The story behind the Israeli flag

The colors of the Jewish prayer shawl and the unifying symbol of the Star of David convey the Jewish people’s bond with the Torah and to a 3,000-year presence in the land.

The blue stripes on the Israeli flag can be traced to the Jewish prayer shawl. Photo: Pixabay

The background to the blue stripes on the Israeli flag can be traced to the Jewish prayer shawl which was white with narrow blue stripes near the edges and with the six-pointed “Magen David” or “Shield of David”, as the Star of David is called in Hebrew. The six-pointed star, formed by two triangles was already in use by King David’s army in Jerusalem, including on the soldiers’ shields. The connection to the blue-white appearance of the Jewish prayer shawl means that the flag conveys a religious and a historical symbolism about the Jewish people’s connection with the Torah. The Star of David is a unifying symbol that for millennia has been one of the most important symbols of the Jewish people. During World War II, the Nazis forced the Jews to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothes. The concept behind the Israeli flag was presented as early as 1897 at the first Zionist Congress in Basel by several delegates, but its strong religious symbolism was rejected by several of the movement’s leading figures. In Theodor Herzl’s book Der Judenstaat from 1896, he wrote: “We have no flag, and we need one. If we want 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”.

Dark sky blue

Variations on the theme presented at the First Zionist Congress were nevertheless used by the Zionist movement and by the British Army’s Jewish Brigade during World War II. The flag was displayed in the British Palestinian Mandate and hoisted when Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948. On October 28 that same year, a law was passed by the Knesset recognizing the Zionist flag as the official flag of the new state. The blue color should be “dark sky blue”, which in Judaism symbolizes the glory, purity and complexity of God. The white field represents divine benevolence. The Bible urges the Israelites to dye the threads of the tassels on the corners of their clothes dark blue. The purpose was to “remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, and not prostitute yourselves by chasing after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes” (Numbers 15:39 NIV). The concept that the blue and white colors were the colors of the Jewish people was expressed by Ludwig August von Frankl in a poem from 1864:

There he stands, wrapped in prayer,
In a sparkling mantle of white…
The hems on the white suit
Are crowned with broad stripes of blue;
As the high priest’s costume…
These are the colors of the beloved land
Blue and white are the borders of Judah…