When the renowned exiled Iranian journalist Amir Taheri reported in a Canadian newspaper last week that Iran had just passed a law requiring Jews to wear yellow bands on their clothing, the world reacted with shock. The story, which also outlined required colored bands for Christians and Zoroastrians, was immediately picked up by major newspapers in Israel, and the word spread quickly. The purpose of the law according to Taheri's article, was to set a standard dress code for Muslims and also for Iranian Muslims "to easily recognize non-Muslims so that they can avoid shaking hands with them by mistake and thus becoming najis [unclean]".
The story seemed credible, given that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been making anti-Semitic and anti-Israel proclamations for months. But, as it turned out, Taheri was wrong. No such law had been passed.
Nevertheless, Taheri's report set in motion a media frenzy, with checks and balances of rumor control that illustrate how on edge -- and careful -- the Iranian exile community is these days. Local Iranian Jewish leaders were bombarded with requests for comments from the international media on the reported legislation, but they held back from responding until they had received solid confirmation from their sources in Iran.
"To the best of my knowledge the final version of the law does not demand any identifying marks by the religious minority groups," Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation said in a press release. "I am not aware of what was said by whom, but it is possible that some ideas might have been thrown around."
Kermanian also said that while Iran's Islamic officials have in the past put out ideas in the media to gauge international reaction, there was no specific information about this instance.
The report stemmed from new legislation geared to making women in Iran dress more conservatively and avoid Western fashions, Iranian legislator Emad Afroogh Afroogh who sponsored the Islamic Dress Code bill told the Associated Press on Friday. Allegations that new rules affecting religious minorities were not part of the new regulations, he said.
"It's a sheer lie. The rumors about this are worthless," Afroogh said. "There is no mention of religious minorities and their clothing in the bill."
Morris Motamed, the Jewish representative in the Iranian Parliament also denied the existence of any bills designed to segregate Jews in the country with special insignia on their clothes.
"Such a plan has never been proposed or discussed in the parliament," Motamed said. "Such news, which appeared abroad, is an insult to religious minorities here."
Rumors of anti-Semitic laws in Iran have disturbed local Iranian Jews who have been increasingly concerned for the safety of roughly 25,000 Jews still living in Iran since Ahmadinejad denied the existence of the Holocaust and called for Israel to "wiped off the map" late last year.
"The mere fact that such possibilities are considered to be plausible is a reflection of the sad state of affairs of the religious minority groups in Iran," Kermanian said in his press release.
According to a 2004 report prepared by Frank Nikbakht, a local Iranian Jewish activist who tracks anti-Semitism in Iran, the Jewish community lives in constant fear for its security amid threats from militant Islamic factions in the country. Since 1979, at least 14 Jews were murdered or assassinated by the regime's agents, 11 Jews have disappeared after being arrested, at least two Jews died while in custody and 11 Jews have been officially executed by the regime. In 1999, Feizollah Mekhoubad, a 78-year-old cantor of the popular Yousefabad synagogue in Tehran, was the last Jew to be officially executed by the regime, stated the report.
In 2000, the local Iranian Jewish community was at the forefront of an international human rights campaign to save the lives of 13 Jews in Shiraz. They were facing imminent execution after being arrested on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and the United States. Ultimately, the Shiraz Jews were not executed but sentenced to prison terms and have since been released.
Both Jews and Muslims of Iranian origins living in Southern California have been closely collaborating to raise public awareness of Ahmadinejad's comments. Nearly 2,000 Iranians of various faiths gathered at a pro-Israel rally in Westwood last November to condemn Ahmadinejad's calls for Israel's destruction.
"We wanted to show the world that we are against such comments made by Mr. Ahmadinejad and that his comments are not representative of the Iranian people," said Assadollah Morovati, owner of KRSI "Radio Sedaye Iran," a Persian language satellite radio station based in Beverly Hills that broadcasts news around the world. "Iranians are not the type to want the destruction of another people. We respect the Jewish people and only wish success for the State of Israel."