The Flag and the Emblem

The Flag and the Emblem



The Flag and the Emblem

Alec Mishory

The author is an art historian, art critic and a lecturer at the Open University of Israel.

      The Flag

At the ceremony of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, the dais was decorated with a picture of Theodor Herzl, flanked on either side by the flag of the World Zionist Organization. This flag, adopted by the first Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897, had become accepted by Jewish communities throughout the world as the emblem of Zionism and it was thus natural to use it at the official proclamation of statehood. Five-and-half months earlier, on November 29, 1947 when the Jews of Eretz Israel had poured into the streets to celebrate the United Nations partition resolution, they too had hoisted the flag of the WZO and used it as a unifying symbol. In May, however, only a few days after the Zionist dream had become reality, the question was raised as to whether the Zionist banner should be the flag of the state or should be replaced. The dilemma continued for about six months, until the following notice was published in the Official Gazette:




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

The Provisional Council of State hereby proclaims that the flag of the State of Israel shall be as illustrated and described below: The flag is 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

This decision to adopt the Zionist flag to be the flag of the State of Israel reflects its power as a symbol of the spirit of the Zionist movement. In order to examine the reasons that led to this decision, let us look for the symbolism and consider the motives which prompted the members of the Provisional Council of State first to consider replacing it and then to decide against doing so. Zionist tradition credits the design of the Zionist flag to David Wolffsohn. Legend even tells precisely when Wolffsohn had his brainstorm, namely, that during a meeting in Basel Herzl raised the question of the Zionist flag. When his proposal of a white banner with seven gold stars failed to marshal a consensus, Wolffsohn stood up and said: "Why do we have to search? Here is our national flag." Upon which he displayed his prayer shawl and showed everyone the national flag: a white field with blue stripes along the margin. In our attempt to uncover the message conveyed by the Zionist flag, we should therefore address each of its components separately - the Magen David (Star of David), the blue stripes and the white background.



Star of David as part of a sixteenth- century colophon from Prague
  The Star of David

Unlike the menora (candelabrum), the Lion of Judah, the shofar (ram's horn) and the lulav (palm frond), the Star of David was never a uniquely Jewish symbol. The standard name for the geometric shape is a hexagram or six-pointed star, composed of two interlocking equilateral triangles. In a classic article, Gershom Sholem shed light on the history of the "Star of David" and its connection with Judaism and tried to answer the question whether it was appropriate to include it in the national flag or state emblem.*

One of the first Jewish uses of the Star of David was as part of a colophon, the special emblem printed on the title page of a book. Sometimes the printer included his family name in the colophon; or chose an illustration that alluded to his name, ancestry, or the local prince, or a symbol of success and blessing. The idea was to differentiate this printer's books from those of his competitors and to embellish the title page. Colophons are as old as the printing press itself.

According to Sholem, the motive for the widespread use of the Star of David was a wish to imitate Christianity. During the Emancipation, Jews needed a symbol of Judaism parallel to the cross, the universal symbol of Christianity. In particular, they wanted something to adorn the walls of the modern Jewish house of worship that would be symbolic like the cross. This is why the Star of David became prominent in the nineteenth century and why it was later used on ritual objects and in synagogues and eventually reached Poland and Russia. The pursuit of imitation, in Sholem's opinion, led to the dissemination of an emblem that was not really Jewish and conveyed no Jewish message. In his opinion, it was also the reason why the Star of David satisfied Zionism: it was a symbol which had already attained wide circulation among the Jewish communities but at the same time evoked no clear-cut religious associations. The Star of David became the emblem of Zionist Jews everywhere. Non-Jews regarded it as representing not only the Zionist current in Judaism, but Jewry as a whole.

* G. Sholem, "The Curious History of the Six Pointed Star; How the 'Magen David' Became the Jewish Symbol," Commentary, 8 (1949) pp. 243-351.

