Why Did Wiesenthal Center Embrace “Yellow Badge” Hoax?

It’s strange to see a good name show up in a bad story. So we were quite surprised at the inexplicable — or, at least, unexplained — support that the respected Simon Wiesenthal Center gave to the bogus Iranian “yellow badge” story. As you certainly already know, the Wiesenthal Center works around the world to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, teach tolerance and raise warnings about discrimination, racism and genocide.

But that only makes the Center’s role in this case more disappointing and difficult to explain.

The Center’s leaders, Rabbis Abraham Cooper and Marvin Hier, confirmed the story to reporters apparently without checking it first. And now that the hoax has been revealed — in fact, Iran has no plans to force its Jewish citizens to don identifying yellow badges — the two men are not coming clean by explaining their role in helping to perpetuate it.

Here’s how it all went down.

When National Post editor Jonathan Turley-Ewart received the column by Amir Taheri, he had doubts about its accuracy. So he turned to the Wiesenthal Center, emailing its co-founder and associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, As blogger Taylor Marsh has reported.

Cooper wrote back that the story was “absolutely true.” When a National Post reporter called Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Center’s director, Hier also confirmed the story was true.

Those comments helped form the basis for the National Post to run not only Taheri’s bogus op-ed, but a separate news article reporting the false allegations as fact — supported with an on-the-record quote from the Wiesenthal Center.

Once the story blew up, the Center’s leadership made conflicting comments to the press about their actions.

Rabbi Cooper confirmed that he had “checked with some of my sources in the Middle East,” who told him, “yes, a bill was passed last month about a national dress code,” New York’s Jewish Week reported in a May 25 article. He also said he believed Taheri has a very good reputation: “Mr. Taheri over the last 30 years has taken on the Iranians and is a serious journalist. He is not prone to reckless accusations.”

Taheri, in fact, does not enjoy such a strong reputation (beyond the White House, anyway). But the fact that a bill dealing with Islamic dress passed the Iranian parliament doesn’t explain why Cooper would confirm — “absolutely” — Taheri’s wildly inflammatory and completely false claim that Iran was forcing Jews to wear identifying yellow-badges. The two stories are so utterly distinct it’s hard to imagine how Cooper could have confirmed one while thinking he was confirming the other.

But Rabbi Hier said he didn’t think the Center had done any vetting at all, according to the National Post. The paper reported in a May 24 postmortem on the debacle that “Rabbi Hier has since said that, contrary to the understanding of [our] reporter, the Wiesenthal Center had not independently confirmed Mr. Taheri’s allegation.”

It is understandable, given the Iranian leadership’s anti-Israel saber-rattling, that some might more easily accept a story like Taheri’s because it fits into a story line already in progress. The speed with which it moved through conservative media outlets demonstrates that. But unlike those outlets, the function of places like the Wiesenthal Center is to allow reasoned thought and truth to win out over hunches, prejudices and downright disinformation.

Since the story has been debunked, the Wiesenthal Center has issued no statement of clarification, retraction, or apology for lending unwarranted support to a hoax — particularly one that could have helped push an already militant superpower closer toward the brink of military action.

It did issue a statement, dated May 25, announcing that upon its request, the United Nations had confirmed that “there are no suggestions or clauses within [Iranian] law that refer to religious minorities and their dress, or that would support the serious concerns raised in the National Post story.”

“We are pleased that the United Nations is now involved in the matter and has confirmed that the current law does not have any dress codes for minorities,” the release quotes Rabbi Hier as saying.

It doesn’t add up: at best, the sum total is that the Center was duped into giving their imprimatur to a hoax. But they haven’t explained what happened, and now they seem to have gone to ground. Neither the Center nor its directors responded to my requests for comment on the matter.

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