The light blue Star of David lies in a sea of white, between a single light blue stripe on top, another on the bottom. This elegant design is the Flag of the State of Israel. Where did the Israeli flag come from, and what do its elements symbolize?
The Star of David
The Star of David, basically a hexagram formed by two overlapping triangles, one pointed upward and the other downward, has been used around the world from time immemorial.
While it can be found here and there adoring synagogues in Roman times, it wasn’t necessarily a symbol of Jewishness back then, just an architectural embellishment used by Jews and gentiles alike. Judaism had other symbols, among them the menorah, the lulav (date frond), and the shofar (ram's horn).
During the Middle Ages, Jewish mystics began to attribute mystical powers to the pentagram and hexagram, which began to appear on talismans against evil spirits. At first both shapes were called “The Seal of Solomon” but over time, that name became exclusive to the pentagram, while the hexagram came to be called Magen David - “The Shield of David.”
In the High Middle Ages and Early Modern periods, the Star of David began to appear in Jewish art as well, sometimes adorning the covers of Jewish books. Nothing indicates that the Star enjoyed any special symbolic meaning then beyond its alleged magical power to ward off evil spirits.
The Star of David’s big break came in 1648, when Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II gave the Jews of Prague permission to fly a “Jewish flag” over their synagogue, in recognition of their part in saving the city from the Swedish invaders, who besieged the city as part of the 30 Years War. This "Jewish flag” was red with a yellow Star of David at its center.
Subsequently, during the second half of the 17th century, the Star of David began to acquire its place as a Jewish symbol elsewhere in Bohemia and Moravia. From there, it spread to the rest of Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, becoming a sort of Jewish equivalent to the Christian cross, used on the facades of synagogues and to decorate Jewish objects. In the second half of the 19th century, Jewish organizations and even sports teams used the Star of David in their logos and uniforms.
Light Blue and White
The Jewish people had never actually adopted any symbolic colors until the late 19th century, when Ludwig August von Frankl, a Jewish writer from Bohemia, wrote an essay on the subject in 1864. In his paper “The Colors of the Land of Judah” he suggested that the colors of the Jewish people should be the light blue and white of the tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl.
Actually, not all Jews used such prayer shawls. Yemenite Jews for example used black shawls with red or other colors. Among European Jews, though, white shawls with blue stripes had become the fashion.
The blue symbolizes belief that tallits in antiquity bore fringes of that color, though we have no idea if that is true, because we do not know what color the word “tekhelet” in the ancient sources referred to. That Jewish tradition ended up with light blue is largely an accident of history: tekhelet was probably Tyre Purple.
Either way, during the second half of the 19th century and in the 20th century Jewish and Zionist organizations took on these colors in their symbols and uniforms, either because of Frankl or because they came coming to the same conclusion independently.
The Zionist Flag
By the late 19th century, both the Star of David and blue and white had become acknowledged as symbols of Judaism. All that remained was for them to be joined in a flag.
Apparently, the first to do this was Israel Belkind, founder of the Bilu movement. In 1885, he flew a flag with a blue Star of David with the word Zion (in Hebrew) in its center, in Rishon Letzion. Above and below were blue stripes, but unlike the Israeli flag these were pairs of stripes - two on top and two below.
Six years later, in 1891, at the dedication of the Bnei Zion meeting hall in Boston, Massachusetts, a flag with just one stripe on the bottom and one on top was flown. It was identical to what would become the Israeli flag but for the word “Maccabi” in the center of the Star of David.
Six more years later, preparing for the First Zionist Congress held in Basel, Switzerland in 1897, David Wolfson, Zionist leader Theodor Herzl's second in command, had the first Zionist Flag made. It too had two blue stripes, but these were thinner. It was different in other ways too. The Star of David in its center had six smaller stars in each one of its points and another little star over it. These were supposed to symbolize the seven-hour work day Herzl envisioned for the future Jewish state. In addition, in the middle of the Star of David was a lion.
A quarter-century later, reminiscing on the history of the Zionist Flag, Wolfson claimed not to have been aware of Frankl’s suggestion of blue and white as Jewish colors, or of the flags used in Rishon Letzion and Boston. Nor did he mention that his flag had a lion and seven stars in addition to the main Star of David. Today he is recognized as the man who designed the flag.
We do not know how and when the lion and little stars disappeared from the Zionist Flag, but a photo from the 10th Zionist Congress proves that by 1911, the flag had taken its modern form.
From Zionist Flag to Flag of Israel
A couple of weeks after the State of Israel was established in May 14, 1948, the government turned from more pressing matters to the question of the Flag of Israel.
It may have seemed clear to some that the Zionist Flag should become the Israeli flag, but the government didn’t see it that way. Their main concern was that if the Zionist Flag were to become the Israeli flag, Jews in the diaspora would have to stop using it, or they would be accused of having double loyalty and possibly of being traitors. The government therefore appointed a committee to find Israel a flag, and the committee solicited suggestions from the public. Dozens arrived, mostly based on the Zionist flag.
After six months of deliberations, the committee and then the government decided that using the Zionist Flag wasn’t onerous a problem after all, especially after discussing the matter with some Diaspora Jews, some of whom said that choosing any other flag would be offensive to them. On October 28, 1948, the government voted on adopting the Zionist Flag as the Flag of the State of Israel. The motion passed unanimously. And it has been the Flag of Israel ever since.
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