Earlier this year, on May 19, people thought that a nightmare had been resurrected when a Canadian newspaper reported that Iran had a new law on the books – non-Moslems were to be stripped of anonymity. Henceforth, Jews would have to wear a yellow strip on their clothing, Christians a red strip, and Zoroastrians (worshipers of an ancient Persian religion) a blue strip. After a short confirmation of the story’s validity, the Simon Wiesenthal Center sent a letter of condemnation to the U.N. Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, protesting that this law was a throwback to the Yellow Star of the Holocaust.
A few days of frenzied investigation revealed that the entire story was a chimera and the paper responsible officially apologized for triggering a worldwide panic. The initial story was believable since Moslems had been the first to mandate discriminatory garb and it would not have been surprising if fundamentalist Iran had backpedaled to the Middle Ages.
THE ORIGINAL CLOTHING DECREES
It is difficult to formulate a precise Islamic policy towards Jews from the confusing verses of the Koran. The first formative text was formulated by Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab in 4477/717, in what is now known as the “Pact of Omar.” This list of discriminatory rules, forced upon dhimmis (protected ones, referring to Jews and Christians) under Moslem rule, includes the injunction that “We shall not seek to resemble the Moslems by imitating any of their garments, the qalansuwa (head covering), the turban, footwear, or the parting of the hair. We shall not speak as they do nor shall we adopt their kunyas (honorific names)… We shall clip the front of our heads. We shall always dress in the same way wherever we may be and we shall bind the zunar (kind of belt) around our waists.”
Although some historians dispute the authenticity of the varying versions of this pact, the pact nevertheless conveys Moslem policies of that time. Furthermore, its authority has not eclipsed as is, perhaps, subtly hinted in article 31 of the Hamas Covenant that states, “The Islamic Resistance Movement is a humanistic movement. It considers human rights and is guided by Islamic tolerance when dealing with the followers of other religions.”
Many early Moslem rulers lived by the pact’s rules and embellished them, ordering their non-Moslem subjects to wear a variety of distinguishing garments and insignia. The yellow badge appeared for the first time in history, when Caliph Al-Mutavallil ordered Jews to wear one in 4575/815.
The trend caught on. A 4860/1100 report recorded that “The Caliph of Baghdad, al-Muqtadi (died 4854/1094), had given power to his vizier, Abu Shuja… that each male Jew should wear a yellow badge on his headgear. This was the distinctive sign on the head and there was another on the neck – a piece of lead, the weight of a silver dinar, hanging round the neck of every Jew and inscribed with the word dhimmi to signify that the Jew had to pay poll-tax. Jews also had to wear girdles around their waists.”
The report continues that “Abu Shuja imposed two further signs on Jewish women. They had to wear a black and a red shoe, and each woman had to have a small brass bell on her neck or shoe, which would tinkle and thus announce the separation of Jewish from non-Jewish women.”
Of course, the enforcement of such rules was inconsistent, depending on the tolerance or fanaticism of Moslem rulers and governments. Jewish treatment under Islamic rule swung from the benevolent Golden Age of Spain to the tyrannical times of the Rambam, who wrote:
“And you, our brothers, know that because of our sins, Hashem has thrown us among this people, the Yishmaelite nation, which overcomes us and plots to harm and debase us… And no more hostile nation stands against Yisroel, no nation so utterly evil, to impoverish, diminish and debase us, like them… We are still bearing their servitude, their falsehoods and their lies beyond our ability, which a man has no power to bear… as our rabbis have reminded us, [see Targum Yonasan Ben Uziel on the Possuk (Chayei Sara 25:14) “u’mishma, v’dumoh, u’masoh,” – the names of the children of Yishmael-where he translates them to mean “to hear, to be silent and to bear] to bear the lies of Yishmael and his falsehood and be quiet… Nevertheless, we are not saved from their many evils and constant antagonism. All the time we seek their peace, they pursue us with attack and war” (Iggeres Teiman).
EUROPE CATCHES UP
It took a few centuries for the Christians to catch up. Their first clothing decree was promulgated in 4952/1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council attended by Pope Innocent III and 1,383 prominent Church leaders. Canon 68 began:
“In some provinces, a difference in dress distinguishes the Jews and Saracens from the Christians but in others, such a confusion has developed that they cannot be distinguished by any difference.”