The Blue Stripes

The blue stripes on the Zionist flag were inspired by the stripes on the tallit (prayer shawl). The tallit has two separate symbolic aspects: the light blue hue and the stripes. Some say that the stripes are meant to recall the one dyed strand of the ritual fringes (tzitzit). This leads to the significance of the hue itself. According to the Torah, one strand in the tzitzit should be light blue. To judge from references in the Talmud, it was a shade between green and blue. Many symbolic meanings were attributed to it. Rabbi Meir said that it recalls the color of the sky; Rabbi Judah ben Illai maintained that the color of Aaron's staff was light blue, as were the Tablets of the Law, and this is why God commanded the Jews to include it on their prayer shawls: "As long as the people of Israel are looking at this tehelet, they are reminded of {the words} written on the tablets and observe them." In other words, the sight of the color tehelet leads to observance of the commandments. White and tehelet, along with gold and purple, were the colors of the High Priest's raiment (Exodus 28: 4,43) and of the curtains of the Tabernacle (Exodus 26). They were considered to be the colors of purity symbolizing the spirituality of the Jewish people.

The first person in modern times who voiced the idea that blue and white are the national colors of the Jewish people, was the Austrian Jewish poet Ludwig August Frankl (1810-1894). More than three decades before the First Zionist Congress, Frankl published a poem entitled "Judah's Colors":

When sublime feelings his heart fill,
He 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 borders of Judah;
White is the radiance of the priesthood,
And blue, the splendors of the firmament.

A. L. Frankl, "Juda's Farben," in Ahnenbilder (Leipzig, 1864), p. 127

Frankl's poem was translated into flowery Hebrew and appeared in the periodical Hahavatzelet (The Rose of Sharon) in 1878. We do not know if the founders of Zionism knew the poem, but it is a fact that the flags of almost all the early Zionist associations borrowed the blue stripes of the tallit. A blue-and-white flag was raised over the agricultural village of Rishon Lezion in 1885 to celebrate the third anniversary of its founding. Independently of the Rishon Lezion event, a blue-and-white flag was raised in 1891 in Boston at the dedication of the meeting hall of the Bnai Zion Educational Society. That flag had blue stripes above and below a Star of David that had the Hebrew word "Maccabee" inscribed in its center. Bnai Zion first displayed their banner publicly in October 1892, during festivities to mark the fourth centenary of the discovery of America. This time the word "Zion" replaced "Maccabee".


Flag of the Bnai Zion Educational Society in Boston, 1892
  The blue stripes of the Zionist flag serve as a counterweight to the message of the Star of David. They give the flag the religious and ritual aspect totally absent from the latter. Whether the symbolic meaning of the blue stripes was perceived consciously or not, their origin in the tallit reminds onlookers of the Torah commandments. The Zionist flag uses the Star of David to express Jewish unity, which is in turn guided by the precepts of the Torah, as represented by the blue stripes and white background.

Dual Loyalty

After nearly 50 years during which the flag served the Zionist movement worldwide, including the Yishuv (the Jewish community) in the Land of Israel, an ad-hoc committee of the Provisional Council of State in 1948 decided to "introduce a conspicuous difference - to the extent possible - between the flag of the State and the Zionist flag." Minister of Foreign Affairs Moshe Shertok (Sharett) explained that this was desirable "so as to avoid complications for Jewish communities when they raise the international flag of the Jewish people, namely the Zionist flag, and misunderstandings may occur, or the impression might be that they are flying the flag of a state of which they are not citizens." So that Diaspora Jewry would not be exposed to charges of dual loyalty, it was decided to organize a competition for new designs for the flag of the State of Israel, which would be different from the Zionist flag.

The proposal of Mr. Nissim Sabbah of Tel Aviv, included components that recurred in most of the proposed designstwo blue stripes, a white background, a Star of David in the middle and seven gold stars.


