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Israel – History of the National Flag

ישראל, State of Israel, Medinat Yisra'el, Daulat Isra'il

Last modified: 2024-01-13 by martin karner
Keywords: israel | star of david | magen david | shield of david |
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[Israel] image by Željko Heimer

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History of the Flag

The 18th Zionist Congress, 1933, resolved that "according to a tradition of many years the azure-white is the flag of the Zionist Federation and the Hebrew People". But except for that, no authorized Zionist institution resolved the shape of the flag. But the present form of a Magen David between two stripes became the accepted form and the only one I saw in photographs since the 1930's. This was the flag used by Israeli soldiers in the War of Independence even before the Declaration of Independence on 14 May 1948 and that was the flag present at the Declaration.
Nahum Shereshevsky
, 2 June 1998

Israel's 55th Independence day on Tuesday was an opportunity for the daily "Yedi'ot A'haronot" to publish a piece about the Israeli national flag.
Here is my translation:

"Transformation of a flag by Moshe Ronen
As Independence day approach, we hang the national flag on public buildings, in the streets and on most private houses. We all know the national flag and emblem. We accepted them as such and didn't gave any thought to the way thoy were designed.
The secrets behind the designation of the the national flag and the official symbols, are revealed in a unique exhibition, opened in this weekend at the gallery of "A'huzat Bayit" in Ra'anana. The assence of the exhibition is dedicated to Ricahrd Ar'el, who was the graphical advisor to the government of Israel in the first ten years of independence. Ar'el was responsible to the design of the national flag and supervised the choosing and designing of its symbols, official papers and its stamps in the first ten years of existence.
The initial idea for designing the flag was provided by the "prophet of the state" Benyamin Ze'ev Herz'l. He suggested seven gold stars to mark seven daily working hours, on white background, to mark our new and pure life according to his vision. Photo of the script in Herzl hand writing is also presented in the exhibition in "A'huzat Bayit". David Wolfson, one of the Zionist leaders in Herzl, suggested to add two light blue [T'helet] stripes to the flag to remind the "Talith", and between them, he suggested, to scribe the Magen David (which was adopted by the Jews of Prague in the 17th century, and in the 19th century became a known Jewish symbol). Herzl didn't give up the seven gold stars, but suggested that six of them will be placed in the ends of the MD points, and the seventh will be scribed above it.
The blue white flag with the MD in its center became the flag of the Zionist Movement. However, 50 years after Herzl's proposal, when the state was established, its leaders were afraid to make it the the national flag. They were afraid that Jews that will hoist it in their countries, will be suspected in double loyalty.
For half a year of independence, the state of Israel didn't have an official flag. In the heat of arguments on the flag Prime Minister David Ben Gurion suggested: Lets go to the public and hear its opinion. The government decided to issue a proclamation asking the public to make proposals to the national flag. In the proclamation was written that the flag must be blue-white, however other colors could be submitted too. About 170 proposals were submitted and all of them were given to Ar'el. Most of the proposals were verbals, and Ar'el was required to produce them in graphical way. He took out few dozens which look more serious than others and painted them on hard paper in order to present them to the government and the committee of ministers in charge of symbols and ceremonies that already existed.
Most of the proposals were according to the government request, in blue-white colours, but some proposed to incorporate also red or orange colors, colors of royalty, in the flag.
Ar'el's preferred proposal was denied. He preferred a three parts flag [triband] reminding the French or Italian flags, with two blue rectangles in the sides and central white rectangle charged with blue MD.
However, most of the first government members preferred two horizontal stripes on white background instead of two vertical rectangles. they explained that one line reminds of the sky and the other one reminds of the sea.
Another change was made at the last moment. The color of the stripes and MD, supposed to be light blue (as in the Talith) became blue for being more prominent and easier to be seen at top of Israeli flag ships' mast at sea. On 28 October 1948 the provisionally council of state determined that the final draw made by Richard Ar'el is Israel's official flag."

There are also images of 4 propsals (1, 2, 3, 4)

The piece also has part about the national emblem (the Menorah) and about the man itself. It also say that Ar'el was the designer of the presidential flag which was first presented when President Weizman left to his first official visit abroad.

