How Israel can trace its flag’s roots to Boston, 1891
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How Israel can trace its flag’s roots to Boston, 1891

The 'flag of Judah,' paraded in Beantown 125 years ago, quickly captured the imagination of the Zionist movement

A flag created by Rabbi Jacob Askowith in 1891 for a Boston Jewish group, B’nai Zion (Courtesy of Brandeis University)
A flag created by Rabbi Jacob Askowith in 1891 for a Boston Jewish group, B’nai Zion (Courtesy of Brandeis University)

JTA — If a blue-and-white flag with a Star of David and two horizontal stripes were to hang proudly outside a Jewish organization in Boston, it would hardly be news.

Unless, of course, if that happened in 1891 — nearly 60 years before the founding of the State of Israel.

The flag that today is synonymous with the Jewish state has a uniquely American history, reveals new research by Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in suburban Boston.

Scholars previously knew about the existence of the Boston flag, but Sarna’s research — which was presented Monday during a meeting in Jerusalem between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker — illuminated additional points in the flag’s history that helped show its connection to the modern Israeli flag.

The flag was created in 1891 by Rabbi Jacob Baruch Askowith, a Lithuanian immigrant who settled in Boston, for a local Jewish organization, B’nai Zion. It bore striking similarities to today’s Israeli flag — except for the fact that the Star of David in the middle contained the word “Maccabee” in Hebrew letters, referring to the famed Jewish warrior family that defended Jerusalem against the Greeks.

Jonathan Sarna (Uriel Heilman)
Jonathan Sarna (Uriel Heilman)

A year later the “flag of Judah,” as it was then called, was paraded in the streets of Boston at an event celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in America. The only difference: “Maccabee” had been replaced with another Hebrew word, “Zion.”

From there, the “flag of Judah” started to gain traction.

The flag — minus the Hebrew words in the middle — made its way to the Second Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1898, Sarna found.

At the Third Zionist Congress a year later, a different flag was displayed — one created by Theodor Herzl that featured a lion and seven stars. But Askowith’s flag had already captured the attention of American Jews.

In 1904, it was flown along with the flags of the rest of the world at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, solidifying its status for American Jews as “an emblem of the unified Jewish people,” Sarna told JTA.

“That was absolutely a turning point — it was the first time that a Zionist flag was flown along with all the other flags of other countries,” he said. “It was a huge deal that the flag was recognized, and because it was recognized and got so much attention, I think that that became the flag that American Jews knew.”

A flag resembling the modern Israeli flag was flown at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress via Brandeis University)
A flag resembling the modern Israeli flag was flown at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress via Brandeis University)

So when time came to pick a flag in 1948 for the newly established State of Israel, American Zionists would not budge, rejecting some 164 other flag proposals. Ultimately they got their way, and today the flag recognized as representing Israel worldwide looks an awful lot like the flag that hung outside Boston’s B’nai Zion building in 1891.

“Every so often, vivid colors that create the rich tapestry of Israel-U.S. history and relations are illuminated — and this is one of those moments,” Sarna said Monday in a statement. “To think that 57 years before the founding of the modern state of Israel, Americans in Boston were proudly parading a flag so closely reminiscent to the present-day version is extraordinary, and is further indicative of the impassioned and prominent role that American Jews, even in the 1800s, had in shaping the future State of Israel.”

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