Nissim Sabbah, Proposal for the Flag of Israel, 1949


Proposal for the Flag of Israel, 1949


Mordechai Nimtza-bi, Proposals for the Flag of Israel, 1949


Oteh Walisch, Proposal for the Flag of Israel, 1949
  Another proposal endeavored to reconcile the traditional with the modern. It attempted to create a sophisticated symbolism based on the number seven. The seven candles of the Sabbath lamp are crowned by seven flames, shaped like Stars of David; thus Shabat Shalom ("Sabbath peace") is blended with the seven hours of daily labor proposed by Herzl. Another interesting detail is the shape of the proposed flag, which is reminiscent of the Star of David: jutting from the bottom is the lower half of the Star of David, while the same part of the star is cut out of the upper edge of the banner.

In July 1948, Mordechai Nimtza-bi, an expert on heraldry, published a book entitled The Flag, in which he sought to determine the appropriate design for the national flag. Nimtza-bi agreed with Sharett that the Zionist flag should be adopted by the State of Israel but also - that this was not possible. "Even after the establishment of the State, many Jews will continue to live in the Diaspora, and were the Zionist flag to become the state flag, these Jews, who are nationals of their countries of residence, would be flying the flag of a foreign country," he wrote. Nimtza-bi was well versed in the rules of heraldry, especially of the British Empire. The flags of some members of the British Commonwealth incorporated the Union Jack either in the corner, or the center. In his various proposals for the Israeli flag (Figure 8), Nimtza-bi wished to impart to the State of Israel spiritual authority vis--vis the Zionist organizations worldwide, similar to the relationship between Great Britain and the dominions. He created many variations on the Zionist flag. The Provisional Council of State did not accept any of his proposals, nor those submitted by the public at large.

At the tenth meeting of the Provisional Council of State, Moshe Sharett submitted another proposal, that of graphic artist Oteh Walisch.

In Walisch's design, the flag is divided crosswise into three equal sections: blue stripes at top and bottom, with a single row of seven gold stars emblazoned on the white section in the middle. This division differs from that of the Zionist flag, which had five stripes - two blue and three white. The relative widths are different, too. Walisch's design represents a deliberate departure from the Zionist flag. As noted, the blue stripes on the latter were taken from the prayer shawl. When Walisch moved them to the upper and lower edges of the banner and made them wider, the design was no longer an obvious reminder of the tallit. The disappearance of the blue stripes gives his proposal a more "secular" character.

In the meantime, Moshe Sharett decided to inquire into Diaspora Jewry's thoughts about the flag of the State of Israel. On July 20, 1948, he sent cables to Dr. Chaim Weizmann, who was in Switzerland at the time; to Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, in New York; to Prof. Zelig Brodetsky, in London; and to the Zionist General Council, in Johannesburg. Rabbi Silver replied that "we would prefer to leave the Zionist flag as the national flag of Israel, with a minimum of changes. We feel that the fear of complications as a result of use of the flag at Zionist gatherings overseas has been somewhat exaggerated." The other Zionist leaders responded similarly. After the fears of "dual loyalty" had been alleviated, the Provisional Council of State voted unanimously on October 28, 1948 to adopt the Zionist flag as that of the State of Israel. The resolution came into effect two weeks later, after publication in the Official Gazette.

The Tablets of the Law, the Lion of Judah, and Herzl's "Seven Stars," advanced as possible replacements for the Star of David during the discussions about the flag, were incorporated in other official emblems: the Lion of Judah is the emblem of the Municipality of Jerusalem; Herzl's seven stars are prominently featured in the emblems of Tel Aviv and Herzliya; and the Tablets of the Law appear on the emblem of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.


The Yellow Patch, the Nazis "Badge of Shame" for the Jews
  The Star of David is an outstanding example of the variable significance of symbols. The power of the message they convey stems less from the original use in history. At first the Star of David had no religious, political, or social connotations whatsoever. It gained a very powerful connotation precisely as a result of its terrible abuse by the Nazis.

The blue and white stripes which symbolize a life of purity, guided by the precepts of the Torah, and the Star of David, which symbolizes rebirth and new life for the Jewish people, tie the State of Israel, through its flag, to the past, present and future. This is evidently why the Zionist flag prevailed over the political considerations that had prompted the leaders of the new state to propose substitutes for it.

