By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
Billy Joel’s decision to sport a yellow star on the front and back of his jacket during a concert this week was a nod to history that the singer may not have been aware of.
The venue for the concert, New York City’s Madison Square Garden, was the site of pro- and anti-Nazi rallies during the World War II.
In February 1939, as Europe teetered on the edge of war, 22,000 Nazi sympathizers gathered at the Garden for a rally organized by the German American Bund, during which swastika flags flew alongside a portrait of George Washington. “Stop Jewish Domination of Christian Americans!” was typical of the signs at the rally.
In July 1942, American Jews and their friends packed the Garden for an angry, emotional protest against the ravages of the Nazis. “In addition to the rallying cries of leaders and attendees, there was a solemn commemoration and chant for the thousands of Jewish men, women, and children who have already been slaughtered since the Third Reich took power in Germany,” read one report of the event.
But in other, more important ways, there is a vast gulf between what those two rallies represented, and what Billy Joel’s wardrobe adjustment signified.
The German rally was a demonstration that the menace of Nazism had penetrated the U.S., and particularly its universities, more deeply than many Americans still realize. The Jewish rally was one more piece of evidence that the world could not say, “We didn’t know.” But both rallies highlighted the same real, grave, tangible problem: that a major world power was now in the grip of a totalitarian party and leader, whose laws assigned subhuman status to the Jews, and whose blood-soaked military aggressions brought down genocidal slaughter upon 6 million Jews as well as other beleaguered minorities.
In other words, it was a pretty distinct situation. Jews have never been in a comparable situation since, and we have no serious reason to believe that will change. And that gets to the heart of why I find Joel’s gesture—for that is how it should be seen—so objectionable.
Nazism was about a hell of a lot more than rallies. Nazi Germany was not Charlottesville; and by the violent standards of German Nazi rallies, Charlottesville was pretty tame. That is not to denigrate the ghastly experience of Charlottesville—simply to say that it is not necessary to invoke the historic symbols of state and church-sponsored anti-Semitic persecution in order to condemn the spectacle of swastikas in an American city, along with an American president who refuses to call the Nazis out for the violence.
It is not necessary because here in America, there are no Nuremberg Race Laws to discriminate between Jews and “Aryans.”
It is not necessary because in America, Billy Joel is celebrated for standing up to the far right surge by voluntarily and ostentatiously wearing the yellow star; that symbol of inferiority was not forced upon him, as it was on Jews in Christian and Muslim countries for a thousand years.
It is not necessary because in America, Joel faces no sanction for being a Jewish performer; in Nazi Germany, Jewish musicians and artists were systematically purged in the early days of Hitler’s rule, and all Jewish art was deemed “degenerate.”
Some people might object, “well, these are just details—his intentions were good.” If intentions are all that count, then granted, there is probably no argument. But if basic standards of truth—dare I add decency, too—are brought into consideration, then I can only look with alarm at the way that historic symbols which should be treated with respect are raided, like so many items on pizza menu, just to score points with the progressive consensus that President Donald Trump is a proto-Nazi.
A cynic might take that point further, and accuse Joel of engaging in just the kind of free media marketing that Trump employed during his election campaign. After all, it landed the singer plenty of headlines, at a time when celebrities are jostling for the attention of the 41 percent of Americans who believe the president should be impeached.
But I don’t think a conclusion like that would be entirely fair. Maybe Joel thought he was honoring the victims of the Holocaust. Maybe it was his way of saying, “Never Again.” Maybe it was his way of asking, “Can you imagine an America like this?” Even if we can all imagine that, there is nothing happening to suggest that a Fourth Reich is around the corner.
Many liberal Jews acknowledge they are “privileged” compared to other minorities inAmerica. They should also acknowledge they are much more privileged than their forebears were. Say, then, what you wish, but leave the yellow star alone.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.