Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Why are Jewish celebrities silent about Charlottesville?

Billy Joel performs an encore while wearing a Star of David at Madison Sqaure Garden in New York. Photo via Twitter

(RNS) Everyone is talking about Billy Joel donning a yellow star while performing at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

My first snarky impulse was to say: Billy, we never knew that you cared.

True enough — both of Billy Joel’s parents were Jewish. His father and grandparents were German-Jewish refugees. He grew up in the middle of Long Island, not far from where I grew up — albeit in a rather un-Jewish neighborhood.

But, previous to this, did you ever hear about Billy Joel doing anything affirmatively Jewish?

This is a man who had previously reflected on his ritual circumcision: “I had the snip and I had nothing to say about it. I’m still a little pissed off about that.”

As for other opportunities for Jewish activism, the Piano Man was never quite on key. As my friend,  Steve North — who knew him during the early years of his success — has written, Billy Joel toured the former U.S.S.R. in 1987, during the height of that regime’s oppression of the Jews, and remained silent about their plight, even though Steve had urged him to speak out.

I could say more at this point, but I suspect that Billy would start singing:

I don’t need you to worry for me ’cause I’m alright
I don’t want you to tell me it’s time to come home
I don’t care what you say anymore this is my life
Go ahead with your own life leave me alone

I confess: I have been uncomfortable with Jews who are only Jewish when they face persecution.

I have been uncomfortable with Jewish educational and youth programs that focus intensely on the Holocaust — only because I believe that we should be using our valuable, limited amount of time in teaching how Jews live, not how Jews died.

And yet, I also know the historical reality: Sometimes, it takes anti-Semitism and persecution to pull the wayward or apathetic Jew back into active Jewish engagement.

If I can engage in an elegant and venerable Hebrew pun: Sinah (hatred) can sometimes bring a Jew to Sinai (the mountain where God and Torah are revealed).

And it is not only the negatives. Consider the half-century-old legacy of the Six-Day War.

It was precisely in the wake of that war that American Judaism went through its period of greening — the growth of Jewish studies on campus, a flourishing of Jewish culture, even the creation of a Jewish counterculture.

So, if Billy Joel suddenly feels moved to publicly identify as a Jew — great.

Because, in donning the yellow star, Billy Joel was invoking the memory of his family members in Germany, who had been forced to wear the star.

Billy Joel not only stood up in defiance of virulent neo-Nazism and white supremacist movements.

Whether he knew it or not, he was standing up in rebuke of his fellow Jews in the entertainment industry.

In the wake of Charlottesville, Jewish entertainers have been silent. 

Oh, true — there have been celebrities who have donated money to fight hatred. George and Amal Clooney donated $1 million to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Arnold Schwarzenegger donated $100,000 to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

But, where are the Jews?

By contrast, let me take you back to 1943.

A sizable percentage of Europe’s Jews have already perished.

In response to the world’s (and America’s) silence in the face of unremitting evil, as well as their growing frustration with American policy and their contempt for Hollywood’s “fear of offending its European markets,” celebrity Jews spoke, wrote, sang and raised funds.

Billy Rose and Ernst Lubitsch produced a dramatic pageant at Madison Square Garden.

Its purpose: to raise public awareness about the plight of European Jewry.

The pageant was written by Ben Hecht. The music was composed by Kurt Weill, and it was staged by Moss Hart.

Its stars included Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, John Garfield, Ralph Bellamy, Frank Sinatra and Burgess Meredith.

The pageant was called “We Will Never Die,” and when it was performed on March 9, 1943, 40,000 people filled the seats — thanks to newspaper advertisements provided gratis by the Hearst Corp.

“We Will Never Die” went on the road, with performances in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles performance at the Hollywood Bowl was broadcast nationally on NBC radio.

The Washington audience contained senators, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Notice: The venues were huge. The pageant’s creators and participants were A-list personalities. And it wasn’t only Jews, but gentiles as well — Bellamy, Sinatra and Meredith.

It is time for a new “We Will Never Die.”

And, it will not just be about the Jews. It will be about blacks, immigrants, Muslims, women, LGBT — all those who are now threatened by the new wave of hatred that is sweeping through this country.