The Emblem

The new State of Israel was in need of an official emblem to demonstrate its sovereignty in the community of nations. The following notice was published in the Official Gazette:

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

The Provisional Council of State hereby proclaims and makes known that the emblem of the State of Israel shall be as illustrated below:

11 Shevat 5709 (10 February 1949)
Provisional Council of State
Joseph Sprinzak, Speaker

The official emblem was adopted nine months after the State was established; it has since appeared on official documents, on the presidential standard and on public buildings in Israel and abroad. In the process of designing the emblem, many proposals which sought to include the symbols deemed appropriate for representing the Jewish people in their reborn state were reviewed. To avoid imitating the emblems of European countries and to create a unique one, ancient visual symbols from former periods of Jewish sovereignty were sought.

Much importance was attached to symbolizing the continuity and fulfillment of the Zionist dream in the emblemof Israel. Whereas the flag had been created in the Diaspora, by dreamers, the emblem was designed in Israel, by those who had realized the dream. Because it had to incorporate elements of symbolic meaning, the designers felt a heavy sense of mission and responsibility. The design process was long, as two almost antithetical forces tried to dictate the character of the emblem - religious and ritual values, on the one hand - secular and sovereign norms, on the other. The emphasis moved from "camp" to "camp" until the final design of the emblem was determined.

The Provisional Council of State announced a competition to design the emblem of the State.


Walisch and Struski, proposal for the emblem of the State of Israel, 1948


Relief on the Arch of Titus, Rome







David and Schechter, proposal for the emblem of the State of Israel, 1948




Mosaic floor of the seventh-century synagogue in Jericho




Seal of Shema, servant of Jeroboam, eighth century BCE




David and Schechter, Proposal for the Emblem of the State of Israel (without ram's horn and palm frond), 1948




Maxim and Gavriel Shamir, Proposal for the Emblem of the State of Israel, 1948
  The proposal submitted by graphic artists Oteh Walisch and W. Struski (Figure 3) was chosen out of 450 designs submitted by 164 participants. The seven branched-candelabrum of the Temple - the menorah - occupies the center of the Walisch and Struski seal. The candelabrum is undoubtedly the oldest Jewish symbol. It has no parallel in heraldry and produces an immediate association with the subject it represents - the Temple in Jerusalem. The artists took as their model the depiction of the menorah in relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome. They simplified the shape into a sort of schematic negative in white, displayed against a light-blue background. The upper portion of the emblem showed a white band, on which the seven golden stars are emblazoned, which Theodor Herzl had intended for the flag of the Jewish state. He had meant these stars to stand for the seven-hour work-day he envisioned for the future citizens of the Jewish state.

Had the Provisional Council of State adopted the design submitted by Walisch and Struski, the emblem of the State of Israel would have embodied the Jewish people's irrevocable affiliation with its glorious past in the homeland (the menorah) along with the revival of that past in the light of Herzl's modern liberal ideas (the stars). But the proposal was not accepted. A special "Emblem and Flag Committee" was set up to deal with new proposals; it was headed by Beba Idelson and its members included cabinet ministers and members of the Knesset.

The committee decided that the seven-branched menorah should be one of the elements of the emblem, but each member had his own ideas as to what other elements, e.g. candles or the "Lion of Judah," should be included. Transport Minister David Remez suggested that experts in various fields, be included in the committee. Thus, Aba Elhanani (architect), Eliezer Sukenik (archeologist), Reuven Rubin (painter) and Leopold Krakauer (architect-artist) joined the committee.

One of the new proposals submitted to the Emblem and Flag Committee was rendered by graphic artists Itamar David and Yerachmiel Schechter.

David and Schechter supplemented the familiar menorah and seven stars with the inscription Shalom al Yisrael (Peace over Israel) and stylized depictions of a palm frond (lulav) and a ram's horn (shofar). They also altered the shape of the emblem, to an ellipse. Another change was the model chosen for the menorah: depictions found on the mosaic floors of ancient synagogues in Eretz Israel rather than the relief on the Arch of Titus.