Dov Gutterman
, 4 May 2003

There seems to be some ambiguous information about the history of the national flag of Israel.
There are many claims for the first hoisting of the blue-white flag. There is Rishon Le'Ziyyon Flag 1885, there is Nes Ziyyona Flag 1891, and there are the American claim of 1887 (?)..
However, the current Israeli flag was, with no doubt, an evolution of the flag that was designed for the First Zionist Congress in 1897 by Wolfsohn, who, probably didn't know a thing about those early flags.
Therefore, the origin of the national flag can be traced directly only to the flag that was designed by Wolfsohn, while all other flags (even thou may resemble to it) can't be directly connected or made any influence on its design. The flag that was designed for the first Zionist Congress held in 1897 and the forefather of the current Israel national flag.
All other flags that appear at Zionist Flags' subpages are Zionist flags used in various events, but have no direct connection to the current national flag.
Dov Gutterman, 12 May 2005

Historical flags on stamps

On 24 June 2003, the Israeli Post issued a series of four stamps that are dedicated to the history of the national flag.
I have strong doubts about the selection of one or two flags that was chosen for this series.
The first stamp is dedicated to Prague Jews flag of 1356 – This flag is considered as the first use of Magen David on flag.
The second stamp is dedicated to Nes Ziyyona flag of 1891 – I don't know what was the reason for that. As I already noted, this flag is strongly suspected as an "urban legend". Moreover, they show the flag with golden Magen David and inscription while the description (in sources published years after) claim that only the inscription was golden. Also, the flag that is shown at the municipal website, shows a white inscription (and blue Magen David). Furthermore, why they chose the Nes Ziyyona flag and not the Rishon LeZiyyon Flag, which was hoisted six years before (1885)?  
The third stamp is dedicated to the Herzl Flag. The Herzl Flag was a proposal that never materialized. Such a flag, as far as we know, existed only on Herzl's diary and was never produced.
The stamp shows a proposal that never existed as a flag. The flag that did exist (First Zionist Congress flag of 1897) appears at the background.
The fourth stamp shows the national flag. Stamp at no argument here too. [all external links retrieved]
Dov Gutterman, 23 July 2007

See also: Flags on stamps of Israel

Use of Zionist Flags in the Palestine Mandate

Zionist flags were a problem for the British authorities. If they were allowed, the Palestinian Arabs protested, and if they were not allowed, the Jews protested.
In 1932 a Greek company registered in London, operating a ship registered in Haifa, asked if it could fly a Zionist flag. The Board of Trade wrote that it could not be flown as an ensign, but wondered if it might be allowed at the masthead, as a House Flag. The Admiralty queried whether the flag of a Political Party could be a House Flag. It was decided that a House Flag was a private flag, a Political Party could not be private, and therefore its flag could not be a House Flag.
In 1935 the High Commissioner of Palestine wrote to the Colonial Office asking for powers to control the flying of flags likely to incite disturbances. This referred mainly to Zionist flags on immigrant ships, and he wanted to be able to control flags flown in the territorial waters of Palestine. The Foreign Office view was that a state was entitled to prohibit the flying of flags to which it took objection, providing that the flags in question were not ones that a ship would fly under ordinary custom. It thought that this right existed only in national waters, such as harbours, and did not extend to territorial waters (3 mile limit). The result was Amendment No 2 Ordinance to Ports Ordinance 1926, which prohibited flags other than; own national flag, signal flags, or any official naval or diplomatic flag.
Source: Public Record Office, CO 323/1182/11 and CO 323/1333/5.
David Prothero
, 17 August 2000

Maybe this initiated the Zim house flag to be as it is, two blue stripes with seven six-pointed gold stars. Since there are numerous photos of ships hoisting the Zionist flag, I guess it was just another British ordinance that was not followed by the natives.
Dov Gutterman
, 17 August 2000

Q: I have seen a couple of flag charts printed in the 1930s and 1940s, where the flag which is now the official flag for Israel is given as the flag for Palestine (picture). Was this flag actually used in that capacity and if so, how official was this?
Elias Granqvist, 11 March 2023

