Photo Credit: Jewish Press

According to Yasser Arafat, the meaning of the Israeli flag is: “It is white with two blue lines. The two lines represent two rivers, and in between is Israel. The rivers are the Nile and the Euphrates.” However, as we shall see from objective and verifiable history, this is just one more instance where the “Palestinian” leader dispensed with inconvenient facts and fabricated his own historical narrative.

The use of blue and white as the colors of the Jewish flag arguably had its origins in The Colors of the Land of Judah, an 1860 poem by Austrian Ludwig August Frankl (1810-1894), in which he explained that the national colors of the Jewish people should be sky blue and white:

When sublime feelings his heart fill, he [a Jew] is mantled in the colors of his country. He stands in prayer, wrapped in a sparkling robe of white. The hems of the white robe are crowned with broad stripes of blue; like the robe of the High Priest, adorned with bands of blue threads. These are the colors of the beloved country, blue and white are the colors of Judah; white is the radiance of the priesthood.

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Frankl’s poem was translated into Hebrew and was published in Hahavatzelet (1898), and although there is no known evidence that the early founders of modern Zionism ever read the poem or even knew of it, it is indisputable that the flags of virtually all the early Zionist settlements were based upon the tallit.

The Torah provides that one strand in the tzitzit affixed to taleyot (prayer shawls) must be light blue, and the special dye that was used for that strand was the techelet (according to the majority halachic opinion, a color closest to Tyrian purple, a shade of sky blue) which was also used for sacred items, including the Kohen Gadol’s ephod and the hem of his robe, and the draperies in the Mishkan.

Although the precise details of the manufacture of techelet, which was produced from a dye extracted from marine snails native to the Mediterranean, were lost after the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash (67 A.D), the use of blue for the stripes and the Magen David on the flag is designed to evoke memories of the techelet. Today, most Jewish men wear tzitzit that are entirely white, rather than use a blue dye that would only pale in comparison with the unique richness of techelet. However, as early as 1864, they wore taleyot with blue stripes and, as we shall see, it was from these talayot that Wolffsohn and Harris later drew their concept for their flags.

Many other beautiful chromatic symbolic meanings were attributed to the use of the color blue. For example, R. Meir explains in the Talmud that it makes one reflect on the color of the sky above him, and thus the G-d who created it, and Rabbi Judah ben Illai says that it engenders holy thoughts because the original Tablets of the Law and Aaron the High Priest’s staff were both blue. In any event, the stripes of the tallit provide religious and ritual symbolism of Jewish life, and the Magen David, with its two intersecting triangles, reflects the unity of the Jewish people.

Toward the late 1800s, various Jewish organizations adopted flags featuring the blue and white colors together with six-sided stars, pairs of stripes, and other features with words such as Zion and Maccabee. Historian Mordecai Eliav listed five different locations where a Zionist flag is claimed to have been flown for the first time: Russia, Rishon L’Tzion, Ness Ziona, Boston and London.

Flag flown at Rishon L’Tzion (1891): The first flying of the Zionist flag?

According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, The Zionist flag in its present form – two blue stripes on white background with a shield of David in the center – was first displayed in Rishon L’Tzion in 1885.The flag – which, interestingly, included a double stripe above and below the Magen David, was designed by Israel Belkind, the founder of the early aliyah BILU organization – a movement whose goal was the agricultural settlement of Eretz Yisrael – to mark the third anniversary of the founding of the colony.

Some authorities cite a Ness Tziona flag (1891) as the first, though others maintain that this latter flag is “an urban legend,” and a blue and white flag with a blue star is said to have been flown in Nachalat Reuven in 1891. Interestingly, in its “flag” series issued on June 24, 2003, (see below), the Israel Postal authority featured the Ness Tziona flag and not the Rishon L’Tzion flag.

Israel stamps: Left stamp: Ness Ziona
Right stamp: Herzl’s Ju

Another person who could arguably be credited with creating the first Zionist flag is Rabbi Jacob Baruch Askowith, an American Jew who designed his flag in 1891 for the local B’nai Zion group in Boston. This “Flag of Judah” bore an extraordinary similarity to today’s flag, except that the Hebrew word “Maccabee” appeared at the center. B’nai Zion first displayed their banner publicly in October 1892, during festivities to mark the fourth centenary of the discovery of America, but the word “Zion” had replaced “Maccabee.”

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Some analysts credit the original design of the flag that we recognize today to upholsterer Morris Harris, a Lithuanian immigrant and a member of the New York branch of Chovevei Zion. They claim that Harris brought to the First Zionist Congress (Basel, August 1897) a flag that he had spontaneously designed and which his mother, Lena, had produced using materials from his shop. According to distinguished historian Jonathan D. Sarna, however, this account is, at best, problematic because Harris never made it to Basel at all. Sarna writes that “while, as a flag-maker, he undoubtedly produced many Zionist flags in America, it seems most likely that he modeled his flags after the one flown in Basel in 1898, not the other way around.”

Herzl’s June 14, 1895 diary entry, which
included a sketch of his proposed flag.

