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When the State of Israel was reestablished in 1948, 1878 years after it had been decimated by the Romans in the year 70 CE, the new government had to decide what to call the nation and what its flag should be. The Romans destroyed Israel and slaughtered many of its people because they refused to be subjugated, insisted on being independent, and not slaves to the empire. The Romans were convinced that if they change the country’s name and expel its leaders and many of its inhabitants, people would soon forget that the land ever existed. So they called it Palestine after the Philistines who had once lived on the western edge of the country, what is today the Gaza Strip.
The land was named Canaan in the Bible’s Five Books of Moses. When the twelve tribes split because of disagreements with King David’s grandson Rehobaom over taxes several centuries after Moses’ death, the northern ten tribes called themselves Israel, after the name given by God to Jacob, the third patriarch, Abraham and Isaac being the first two. The southern two tribes took the name Judea because the largest tribe in the area was the tribe of Judah. In 722 BCE, the ten tribes were defeated by Assyrians and most of its inhabitants were exiled from Israel. They became the “Lost Ten Tribes,” and only Judea remained. Judea itself was destroyed by Babylonians in 586 BCE, but the exiles reestablished their country, rebuilt its temple after 536 BCE, and existed until the Roman destruction. Jews today are called Jews because this is a shortened version of Judeans. Now, the leaders in 1948 asked, should the country be called Canaan, Judea, Palestine, or Israel? The government decided on Israel because the country was now not only the land of a segment of Jews, but of all Jews. And the name Israel signified strength, as stated in Genesis 32:29, “thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.”
Now, they asked, what should Israel choose as its flag? This decision was made in 1897 at the first Zionist Congress. Theodore Herzl, the founder of the Congress, suggested that the flag of their future land should be white with seven gold stars. The white, he said, symbolized our new life, which will be pure. The seven gold stars represent the seven hours of daily work that we will labor in our own country. The Congress rejected this suggestion. Herzl then suggested an alternative: have the Star of David in a white background, with a gold star on each of its six points, crowned by a seventh gold star. The Star of David was a symbol of Jews since the middle ages. There is a tradition that its six points represents the six statements that the prophet Isaiah made about King David in 11:2: He had “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” These attributes, Jews thought, should apply to all Jews. While the Congress liked the idea of the Star, it rejected this second version.
Then David Wolfson, a friend of Herzl, reminded the Congress that Jews already had a flag, the tallit, the prayer shawl that Jews don when they pray. It is white with blue stripes at its top and bottom. The blue strips are reminiscent of the command in Numbers 15 to put a blue thread in the fringes (tzitzit) of the tallit. The blue symbolized the presence of God both in the blue heaven and blue sea, everywhere. (Although many think that it only represents the presence of God in heaven.) We can use the tallit as our flag, he said, and place the Star of David in the middle. Thereby, the flag of our reestablished State would have symbols of our ancient past. The Congress of 1897 accepted this suggestion, as did the reestablished State of Israel in 1948. Thus, while ancient Rome ceased to exist, the nation that it tried to obliterate lived on.