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In September 1939, while Nazi Germany invaded Central Poland and initiated World War II, Polish Jews were ordered to wear signifying markers on their clothing to identify them as such.
Germany was already steeped in anti-Semitism. As early as 1933, Jews had been removed from their positions in government, the army, and at universities and newspapers; 1935’s Nuremberg Laws stripped them of citizenship and eventually their right to own businesses and properties. In November 1938 there was Kristallnacht, a night of mass destruction of Jewish businesses, homes, and synagogues. And yet forcing Jews to wear differentiators pre-dates even those horrors, all the way back to the Middle Ages when Catholic bishops and Muslim caliphs ordered Jews to wear signifiers like specific hats, yellow badges, and belts. The practice largely disappeared after the Jewish emancipation of the 19th century until re-emerging in 1939.
The yellow star was not mandatory at first. From Poland to Croatia to the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Jews were told to wear any sort of signifier on their clothing. And so various badges, like a white arm band with a blue Star of David, were worn across Eastern Europe. By 1941, though, the yellow star was the mandate, and Jews living in Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, the Netherlands, Greece, Belgium, and France all wore different variations. The resurrection of this external Jewish signifier, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes, wasn’t just to “stigmatize and humiliate Jews, but also to segregate them and to watch and control their movements.”
Fast forward to 2017, and the yellow star has emerged once again, this time under completely different circumstances. Last week, Billy Joel pinned one to both the lapel and the back of his black suit for his concert at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The assumption was that Joel, who is Jewish, wore it as an act of solidarity in response to Charlottesville and the rising — and loud — tide of anti-Semitism across America, though he didn’t verbally acknowledge the choice on stage. Joel’s ex-wife, Christie Brinkley, and daughter Alexa Ray applauded him on Instagram, with the latter writing: “Now, THIS Is How You Do It. THAT'S MY POP!!! Proud Jewish New Yorker Through & Through!!!!!”
At Sunday night’s MTV Video Music Awards, Nev Schulman of the network’s Catfish pinned a yellow star to the jacket of his Topshop rust-colored suit. Schulman tells Racked he added the accessory to raise awareness.
“The recent events in Charlottesville and around the county have created an elevated environment of fear among the American Jewish community, of which I am a part,” Schulman says. “I felt that the VMAs were a perfect place to broadcast a message of acceptance and remind people that hate and racism will not be tolerated. As times change, we’d like to think that anti-Semitism has gone away, but sadly it has not. With the recent events and growing concerns around the world, I felt it was a good opportunity to remind people what happens when we see a group of people being persecuted and sit idly by.”
Reactions to wearing the yellow star even with good intentions have been mixed. On Instagram, one commenter wrote to Ray that “as a child of holocaust survivors I am especially thankful to Billy Joel for this powerful statement.” Meanwhile, over at the Jerusalem Post, Schulman’s sartorial decision was scornfully dubbed “Holocaust chic.”
Should the yellow star be appropriated as a pop culture accessory? At any time, let alone when the last survivors are dying out, Holocaust denial is rising — ubiquitous, even, in certain countries — and anti-Semitism is escalating world-wide (in the US alone, the FBI’s hate-crime data shows that most religiously motivated crimes target Jews). The yellow star, as Schulman points out, is a stark reminder of the past. On the other hand, to a young audience watching the VMAs, does the appearance of the symbol on a red carpet bear enough weight, if any? Will kids today see the yellow star as as just another pink ribbon?
Deborah Lipstadt, a historian and professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University, says the recent usage of the yellow star leaves a strange taste in her mouth. While Lipstadt, who’s written several books on the Holocaust and whose trial with Holocaust denier David Irving earned her a Hollywood biopic starring Rachel Weisz (Denial), says that while she’s not “going bezerk or protesting” about the usage of the yellow star in pop culture because “there are bigger things to worry about today,” she is concerned the actions are “making the Holocaust into kitsch.”
“I would put Billy Joel in a different context, because he is an artist, and this seemed to be his way of reacting to Charlottesville, but it doesn’t feel right,” says Lipstadt. “It doesn’t feel educational, and it doesn’t feel like it accomplishes something. Even if done with good intentions, it’s not smart or respectful because it further debases this terrible symbol people had to wear.”
