Tell us about it, Billy

The singer Billy Joel comes across as a decent fellow — all the more so for many of those whose professional paths have crossed with his.

One of my memorably pleasant interludes in the late 1980s was meeting and interviewing the family-restaurant-friendly performer in Auckland, New Zealand. Joel had just released a live album from a recent tour of the USSR. Russian Jews were having a pretty hard time of it at that point, and so it seemed a natural subject to ask the culturally Jewish celebrity about.

Joel was happy to chat about it for a bit in generally sympathetic terms. But he also insisted it wasn’t his role to issue on-stage political statements on this or any other political matter. It’s a position he seems to have stuck with since that time as dependably as his verse-chorus-verse structures — until now.

People magazine covers the startling story of how Joel made a “strong statement” this past week against what he describes as the growing neo-Nazi and white nationalism movement in America, by taking the stage at New York’s Madison Square Garden wearing a yellow Star of David.

The piano man “donned the patch on both the lapel and back of his suit blazer — a reference to the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust.”

The apparent change of heart comes “as the neo-Nazi, alt-right movement has only gained more visibility — uniting much of the nation in outrage earlier this month after the tumultuous rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia, left one counter-protester dead,” the entertainment news outlet reports.

The piece gets a touch purple in places. Joel’s former wife, Christie Brinkley (also in attendance at the show), is quoted as gushing, “May that star also remind you today of the gold stars pinned to the jackets of soldiers for their bravery and valor for fighting an evil so hideous even the gold stars in the sky were afraid to shine.”

No doubt, any statement on the collective fate that befell European Jewry last century is worth applauding. And wearing this particular symbol is guaranteed an unpleasant jolt of recognition. But why wait until now and why wait until this to roll out the theatrical outrage?

White supremacists have been a persistent issue in America for decades. They are a deeply unpleasant crowd. But their numbers are small and the harm they have wrought is not vast in the greater scheme of things.

As Brendan O’Neill succinctly put it the other day, one march by a motley crew of out-of-shape hard-right hillbillies in Charlottesville does not the Third Reich make.

During the same time, radicalized Islamists, whose views on Jews are essentially indistinguishable from the “alt-right,” have arisen in far mightier numbers and wreaked much greater havoc. Not least in Joel’s native America since 2001, but also in Europe, where the body parts of some 480 victims have been scraped off the sidewalks, concert hall floors, and editorial meeting room walls since the recent wave of chaos began. And of course in the Middle East.

As he did with the Soviet refuseniks, Billy Joel has chosen to keep his own counsel. Fine. But to break his silence in this particular fashion does seem to suggest he isn’t paying close attention to the wider lyric sheet.

About the Author
David Cohen is a Wellington-based author and journalist whose work appears frequently in publications around the world.
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