Singer Billy Joel and actor Nev Schulman chose to wear yellow stars at public events to raise awareness of growing anti-Semitism in the USA.
Schulman said: “It was a good opportunity to remind people what happens when we see a group of people being persecuted and sit idly by.” Joel didn’t comment publicly, but it’s clear he wore it as an act of solidarity in response to Charlottesville and the rising tide of anti-Semitism across America.
I understand the need to remind people of what happens when we allow racism a voice, yet this response makes me uneasy. We are used to people wearing ribbons in solidarity with various causes from Aids to victims of 9/11 – so used to it that we barely register them; the ribbons neither raise awareness nor offer comradeship, but simply satisfy the wearer’s need to make a statement.
I’d be horrified if the totemic yellow star Jews were forced to wear to identify them for humiliation and worse should become a lazy political statement. The star was the last iteration of ways to force Jews to identify themselves for easy persecution – a tradition going back to the 13th century, although it had died out until reintroduced in 1938.
It bespeaks oppression, marking and dehumanising the wearer, separating them from the rest of society. It was a deliberately cruel badge, inviting ridicule and violence upon the wearer and risking death if a Jew was caught without it.
Branded into the psyche of survivors and their descendants, to see it even in the context of a memorial or museum is to feel the pain and know the fear no one should experience.
So when a celebrity wears it – albeit with good intentions – calling attention to increasing anti-Semitism and rising Nazism, Jews feel the shadowy premonition of danger and unease.
There are other ways to address the issue. The celebrities could out themselves as Jewish by wearing a Magen David, publicly attach themselves to the Jewish community and join their local synagogue.
They could speak out during their interviews or concerts or on social media. While the intentions celebrities are good, we know where the road paved with good intentions leads.
Better to stand up against racism in all forms and leave the yellow star to those who were forced to wear it.
υ Sylvia Rothschild has been a community rabbi in south London for 30 years