Explaining that this could lead to moral problems, the canon continued: “Therefore… we decree that Jews and Saracens [Moslems], male and female, in every Christian province and at all times, shall be marked off in the eyes of the public from other peoples through the character of their dress. Particularly, since it may be read in the writings of Moses (Numbers 15:37-41), that this very law has been enjoined upon them.”
The verses cited are those of parshas tzitzis.
A more explicit decree formulated at the Synod of Narbonne (4987/1227) ruled, “So that Jews may be distinguished from others, we decree and emphatically command that in the center [of their garments] they shall wear an oval badge, the measure of one finger in width and one half a palm in height.”
Variations of these laws, including the regulation pointed Judenhut (Jews’ hat), spread throughout Europe and lasted in many countries until the late eighteenth century when Europe became more tolerant.
After that, the yellow star and its adjuncts disappeared from the world until the advent of the Nazi era. At the very start, a Jewish journalist, Robert Weltsch, immediately realized that the Nazi discrimination against assimilation.
In a famous article, entitled “Tragt ihn mit Stolz, den gelben Fleck!” (Wear it With Pride – the Yellow Badge!), he wrote:
“The First of April, 1933 will remain an important date in the history of German Jewry; indeed, in the history of the entire Jewish people. The events of that day have aspects that are not only political and economic but moral and spiritual as well…April 1, 1933, can become the day of Jewish awakening and Jewish rebirth. If the Jews will it. If the Jews are mature and have greatness in them. If the Jews are not as they are represented to be by their opponents. The Jews, under attack, must learn to acknowledge themselves… It is not true that the Jews betrayed Germany. If they betrayed anyone, it was themselves, the Jews. Because the Jew did not display his Judaism with pride, because he tried to avoid the Jewish issue, he must bear part of the blame for the degradation of the Jews.”
Weltsch was not discussing the famous Yellow Star but, rather, the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses. As he concludes:
“Many Jews suffered a crushing experience on Saturday. Suddenly, they were revealed as Jews… by the impress of a red placard with a yellow patch. The patrols moved from house to house, stuck their placards on shops and signboards, daubed the windows, and for twenty-four hours, the German Jews were exhibited in the stocks, so to speak. In addition to other signs and inscriptions, one often saw windows bearing a large Magen Dovid, the Shield of Dovid the King. It was intended as dishonor. Jews, take it up, the Shield of Dovid, and wear it with pride!”
The Jewish badge began its advent years later in 5700/1939; on November 16, the Jews in Lodz were ordered to wear a yellow armband, and on November 23, all the Jews above the age of ten in Nazi-occupied Poland were instructed to wear a white badge with a Magen Dovid.
The infamous Yellow Star inscribed with the word Jude made its debut towards the end of 5701/1941.
One of the most famed stories of World War II is how King Christian X of Denmark rode through the streets of Copenhagen wearing a Yellow Star to demonstrate empathy for his Jewish subjects. Other reports claim that the entire Danish population began wearing the stars, forcing the Germans to rescind the decree. Although the Danes and their king behaved magnificently in rescuing their Jews, none other than the present monarch of Denmark, Queen Margrethe II, insists that the beautiful tale is nothing but a fable, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum concurs, concluding, “In fact, unlike Jews in other countries under Nazi rule, the Jews of Denmark were never forced to wear an such as a yellow legend conveys historical truth: both the King and the Danish people stood by their Jewish citizens and were instrumental in saving the overwhelming majority of them from Nazi persecution and death.”
The only Danish Jews who wore Yellow Stars were the few hundred that were caught and sent to the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, and about ninety percent of those survived the war.
How did the legend develop? Some theorize that it was sparked off by a newspaper cartoon of the time, where the Prime Minister asks the king what will happen if the Nazis make Jews wear yellow stars, and the King replies, “We’ll all have to wear yellow stars!”
Thankfully, in our time, Hashem gives us free choice to express who we are in clothing and demeanor. Let us never be in a position again in which we must wear stars of Dovid as a result of a foreign decree meant to humiliate us.