On flags and freedom

The Star of David has a long history, at times glorious and at times equally as tragic. Today, it has found its home.

Arik Barel, Judaica Webstore ,

Israeli flag
Israeli flag
Judaica Webstore

Close your eyes and picture "Israel". One of the first pictures to come to mind is our national flag, fluttering high against a clear blue sky. Our country is so young yet our land and our story so old; and it's this combination of antiquity and modernity that created the flag of Israel.

The iconic Star of David is not unique to Judaism. The interlocked triangles are symbolic in Hinduism as the perfect balance between man and God, and in Paganism represent the harmonic balance that occurs when male and female sexuality are in perfect unity. The star – also known as a hexagram – has roots in Kabbalah, where it represents the 6 directions around us where God might be found, and is also found in Christian and Islamic symbolism. The earliest evidence of the Star of David as a Jewish symbol dates from approximately the 4th century BCE, where it decorated a synagogue's walls in the Galilee – alongside swastikas, which before their association with Nazi Germany, were a symbol of peace.

The Star of David has played a significant role within European Jewry since medieval times. The Jews of Prague and Hungary greeted their respective monarchs with flags featuring the motif emblazoned upon red backgrounds, and its use became so widespread, it eventually replaced the ubiquitous menorah as the emblem of Judaism.

Fast-forward to 1896. Herzl's Zionist movement is growing in strength, and he is penning his infamous work 'Der Judenstaat' (The Jewish State). In it, he argues that for Jews to exist in peace, and not in ghettos where the wealthy are harassed and professionals mistrusted, they need an independent Jewish state. On attempting to rally masses of Jews to join his cause, he writes:

"We have no flag, and we need one. If we desire to lead many people, we must raise a symbol above their heads. I would suggest a white flag, with seven golden stars. The white field symbolizes our pure new life; the stars are the seven golden hours of our working-day".

Six of his seven gold stars formed a Star of David, with the seventh floating above.

When this white-and-gold flag failed to catch on ahead of the First Zionist Congress, Herzl's close friend David Wolffsohn came up with a new idea:

"What flag would we hang in the Congress Hall? Then an idea struck me. We have a flag—and it is blue and white. The tallit (prayer shawl) in which we wrap ourselves when we pray: that is our symbol. Let us take this tallit from its bag and unroll it before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all nations. So I ordered a blue and white flag with the Shield of David painted upon it".

Thus the Star of David became the flag of the Zionist movement.

Unfortunately, the six-pointed star doesn't simply signify Jewish prosperity in foreign countries or nationalistic uprising: the iconic Star of David, adopted for the peace, harmony and balance it symbolizes, was turned into a sign of hatred and ridicule. Hitler plastered the star across the arms and backs of European Jews, and overnight, its peace was replaced with disgust; its balance with chaos. A few years previously, the star stood for Zionism, new beginnings and hope; it embodied a new-found nationalism and pride. The Third Reich turned it into something repulsive, its wearers the recipients of derision and scorn. Hitler turned the Star of David into an image of loathing, and the swastika into the emblem of evil.

Skip over Hitler's demise and the fall of the Third Reich; the liberation of survivors and the restitution of Jewish life in Europe and 'Palestine'. From the depths of despair shoots a ray of bright light: on 14th May 1948, the State of Israel is declared as a homeland for the Jewish people, and a few months later, Wolffsohn's Zionist flag is adopted as the official flag of the newborn State. The star has been transformed like an ugly duckling into a swan: its once oppressive, muddy yellow now shines a regal blue against its white background.

Today, our star flies proudly across the world. It marks embassies and official residences, and flutters next to the Western Wall. Our flags are draped across the front of buses and over military bases around the country, fly from school windows and are danced around in the streets on Independence Day. Shirts stamped with our flag show the world that we are proud of where we come from, and necklaces bearing Star of David pendants are the easiest way to pick out a Jew in a crowd! We teach our children that the Magen David represents us, our home, our people. That we should be proud of who we are, and of what we have become. That what was once a symbol of national anguish is now our icon of national pride.