A: The development from the earliest Zionist flags to the current Israeli national flag is rather complex. There was a wider variety of shapes and a lesser wide variety of colours, which generated a certain confusion about what the actual Jewish flag should look like. Over time it took root that a Jewish flag should contain the Star of David and the colours blue and white should prevail. We can prove the development of the early Zionist flags towards the today's national flag with pictures. Finally the Zionist Flag adopted its current form at the 18th Zionist Congress in Prague in 1933 (Allegations that a certain Morris Harris created the Zionist Flag in today's shape already for the first Zionist Congresses in 1897 and 1898 can be refuted photographically).
As for Elias Granqvist's question if the Zionist Flag was in official use for the British Mandate of Palestine the answer is no. The British authorities were very anxious to ban any official use of Zionist flags, fearing conflicts with the Arab population (See also contributions above in this section).
If producers of flag books or flag charts used the official Zionist Flag as flag for the Palestine Mandate they either were ignorant of the official regulations or they just found it inappropriate to use the Union Jack for the flag of the Jewish homeland and took a "Jewish looking" flag instead of it. In this example it was the official Zionist Flag.
Martin Karner, 12 March 2023

An Alternative History of the Israeli Flag

My grandfather Morris Harris designed the Jewish flag adopted as the flag of Israel. Few people know this truth. Please visit this site [retrieved] I created to honor him.
Rebecca Rabinowitz, 13 May 1998

Many thanks for this fascinating account. As you probably know, the received wisdom is that David Wolfsohn and/or Theodor Herzl designed the flag that became Israel's flag.
David Cohen
, 14 May 1998

The web site made in honour of Morris Harris says the First Zionist Congress, after which Morris Harris made his flag, met in 1887. The Encyclopaedia Britannica claims the congress first met ten years later, in August 1897. Presumably, then, 1897 is the correct year for the flag Harris made.
According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica (published in Jerusalem, 1971), "The Zionist flag in its present form – two blue stripes on white background with a shield of David in the center – was first displayed in Rishon LeZiyyon in 1885". The raising of the flag in Rishon le-Zion thus predates Morris Harris' flag by more than a decade. Rishon LeZiyyon was the first Zionist settlement in what is now Israel. It was established in 1882.
The Encyclopaedia Judaica also says that Wolfsohn was unaware of the earlier flags used in Rishon LeZiyyon and (presumably) by the "Love of Zion" groups when proposing a design identical to the flags used by these.
Jan Oskar Engene
, 14 May 1998

A Boston connection?

This photo appeared in the Dec. 14, 2016 "Boston Globe" article "An unlikely Boston connection to Israel's flag" by Eric Moskowitz (with paywall).
The essence of the article refers to a claim that a Bostonian was the original designer of this "Flag of Judah" in 1892, from which its design was copied to make the current national flag of Israel – a contention that is disputed by others. The article notes that Massachusetts's Governor Charlie Baker presented a modern printing of this flag to Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in mid-March 2016.
The flag is quite familiar-looking: It's the national flag of Israel with the Hebrew word for "Zion" in the middle of the Star of David or "Magen David". "Zion" can mean/represent either "Jerusalem" or the "Land of (Greater) Israel". It is alleged that this "Flag of Judah" design first appeared in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, in 1892, although other sources credit its artwork to earlier designers. An alleged 1891 prototype of this flag had the Hebrew word for "Maccabee" inside the star's middle instead of "Zion".
William Garrison, 6 April 2021 / 13 March 2023 (by e-mail)

[Ed. note: This newspaper article – which we can't publish here for copyright reasons – has some interesting facts that might give us a missing link in the development that led to the final design of Israel's national flag. Although the article is wrong in its claim that a flag like this one ("a nearly identical flag") flew outside the Second Zionist Congress in 1898 in Basel, Switzerland (We have photographical evidence that the "Wolfsohn flag" with the yellow star was in use for at least the three first congresses until 1899), the Boston flag could have influenced the Europeans to change the yellow star with the lion and the seven small stars to the simpler but more distinctive blue star (The article mentions postcards with the image of the Boston flag, which could have spread beyond America). Apart from that it's not difficult to imagine that the colours and stripes of the Jewish prayer shawl served as inspiration for the design of the flag – for different people at different places. This would not make the existence of previous flags with the same design a contradiction, but would make clear that the emergence of Israel's flag was fed from different – sometimes very similar – sources that eventually led to the design we know today. The Boston flag of 1891/1892 might have had its part in this process, yet there is no proof of this.]