I have a confession to make. Despite living in this country for more than 18
years and developing a healthy dose of cynicism, I still find Independence Day
to be one of the most moving dates on the annual calendar. Blue-and-white is
everywhere, people are in a festive mood, and special prayers are offered in
synagogue for the Divine gift that is the State of Israel.
I admit I
still get choked up when I hear our national anthem, “Hatikvah,” which stirs
something deep within my soul, reinforcing my link in the enduring chain of
Jewish nationhood. And then there is that simple, yet elegant flag of ours,
fluttering freely from passing cars and buildings, symbolizing the rebirth of
Jewish national sovereignty after two millennia of powerlessness.
while we are all familiar with what Israel’s flag looks like, how many of us
know its origin? Growing up in the United States, I remember learning the legend
of Betsy Ross, whose husband was killed during the American Revolution, and who
was asked by General George Washington in 1776 to design and sew a flag for the
newly independent nation.
Naturally, historians have quibbled over
whether the story is true or somewhat exaggerated.
But in any event,
unlike America, Israel has no “Betsy Rosenthal,” no one figure who can lay claim
in the national consciousness to being the originator of our very own
So perhaps it is time to correct this oversight and
give credit where it is due: to David Wolffsohn, a man whose name should be
among the pantheon of Zionist heroes but who has largely been all but
Wolffsohn was a Lithuanian Jew and prominent Zionist activist
who befriended Theodor Herzl and accompanied him on his trip to the Land of
He is best known as having served as the second president of the
World Zionist Organization.
But oddly enough, the central and dramatic
role he played in shaping the flag that would later serve the State of Israel as
its national emblem has not received the attention or renown that it
The impetus, of course, came from none other than Herzl
himself, who had noted in his book The Jewish State that “we have no flag and we
need one,” saying that in order to lead people, “we must raise a symbol above
their heads.” He proposed a white flag, symbolizing purity, with seven golden
stars to denote “the seven golden hours” of the workday.
Prior to the
first Zionist Congress that was held in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland, there was
much discussion of the question of a flag, with Herzl again pushing for the
adoption of the white banner with gold stars. Not surprisingly, the proposal was
met with a decided lack of enthusiasm.
It was at that point that
Wolffsohn stood up and made history.
“Why,” he said, “do we have to
search? Here is our national flag!” Wolffsohn declared as held aloft his
blue-striped white tallit (prayer shawl).
explained that while in Basel, “Among many other problems that occupied me then
was... 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,” he said, adding, “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 the Congress Hall, came
The flag quickly caught on, and was adopted by the Zionist
After the May 1948 establishment of the State of
Israel, a contest was held to solicit designs for the new country’s flag, but
none of the proposals made were accepted. On October 28, 1948, Israel’s
provisional government announced that it was adopting the blue-and-white flag of
the Zionist movement as the state banner.
To be sure, Wolffsohn was not
the first to create such a design. In 1885, a Russian Jew named Israel Belkind
who had settled in Rishon Lezion made a flag with the Star of David in between
two blue stripes and the word Zion in Hebrew in the middle of the
But it was thanks to Wolffsohn that the flag as we know it came to
be adopted by Zionists worldwide, and from there went on to represent the Jewish
After Herzl’s death, Wolffsohn later succeeded him as head of the
Zionist movement, but he died in 1914 in Hamburg, Germany, aged just
Although Wolffsohn did not live to see the establishment of Israel,
his legacy lives on in every flag that is proudly displayed throughout the
So on this Yom Ha’atzmaut, when you celebrate the freedom that
we enjoy here in this precious land, take a moment to remember those who helped
to shape our inspiring national symbols, including Israel’s forgotten “Betsy
Ross” – the Lithuanian Jewish Zionist David Wolffsohn. May his memory be for a