In antiquity, the seven-branched candelabrum, a primary symbol of the Temple, appeared on coins, on decorated glass, in catacomb frescoes and on the walls and mosaic floors of synagogues. In these settings the menorah rarely appears alone; generally it is in the company of other ritual objects associated with the Temple - the censer, the ram's horn, the palm frond and citron, the last two associated with the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), one of the festival celebrated at the Temple. These depictions of the Temple menorah are not consistent, so that it is impossible to be certain of its true form. They also differ from the accounts in the Bible, of Josephus and the Talmud, and it seems that the variation was intentional. Rather than reflecting a lack of artistic ability, the imprecision may point to a certain restraint and perhaps, even a prohibition against accurate depictions of the Temple and its appurtenances. The main difference between all the renderings of the menorah on the floors of ancient synagogues in Eretz Israel and that depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome is the base; on the latter the seven branches of the candelabrum rest on a stepped polygonal base. Most of the former representations, by contrast, give the menorah a tripedal base. One familiar depiction of the three-legged menorah appears on the floor of the sixth-century synagogue in Jericho. Here the menorah is flanked by a ram's horn and plam frond and below it is the inscription Shalom al Yisrael ("Peace over Israel"). This was probably the source for the design submitted by David and Schechter, presumably chosen on the recommendation of Prof. Sukenik, one of the experts on the Emblem and Flag Committee, who had uncovered the Jericho mosaic in 1947.

The inscription Shalom al Yisrael comes from the end of Psalm 125: Do good, O Lord, to the good, to the upright in heart. But those who in their crookedness act corruptly, let the Lord make them go the way of evildoers. Peace over Israel.

The most significant change in the David and Schechter design is the change of the circular form (in the synagogue in Jericho) into an ellipse. Elliptical seals were common during the period of the monarchy. They generally bore the name of the owner (sometimes along with that of his father), plus a decorative element.

The general message conveyed by the David and Schechter emblem may be summarized as follows: in addition to the link with the glorious past of the Jewish people in its homeland, with its ritual, religious and political aspects, the new State would be based on Herzl's modern secular liberalism, all accompanied by peaceful intentions. The struggle over the relative emphasis to be given to each aspect of the emblem was manifested in a variation on their original design, also submitted by David and Schechter at the request of members of the committee. The palm frond and ram's horn were missing from the modified proposal.

The deletion of the palm frond and the ram's horn, leaving only the menorah and the inscription, created an emblem that still indicated Israel's peaceful intentions, but, by eliminating the association with ancient synagogues, left a more secular message.
The proposals by David and Schechter, like Walisch's earlier design, were not accepted by the committee. After lengthy discussions, it was decided to invite new ideas for the emblem of the State. This time 131 persons responded to the notice in the press and most of the designs incorporated the menorah motif. Since the notice was addressed to the public at large, proposals came in from all over the country and from persons in all walks of life. Several supplemented the menorah and the seven stars with other motifs, limited only by the designer's imagination. Henry Raczkowski, for example, added a pair of doves, one on each side of the menorah.

The base of his menorah doubled as that of the "scales of justice," which would guide the new state. A streamer across the top of the emblem bears Herzl's seven stars, three on either end and the seventh in the middle of the Hebrew inscription: Ki bitzedaka yikon kise (for the throne is established by righteousness [Proverbs 16:12]).

Among the many proposals submitted during this round was one by the brothers Maxim and Gavriel Shamir. Beba Idelson presented their design to the members of the Seal and Flag Committee at its sixth meeting, on December 28, 1948.

