This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Three Cheers for the White and Blue *

I am not the sort of person who gets emotionally inspired by flag-waving. Nevertheless, I can still manage a thrill at the sight of the Israeli flag, which began as the emblem of the Zionist movement and was afterwards adopted by the newly created state. My admiration is not diminished by the fact that its design is simple enough to be reproduced with reasonable accuracy by kindergarten children.

It is especially important for me to appreciate that the flag's design seems to have emerged from the grass roots of the Jewish people rather than from the fiat of an executive committee or institution. Since the time of its initial appearance, there has been an intuitive recognition that the banner is an appropriate one and should not be changed.

The closest thing we have to an official story of the creation of the Zionist flag comes from David Wolffsohn, Theodor Herzl's protégé and successor to the presidency of the World Zionist Organization. Herzl was determined to endow the Zionist Congress in Basel with all the pomp and circumstance of a solemn affair of state, and decided that for that occasion it would be fitting to display a national flag. He assigned Wolffsohn the responsibility for choosing the appropriate flag. Wolfssohn later recalled his perplexity at this mission which was exacerbated, he felt, by the traditional Jewish antipathy towards visual arts.

However, a flash of inspiration came to him when he realized that there was a venerable Jewish ritual object that could serve as the prototype for the flag of the Hebrew national home. The prayer-shawl, talit, with its stripes of azure (tekhelet) had for centuries accompanied Jewish prayers and aspirations. Add the familiar "star of David" and you have the perfect decoration to impress the dignitaries attending the congress.

Like many such foundational tales, there is something about this one that seems just a bit too neat. Even if we were to accept that the early Zionists were so sympathetic to the religious sancta of traditional Jewish worship, the use of blue stripes was something of a rarity in the designs of prayer-shawls, for which black was the more common colour used for the stripes. Nevertheless, the tekhelet harks back to the original biblical precept of attaching a blue thread to the ritual fringes--a practice that was discontinued in antiquity because of the widespread use of artificial dyes. Rabbinic tradition had attached profound symbolism to that colour which serves to remind us of the sublime heavens and our duties to the God who dwells there. It is doubtful that such lofty spiritual ideas motivated the early Zionist leadership.

Wolffsohn's story about the flag's origin was later challenged by Morris Harris, an awning-maker and inventor in Harlem, New York. He claimed that it was he who devised the familiar banner for a reception that was given by the local chapter of the Hovevei Zion movement to welcome back one of their members from the first Zionist Congress in 1897. His mother, Lena Harris, was the Betsy Ross who did the actual sewing of the 6' by 10' flag, along with a dozen smaller versions that represented the twelve tribes of Israel. It was only after Harris' design had achieved popularity that it was adopted at the second Zionist Congress in the following year.

An even earlier instance of the blue and white design can be traced to 1885 when the village of Rishon Lezion flew one (with the word "Zion" embroidered inside the star) in connection with its anniversary celebrations.

In spite of the discrepancies between those testimonies, they attest to the consensus that surrounded the choice of the colour for symbolizing the Jewish nation. The notion that the blue and white prayer shawl embodies the Jewish national identity ("blue and white are the borders of Judah") had already been expressed in a poem published in 1867 by the Austrian poet Ludwig August Frankel.

In fact, Herzl's personal suggestion for a flag design consisted of seven golden stars placed on a white background. This would symbolize what he evidently regarded as the proudest achievement of his Judenstadt: the institution of the seven-hour work day! His surviving sketch for the proposed flag has six of the stars arranged as a hexagram, with the seventh hovering above them. A variation on this theme still survives in the municipal crest of Tel-Aviv.

When the Jewish state was established officially in 1948 it was natural, but by no means inevitable, that the established Zionist banner should now be adopted as the flag of Israel. There was however some concern that Zionist organizations and sympathizers abroad would be put in an awkward position if they were perceived to be expressing their allegiance to a foreign state. With the spectre of dual-loyalties accusations in mind, Israeli foreign minister Moshe Shertok (later: Sharet) commissioned a public competition for the design of a new national flag. The contest elicited 164 entries. Though the committee members themselves generally leaned toward a revival of Herzl's seven-star concept or the substitution of a seven-branched menorah, many of the contest submissions were very similar to the existing Zionist flag, rearranging its blue and white star and stripes in different combinations.

The chief objections that were voiced by the various parliamentary committees were directed against the incorporation of the "star of David." The eminent archaeologist Eliezer Lipa Sukenik charged that it was a dubious symbol that had no real historical associations with Judaism--though Yizhak ben Zvi pointed out that its fifty years of use as a Zionist symbol was itself of considerable historical significance. Justice Minister Moshe Shapira rejected Herzl's seven-star model on the grounds that the stars would necessarily be reduced so much in size that their distinctive shape would no longer be readily visible to the eye. A visiting delegation from America protested that it would be a shameful slap in the face of diaspora Jewry if the new state were to abandon the beloved Zionist emblem.

In the meantime, Shertok surveyed some leading Zionist leaders from outside Israel to see how they felt about the need for separate Zionist and Israeli flags. Though they were not particularly perturbed by the dual loyalties question, the consultation did provide them with opportunities to submit their own ideas for a flag. Chaim Weizman, for example, proposed the addition of a lion of Judah clutching the tablets of the law. This was not (he was quick to explain) because he favoured the intrusion of religious clericalism into politics, but rather because the Bible was a recognized pillar of "human culture."

When the official committee on symbols and flag issued its recommendations, they favoured a design that would differ as little as possible from the existing Zionist flag. Accordingly, after airing all the problems and tweaking the precise dimensions and colours of the stripes and star, the provisional government voted that the familiar Zionist flag should be adopted unchanged as the flag of the sovereign state of Israel.

And may that blue and white banner continue to wave over the land for many years!

This article and many others are now included in the book

For Signs and for Seasons
For Signs and for Seasons

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, April 16, 2010, p. 10.
  • For further reading:
    • Eliav, Mordechai. "LeQorotav Shel HaDegel Ha-Ẓiyyoni." Kivvunim 3. 49-59 (1979).
    • Handelman, Don, and Lea Shamgar-Handelman. "The Choice of the National Emblem of Israel." In Culture through Time: Anthropological Approaches, by Amigo Ohnuki-Tierney, 193-226. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.
    • Mishory, Alec. Lo and Behold: Zionist Icons and Visual Symbols in Israeli Culture. Sifriyyat Ofaqim. Tel-Aviv: Am Oved, 2000.
    • "The History of Israel's National Flag." Cathedra 62 (1991): 155-171.