“We Will Never Die” happened in 1943. The American Jewish community was much smaller than it is today. It had much less clout and affluence.

And they did it.

Think of what we could do today — and with the internet, our ability to simulcast it all over the world.

True, we would miss Jerry Lewis.

But, I’m talking to you: Steven Spielberg. Sarah Silverman. Bette Midler. Barbra Streisand. Paul Simon. Bob Dylan. Woody Allen. Larry David. Jerry Seinfeld. Jason Alexander. Howard Stern. Howie Mandel. Richard Dreyfuss. Amy Schumer. Judd Apatow.

Dare I mention: Gal Gadot?

I am tired of counting Jewish celebrities.

It is time for Jewish celebrities to count.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

16 Comments

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  • None of the celebrities you mentioned came out swinging during
    The Crown Heights Pogrom or Freddie’s Fashion Mart.
    Both occurred in Billy Joel’s backyard.

  • There’s a good reason for Jews to be silent after Charlottesville, because of Antifa. The white supremacists might have sounded a lot like the Nazis of the ’20’s and ’30’s, but the Antifa fascists ACTED like them, just as hate-filled as those they faced. And does anyone believe that Antifa will be any more tolerant of Conservative religious Jews than they are of any other Conservatives? I certainly don’t. The white supremacists are a freak show, sound and fury signifying nothing — their ideology is thoroughly discredited, they are never going to again hold significant political positions. Antifa is the real danger.

  • Billy Joel is an artist. He brings people joy – worldwide. He’s a national treasure.
    The joy he has given both as an entertainer and composer has elevated man’s spirit universally in an all too bleak world.
    You called-out Spielberg. That’s fraudulent. Perhaps you know nothing about his film – Schindlers List.
    The others you called out have done more individually to elevate mankind’s spirit than a hundred thousand of your ilk. How dare you associate the others with Stern….
    The self-absorbed self-righteousness you demonstrated in this article really pisses me off.
    Heal thyself first – rabbi….

  • Billy Joel and his family participated in a documentary that I understand focused on either his parents or grandparents being Holocaust survivors. I didn’t see it. Just read about it when it came out some years ago.

  • Well perhaps if you guys treat the Palestinians as human-beings we (non-Palestinians) may empathise with your situation. The Palestinians should not suffer for the historical hate of Jews by the west.

  • AntiFa is the same bunch of Trots and other le-pire-le-mieux Marxoids they always were. There a fewer of them in the entire country than there are KKK members in 2017 Indiana — but they’re all over the newspapers because of journalistic equivalence.

    “Flat Earth Society hold meeting Berkeley Phone Booth.
    Two Views of Planet’s Shape Dominate California Science Consensus.”

  • This moronic. It is doubly moronic.

    1.) Why would this halfwit Salkin think that fascism is more of a problem for Jewish celebrities than for other celebrities, for Jews more than for non-Jews?

    2.) How sensible is it for a Rabbi to spread the idea that fascism is particularly a problem for Jews as Jews?

  • Perhaps, but as you point out what makes the Antifa fascists so dangerous isn’t their numbers, it’s the way so many on the Left at least tolerate if not openly support their drive to destroy the 1st Amendment.

  • I was reading this more of a call to action rather than a criticism. But it is written in such a way that it can be seen as both.

  • Except that is a load of bunk.

    A fictional narrative to make Antifa appear as an equivalent to the Alt-Right. Its not true in numbers, actions, nor in reaction. Antifa appears to exist more in terms as something to react to than something actively doing anything of note. Its not so much of being tolerated by the left as it is not being significant enough to care.

    In the last two weeks, talk of Antifa gave conservatives an excuse to avoid discussing and denouncing the neo-nazis in their midst who now consider the president one of their own. Ones who committed an act of domestic terrorism which was left undiscussed among them.

    All as a way to avoid and exorcise guilt over the wholesale normalization of bigotry into right wing politics. At no point is extremism so subsumed into the regular narrative of the left or mainstream liberal politics in the same way. You will find far more politicians standing in support of the KKK/Neo-Nazis than you will find ones who have even heard of Antifa, let alone “tolerate” them.

