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Last summer, Billy Joel appeared onstage at Madison Square Garden wearing a yellow Star of David. Although the singer-songwriter didn’t speak publicly about the decision, many interpreted it as an act of solidarity in response to a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the rising incidents of anti-Semitism sweeping the country.
One year later, Joel has given voice to his decision to bring the yellow star, a symbol of Jewish persecution during the Holocaust, into the present moment. In an interview with CBS News that aired Sunday night, Joel said President Donald Trump’s remarks on how there were good people “on both sides” of the incidents in Charlottesville ignited his choice.
“I had to do something that night,” he said. “The president said, you know, ‘There’s some good people on that side.’ No, Nazis aren’t good people. It really enraged me, actually.”
Joel said he doesn’t usually get political during musical performances because “that’s not why people are there,” but he also felt like he had “a right” to wear the star, given his family’s past.
“My old man, his family got wiped out; they were slaughtered in Auschwitz,” he said. “Him and his parents were able to get out. But then he was in the US Army during the war and fought with [Gen. George] Patton and was shot at by Nazis.”
”My family suffered,” he added. “And I think I actually have a right to do that.”
Joel elaborated on his decision to wear the yellow star in an interview with Vulture.
“To me, what happened in Charlottesville was like war,” he said. “There are no good Ku Klux Klan people. Don’t equivocate that shit.”
“When those guys see punks walking around with swastikas, how do they keep from taking a baseball bat and bashing those crypto-Nazis over the head?” he went on. “Those creeps are going to march through the streets of my country? Uh-uh. I was personally offended. That’s why I wore that yellow star. I had to do something, and I didn’t think speaking about it was going to be as impactful.”
At that time that Joel wore the yellow star, he wasn’t the only public figure choosing to do so. Nev Schulman, the former star of MTV’s Catfish, wore one pinned to his suit on the red carpet during the MTV Video Music Awards, and he told Racked that he “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.”
The usage of the yellow star’s symbolism has been met with mixed reactions. Some praised Billy Joel and Schulman on social media: “As a child of holocaust survivors I am especially thankful to Billy Joel for this powerful statement,” one Instagram commenter wrote. But Deborah Lipstadt, a historian and professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University, told Racked that while she understood the sentiment, celebrity usage of the yellow star was “making the Holocaust into kitsch.”
David Harris, CEO of the global Jewish advocacy group the American Jewish Committee, said that the yellow star should be off limits altogether, because he feared the symbol could be politicized. He wondered if celebrities “would wear a symbol showing concern of the threat to Jews irrespective of who those people are ... or [is it] only because of neo-Nazis who support a president you don’t?”
While Joel told Vulture that “wearing the Star of David wasn’t about politics,” he did say he wasn’t a fan of Trump.
“You can probably look at every generation and find terrible things were happening. But right now I can specifically look to our leader and blame it on him,” he said.