Fundamentally Freund: Israel’s forgotten Betsy Ross

It is time to correct an 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 forgotten.

Israeli Betsy Ross 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Israeli Betsy Ross 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
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.
Yet, 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 Star-and-Stripes.
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 forgotten.
Wolffsohn was a Lithuanian Jew and prominent Zionist activist who befriended Theodor Herzl and accompanied him on his trip to the Land of Israel.
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 deserves.
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).
Subsequently, Wolffsohn 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 into being.”
The flag quickly caught on, and was adopted by the Zionist movement worldwide.
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 star.
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 state.
After Herzl’s death, Wolffsohn later succeeded him as head of the Zionist movement, but he died in 1914 in Hamburg, Germany, aged just 58.
Although Wolffsohn did not live to see the establishment of Israel, his legacy lives on in every flag that is proudly displayed throughout the country.
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 blessing.