Sarna draws link between Boston and Israel with flag
Brandeis Prof. Jonathan Sarna (NEJS) ’75 found historic ties between the Boston community and the flag of Israel last month. Sarna’s paper, “American Jews and the Flag of Israel,” traces the flag design back to Rabbi Jacob Baruch Askowith, a member of Boston’s Lithuanian Jewish community in the late 1800s.
As Sarna’s paper notes, the design consisted of the Star of David with the word “Maccabee” inscribed in Hebrew in blue on a white background with two horizontal blue stripes. In 1891, the flag hung on Boston’s B’nai Zion synagogue in the North End.
In 1892, American Jews paraded in Boston with the “flag of Judah,” as it was known then, in an event celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in America. Instead of the word “Maccabee” in the center, however, the word changed to another Hebrew word: “Zion.”
In 1898, the flag of Judah appeared at the Second Congress in Basel, Switzerland, and in 1899, Zionist leader Theodor Herzl’s flag design — featuring a lion and seven stars — appeared at the Congress. Nevertheless, American Jews particularly liked Askowith’s design, and in 1904 the flag was flown at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
In a statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Sarna said, “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.”
“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,” he added.
More than half a century later, the Israeli government adopted a similar design for the current flag of Israel, retaining the Star of David and horizontal blue stripes but forgoing any words.
“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,” Sarna said in a BrandeisNOW article.
Sarna met with University President Ron Liebowitz, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Consul General of Israel to New England Yehuda Yaakov in Israel on Dec. 13, holding the historic flag for a photograph.
Baker also posted a photo on Twitter with the caption, “Thrilled to meet with @IsraeliPM and discuss our ongoing commitment to strengthening the unique relationship between #Israel & MA. #MAIsrael.”