that sense of being indistinguishable from the rest of the populace was a key element in the feeling many Jews developed that they were safe and secure in their host nations and in the cities they had come to think of as their hometowns. As a result, pronouncements by those medieval monarchs who considered the fact that their Jewish subjects were not easily recognizable to be a problem in need of addressing took on a particularly ominous ring. Nor did that ominousness dissipate with the passing of centuries, and least of all in Nazi-occupied Europe, where the yellow badge was not just a mark of Jewishness, but more specifically a mark of Jewishness overlaid with a deep sense of creeping ill ease, of jeopardy, of menace.

For these last weeks since Charlottesville, the challenge for us all has been to steer a clear course between over-reaction and under-reaction, between seeing neo-Nazis behind every tree and falling into the trap of not seeing them at all because we so fervently wish for them not to exist. I’ve had to negotiate those straits myself, both when speaking from the bimah and when writing my weekly letter to you all, and even now I find myself unsure about how things truly stand. Surely, there is no incipient political movement gaining ground that is anything like the rising Nazi party in the waning days of the Weimar Republic. There was almost universal bipartisan agreement that the President’s initial comments about Charlottesville were equivocal and unworthy. There were, at the end of the day, about 250 people chanting “Blood and Soil” and “Jews Will Not Replace Us” in the streets of Charlottesville, not 250,000. Our nation has always harbored extremists and haters who abuse their First Amendment rights to defame others, yet the civil rights of citizens remain the cornerstone of our democracy nonetheless. The sense of decency and fairmindedness that is the hallmark of true American patriotism remains in place.  I myself am neither worried nor scared; my sense of my place in our nation is just as it has been for decades and is, I believe, as unshakeable as it is unshaken.

But we also remember the Jews of Germany who made the cataclysmic error of underestimating the haters. They too felt secure, safe, and possessed of inalienable civil rights! Of course, the fact that they were wrong doesn’t mean that we too are! But it means that when a public figure like Billy Joel comes on stage at one of the nation’s premiere concert venues and, in front of scores of thousands of fans, says with a single gesture that he is identifying these days with the Jews of 1940’s Germany—when a man such as he makes a wordless statement such as that, in my opinion at least, we should applaud his candor, his willingness to speak out, and, yes, his bravery. His was a valiant gesture at just the right moment and Billy Joel should be lauded both in Jewish and in non-Jewish circles for having made it.

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