Herzl himself famously designed a flag, which he sketched in his diary in 1895 and proposed a year later in his seminal Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State,” 1896), in which he proposed the rebirth of a Jewish state and launched contemporary Zionism. Entirely devoid of traditional Jewish symbolism, it featured a single stripe at the top and bottom with a prominent Magen David in the middle formed by seven small stars with an Aryeh Yehuda (“Lion of Judah”) inside it and one star above it. The seven stars were designed to represent the seven-hour workday, a radical idea at the time, about which Herzl wrote in Der Judenstaat. Herzl described his vision for his flag as follows:

When the new land first comes in sight, our new flag will be raised on the staff. At present we do not have any. I am thinking of a white flag with seven gold stars. The white field signifies our new, clean life, and the seven stars, our desire to start this new life under the banner of labor.

However, Herzl’s flag drew little support at the First Zionist Congress in Basel, and the delegates began to discuss alternatives. David Wolffsohn – Herzl’s “right hand man,” confidant and successor; founder of the Jewish Colonial Trust; and director of all the financial and economic institutions of the Zionist Movement – rose, unfurled a tallit, and announced: “Why do we have to search? Here is our national flag! ” As he later explained:

At the behest of our leader Herzl, I came to Basel to make preparations for the Zionist Congress. Among many other problems that occupied me then was one that contained something of the essence of the Jewish problem. 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 with 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. That is how the national flag, that flew over Congress Hall, came into being.

Flag of the Second Zionist Congress (Basel, 1898).

Although Wolffsohn’s proposed flag did not constitute a substantive departure from the Rishon L’Tzion flag that had been flown more than a decade earlier, the Encyclopedia Judaica maintains that he was unaware of the earlier flags. Wolffsohn’s flag, which became known as “the flag of Zion,” became universally embraced as the definitive Zionist emblem by Jews in Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora, and Wolffsohn is now broadly acknowledged as the designer of Israel’s flag.

Rare original photo of the Seventh Zionist Congress (Basel, 1905) with Max Nordau at the podium. Note the prominent flag (Herzl’s version) on the wall behind the dais and at the podium.

Wolffsohn’s flag (with the word “Zion” in the middle), was accepted as the official flag of the Second Zionist Congress (Basel, 1898). However, the flag designed by Herzl featuring the Lion of Judah inside the Magen David continued to be flown at the Zionist Congresses until the 18th Congress (Prague, 1933), when the delegates formally declared that “by long tradition, the blue and white flag is the flag of the Zionist Organization and of the Jewish people.”

The state of Israel was born on May 14, 1948, but the Israeli flag that we all recognize today was not formally adopted until October 28, 1948. The story of how it came to be is somewhat labyrinthine.

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When the UN passed its partition resolution on November 29, 1947, recommending the establishment of an independent Jewish state, Jews in Israel and the Diaspora flooded the streets in celebratory dancing with Wolffsohn’s Zionist flag, which was also the flag flown in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948, at the ceremony for the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel in Tel Aviv.

However, a few days later, Israel’s pre-election government, the Provisional Council of State, was inclined to replace the Zionist flag with a new one specifically designed for the new Jewish State. As Foreign Minister Moshe Shertok (later Prime Minister Sharett) explained, it was important for the world to be able to distinguish between the banner of international Zionism and the flag of the sovereign Jewish State, lest Jews in the Diaspora be accused of dual loyalty.

Ben Gurion announcing the birth of the New Jewish State behind a podium
Adorned with a picture of Theodor Herzl with the Zionist flag on either side.

The Provisional Government determined that the colors of the new flag of Israel should be light blue and white with a Magen David or seven stars, in gold or some other color, in the middle. After listening to heated arguments about the design of a flag for Israel, Ben Gurion suggested that the question be put out to the public and, accordingly, on June 8, 1948, a contest inviting the public to submit proposals for the flag was announced.

The announcement generated some 170 diverse submissions to Richard Ariel, the graphic advisor to Israel’s nascent government, but the Provisional Council committee, unable to decide on a design, decided to seek input from the Diaspora. Accordingly, Shertok contacted many Jewish leaders – including Chaim Weizmann (then in Switzerland) and Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver in New York – and many Jewish communities, including the Zionist General Council in Johannesburg, and found that the near-universal consensus was to retain the historic Zionist flag with the Magen David at the center.

The Council voted unanimously to adopt the old Zionist flag unmodified, Ariel produced the final graphics for the flag, and the resolution took effect a few weeks later with the publication of the following notice in the Official Gazette:

The Provisional Council of State Proclamation of the Flag of the State of Israel

Israel and JNF stamp assortment featuring the flag.

The Provisional Council of State hereby proclaims that the flag of the State of Israel shall be . . . 220 cm. long and 160 cm. wide. The background is white and on it are two stripes of dark sky-blue, 25 cm. broad, over the whole length of the flag, at a distance of 15 cm. from the top and from the bottom of the flag. In the middle of the white background, between the two blue stripes and at equal distance from each stripe is a Star of David, composed of six dark sky-blue stripes, 5.5 cm. broad, which form two equilateral triangles, the bases of which are parallel to the two horizontal stripes.

25 Tishrei 5709 (28 October 1948) Provisional Council of State, Joseph Sprinzak, Speaker

At the final moment before its adoption as the official flag of Israel, the color of the stripes and the Magen David were darkened to facilitate its visibility at sea. This darker shade of blue is described in a February 18, 1950, Israel Office of Information notice.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.