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It's Not 1938 Again

Jimmy Bitton

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President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's alleged desire to institute a policy that would require Jews and Christians (dhimmis) to wear distinct clothing can best be understood by looking back to the origins of this practice. Needless to say, this would not be the first time Jews were forced to wear the yellow identifying mark. For the most obvious example, one need only look back to the yellow badge that Jews were forced to wear during the Nazi occupation of Europe. For those who can remember this, it may feel like it is 1938 again. All should bear in mind, however, that the origins of this practice date back much earlier than 1938. It began approximately around the year 717. By examining the history behind the yellow mark of distinction, we gain insight into the ideology that motivates Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Islamic fundamentalists. In the process, we may even find strength.

Informing Ahmadinejad's ideology regarding the Jews is an Islamic institution developed in the Pact of Umar, attributed to Mohammad's second successor. The pact is said to be founded on a letter addressed to Umar I by Christians in Syria indicating the terms under which they would be willing to submit to Muslim rule. Scholars, such as A. S. Tritton, question this rendition of history because it was not common for the conquered to decide the terms on which they will be admitted to alliance with the victors. What is certain, however, is that the pact emerged from a Muslim desire to establish an interethnic etiquette in an inherently hierarchical society. The official Hamas charter, called "The Charter of Allah," echoes this premodern desire for Islamic hegemony over non-Muslims. Article 31 of the charter still reads: "Under the shadow of Islam it is possible for the members of the three religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism to coexist in safety and security. Safety and security can only prevail under the shadow of Islam, and recent and ancient history is the best witness to that effect." As the Pact of Umar suggests, Jews and Christians could gain "safety and security" if they were to remain obedient "under the shadow of Islam" by wearing a yellow seam on their upper garments.

History also informs us that from 717 onward, Jews were subject to this oppressive treatment in other Islamic societies. For example, in 807 the Persian Abbassid Caliph Harun al-Rashid ordered Jews to wear a yellow belt. Later, in 815 another Persian ruler, Caliph Al-Mutavallil issued a yellow badge edict. The most humiliating example is found in a letter from Baghdad describing decrees regulating Jewish clothes: " ... two yellow badges [are to be displayed], one on the headgear and one on the neck. Furthermore, each Jew must hang round his neck a piece of lead with the word dhimmi [a social status given to tolerated infidels] on it. He also has to wear a belt round his waist. The women have to wear one red and one black shoe and have a small bell on their necks or shoes." The incident closest in time to the Nazi period occurred between 1315--1326 when Emir Ismael Abu-I Walid forced the Jews of Granada to wear a yellow badge.

Regrettably, Jews are no strangers to cruel and humiliating treatment. And though we may now recognize that Islamic antisemitism is not a new story, but rather a premodern pathology, not likely to go away anytime soon, there is much room for hope. Today, the reality on the ground is drastically different than it was in 1938 and in 717. Jews are now blessed to have an independent state with a defense force unlike any other. The State of Israel, the miracle of our time, will not fall, nor will it permit others to take down Jews elsewhere.

While Israel prepares itself for the inevitable, Jews in the Diaspora must also respond to the challenges posed by Iran and the many others. For guidance, perhaps it is appropriate to look to a 1933 article titled "Wear It With Pride, The Yellow Badge" by Robert Weltsch: "The Jews, under attack, must learn to acknowledge themselves." Today, Jews can do this by supporting Israel. Support not only strengthens Israel, it sends a powerful message that Jews stand united and dedicated to their ancestral homeland. Also, Jews must not forget that Jewish survival is not only dependent on Israel's military capabilities, but, like in the past, on the present generation's willingness and ability to teach its children to teach their children. This is the responsibility of every Jew today.

Jimmy Bitton, B.A. (Hons.), B.Ed., M.A. is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Israel, the United States and Canada. He is also a teacher of Jewish studies at the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto.

Posted: 24-May-06



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