  • Why should Conservatives have to denounce the neo-Nazis and the rest of the racists? That freak show has nothing to do with us. After all, we’re the ones that picked up Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of a color-blind society when the Left threw it away. Which is why no Conservative of any import that I know of has “stood in support” of the KKK/neo-Nazis. I can’t say the same for the Antifa fascists, they DO have people on the Left supporting their crusade to gut the 1st Amendment’s free speech protections.

  • Because your president, your conservative president has publicly shown sympathy and alignment with that crowd. So much that it has sent many people normally aligned with the GOP running to the hills. White Supremacists are aiming for a level of normality and acceptability in conservative politics it hasn’t seen since the days of Segregation. David Duke has called Trump the man “his people” got into the White House.

    ” After all, we’re the ones that picked up Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of a color-blind society when the Left threw it away”

    Yeah, that is a load of BS that I cannot believe you expect me to take at face value. The Right supports actions which deliberately target minorities, especially racial ones. They support attacking their right to vote and their power to vote, they attack the economic interests of such people. 8 years of racism masquerading as “political dissent” does nothing to make your assertion even sound remotely plausible.

    The neo-nazis marched 2 weeks ago under the title “Unite the Right”.

    Antifa is chickensht compared to the influence, power and history of sheer mayhem of the neo-nazis who now have found acceptability in right wing politics. Either deal with the extremists hobnobbing with conservative politicians now or you will have no choice later down the road.

  • First, Trump is “my” president the same way he’s YOUR president — I didn’t vote for him and did my best to convince others to follow my example, but he won anyway.

    Second, Trump is in no way a Conservative, he’s a populist.

    Third, That “sympathy and alignment” you speak of was to correctly say that both sides in Charlottesville were violent. While I think his first statement was weak stuff — he should have named names, including the Antifa fascists — what he did say was absolutely true.

    Fourth, the white supremacists can say whatever they like in a bid for “normality and acceptability” in Conservative politics, they aren’t getting it for the simple reason that everyone else, Liberal or Conservative, believes the core tenet of their philosophy is disgusting nonsense.

    Fifth, belief in clean elections in which only citizens vote isn’t racist, whatever those pandering to their base may insist. For that matter, attempting to keep your opponents’ voters away from the polls, while immoral and rightfully illegal, isn’t racist either. What IS racist is to judge by the race, regardless of personal history and capabilities. And that is precisely what the Left insists on with its support of racial preferences. And that is what will continue to divide this nation until we give them up.

  • I didn’t vote for him. He has demonstrated he feels no duty to represent all Americans either. In fact he ran on the platform of deliberately attacking segments of the population.

    “Second, Trump is in no way a Conservative, he’s a populist.”

    He’s a Republican. His supporters call themselves conservatives. They draw upon the conservative political structures and organizations. Its a little too late to disavow him now.

    “Third, That “sympathy and alignment” you speak of was to correctly say that both sides in Charlottesville were violent.”

    David Duke thanked him for that bit of obscuring and diverting talk.

    Only one side committed an act of domestic terrorism, killed and severely injured people. The other barely did much of anything of note or even remotely comparable. Yet Trump failed to discuss the people who committed murder and focused on the others to give a measure of false equivalence. What he did was enable neo-nazis. Antifa is hardly on the same level of importance as white supremacists. They certainly weren’t of equal blame for the violence in Charlottesville.

    Frankly anyone who comes to a protest armed doesn’t get the right to discuss how people react to it. They started a rally and brought weapons there. Pretty much trying to spark off a violent incident and keep police from effective crowd control. So they are entirely at fault and responsible for the violence which ensured. Even the violent reaction of counter protesters.

    So all this discussion by conservatives about Antifa concerning Charlottesville was merely a way to get the neo-nazis off the hook for their own bad behavior and obscure the discussion of the relevant incidents.

    “For that matter, attempting to keep your opponents’ voters away from the
    polls, while immoral and rightfully illegal, isn’t racist either.”

    It is when you are doing so based on the race of the voters. As the GOP tried to do in North Carolina. When one’s actions are done deliberately to attack the voting rights in a way which affects one racial group more than others in an obvious way, it certainly is.

    “And that is precisely what the Left insists on with its support of racial preferences.”

    When racism is no longer a detriment to the education and opportunities of people then you would not see such preferences exist as a corrective measure.

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