The Shamir brothers' emblem has a heraldic format; in the center is a stylized menorah, each of the seven branches crowned by a star. The menorah is flanked on each side by a branch on which mirror-image leaves are arranged with a tiny circle between each pair of leaves. According to Gavriel Shamir, their design evolved as follows:

After we decided to use the menorah, we looked for another element and concluded that olive branches are the most beautiful expression of the Jewish people's love of peace. The leaves are also a very decorative element. Now we faced the question of which menorah to use... We decided on a stylized version rather than an ancient form. Our intention was to create a modern emblem, without Jewish traditional symbols. We told ourselves that the menorah itself is an ancient symbol and its very presence on the seal constitutes a traditional element. But its shape should be modern.

(A. P., "How the Emblem of the State of Israel was Born," interview with the Shamir brothers, Ma'ariv, February 16, 1949).

The Shamir brothers' menorah was so "modern" that the Emblem and Flag Committee, convened on January 10, 1949, was overcome by doubts at the "modernity" which they themselves had suggested. They did not like the stylized menorah and resolved that Beba Idelson, as suggested by Transport Minister David Remez, ask the Shamir brothers to prepare another design, using "Titus's menorah." Remez's return to this version added another level of symbolism to the menorah motif, one that had been absent from the earlier proposals: now the menorah would symbolize not only the grandeur of the past but also the present and, perhaps, the future. Borrowing the menorah from the Arch of Titus would constitute the visual metaphor of an idea prevalent in those years: just as the relief representing Titus's triumphal procession in Rome stood for the destruction of the Jewish state in 70 CE, so its rebirth would be symbolized by the return of the menorah - if not to the Temple - then to the newly born State of Israel. In other words, the menorah is returned from the Arch of Titus, where it symbolizes defeat, humiliation and disgrace, and is installed in a place of honor on the emblem of the State, the establishment of which is testimony to the eternity of the Jewish people. In this way, past, present and future are all linked in one symbolic motif.

After the Shamir brothers incorporated the menorah from the Arch of Titus into their design for the emblem, the committee adopted it unanimously. Its chairperson, Beba Idelson, forwarded the proposal to the Provisional Council of State, which ratified it as the new emblem of the State of Israel.




Yoseph Hatzarfati: Vision of Zechariah, carpet page from the Servera Bible, MS, 1300, National Library, Lisbon
  Menorah and Olive Branches:
A Whole Greater than the Sum of its Parts

The emblem of the new state, adopted by unanimous vote of the Provisional Council of State, includes several ideas from the earlier designs (but omits one of them): the olive branches express the state's peaceful intentions; the menorah attests to the link of the Jewish people with its glorious past in the homeland and the return of the state to its former luster (through the metaphor of the restoration of the menorah from the Arch of Titus to its place in Israel), and indirectly, the beginning of the end of the Diaspora. "Israel" is the new name of the State, but the inscription is also a remnant of the phrase "Peace over Israel," which had been part of the earlier proposal. The element that was dropped was Herzl's seven stars.

The emblem as we know it today clearly shows that in the struggle between the "secular camp," which wanted to emphasize the state's socialist and democratic present and future, and the "religious camp," which wished to stress the grandeur of the past and its link to the God of Israel, the former won. Yet this is also inaccurate. There existed graphic precedents for the combination of the menorah and olive branches and this was not the invention of the Shamir brothers. In fact, the combination may be traced to a specific text, one of the mystical visions of the Prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 4:1-3, 11-14)

Thus, the emblem of the State that has become familiar to us borrowed Zechariah's vision to represent the Zionist idea of the newly established State of Israel. From this perspective, the establishment of the State corresponds to the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Return to Zion. The two olive trees evidently played an extremely important part in the perception of the new State, in which "religion" and "state" (the "two anointed dignitaries" - the high priest and the governor) stand together to realize the Zionist dream.

The process of designing the emblem of the State, which began with the expression of a simple message, stressing the grandeur of the Jewish past as well as Herzl's notions of social progress, led to the creation of a much more complex emblem. This emblem projects a sophisticated and multi-faceted message based on verbal metaphors and visual and textual quotations. All of these are embodied in a few elements. The three visual elements - the menorah, the olive branches, and the inscription "Israel" - faithfully and with maximum brevity and directness, project the message conceived by the designers.

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