Lipstadt adds that while she can understand the sentiment that “some of these actors and stars feel they are turning a badge of shame into a badge of honor,” entwining the yellow star into pop culture could dismantle the meaning of the symbol, as all things that get chewed up and spit out by trends.
“I would not be happy if this became a Hollywood trend because we get tired of trends. So people would get tired of the yellow star, and then they are just onto the next thing,” she says. “It cheapens the message.”
This isn’t the first time a contentious symbol from the Holocaust has had a contemporary re-emergence as a symbol of redemption; in 2012, the New York Times wrote about children and grandchildren of Auschwitz survivors in Israel who were getting tattoos of their grandparents’ numbers inked onto their arms. Abraham Foxman, the director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism and former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, says wearing Stars of David and getting tattoos of Auschwitz numbers are appropriate symbols of pride so long as they remains as such.
“If it’s used in its proper context, at a proper moment, it can be positive,” says Foxman. “In connection of a sense of Jewish pride, tied to their Jewish history, it’s fine, but one has to be careful that it doesn’t turn into some sort of fashion statement. I just worry that some company in fashion would see it as an opportunity for a fashion statement.”
And, of course, they already have. Last week, Prada sister brand Miu Miu pulled a line of clothing featuring yellow stars on the chests of dresses and blouses. Zara and Urban Outfitters have repeatedly used World War II symbolism in their designs, from Urban Outfitters’ yellow tee with a Star of David that prompted a letter from the ADL in 2012 to Zara’s “Holocaust uniform tee” from 2014 featuring black-and-white stripes and, yes, a yellow star. (In 2007, Zara also had to pull a purse from its shelves, alleging it didn’t realize its design featured swastikas.)
Foxman says that while “the manifestation of making the yellow star into a fashion statement is, to most of us, [and] certainly survivors, offensive,” for now everyone must be vigilant to where the usage of the yellow star is headed, as “it’s still too early to come up with a judgment.”
David Harris, CEO of global Jewish advocacy group American Jewish Committee, sees it differently. While he “admires Jews in public spaces or popular culture who are prepared to stand up and identify themselves as Jews in difficult moments,” he says the yellow star should be off limits as a symbol to borrow at indiscriminate times.
“As a child of survivors, I have mixed feelings when I see a yellow star, which was worn by people who did not return to a hotel room at night, much less a hotel suite,” says Harris. “They did not appear on stage before adoring crowds. It’s a fantasy world of attempted empathy; the symbol, at best, demonstrates survival in the most unmanageable circumstances, and at worst, is reminiscent of crematoriums and death camps.”
The problem, as Harris sees it, is that a modern usage of the yellow star seems to imply that there is a sense of identification with the atrocities associated with it: “I, or Billy Joel, did not experience the Holocaust. My parents did. We are not the same. With all my sympathy and empathy, we are not the same. I’m Jewish, but I don’t get to appropriate the symbols worn by people who paid unimaginable prices.”
Harris also expressed concern that the yellow star could be regurgitated as a political symbol. Both Joel’s and Schulman’s reactions were in response to rising anti-Semitism in the US, but they could also be interpreted as being in defiance of President Trump. Harris says it would behoove famous Jews to get involved with anti-Semitism on a global level, not just when it’s juxtaposed with America’s heated political landscape. “In my work over four decades, I’ve seen that anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism, and it doesn’t come from one source. So I’m curious if pop culture would stand up when Iran calls for the extermination of the state of Israel, or when Hezbollah says its goal is to exterminate the Jewish people. Will they wear a symbol showing concern of the threat to Jews irrespective of who those people are? Or only because it’s because of neo-Nazis who support a president you don’t?”
Wearing a yellow star on your suit is not the only way to stand up to hate and express Jewish pride. There have been pledges to join synagogues and to recall the past more distinctly, and donations have poured in to nonprofits that track hate groups. If fashion is your favored form of protest, Schulman’s Catfish co-star, Max Joseph, wore a T-shirt that read “Jew” to the VMAs.
Jack Antonoff, the producer and musician from the bands fun. and Bleachers, has been wearing a gold Star of David pendant around his neck, including at the VMAs. Antonoff tells Racked he started wearing it after Trump was elected “because Trump and his culture want you to feel shame if you are anything but a straight white Christian man,” he says. “I wear it in the face of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. If you’re gonna draw swastikas in my neighborhood park, then the necklace comes out. If you’re gonna march in the street, the necklace comes out.”