It is a potent symbol of national identity, instantly recognizable around the world, a blue Star of David on a white ground, framed by two horizontal blue stripes: the flag of Israel. And it has an unlikely origin story, in a fraternal hall in Boston’s North End.
A Brandeis professor has published a paper illuminating the city’s early contribution to what would become the Israeli standard, and this week Governor Charlie Baker, on a trade mission to Israel, presented a replica of that 19th-century Boston prototype to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“For the average Israeli, they don’t know anything about where the flag of Israel comes from. They don’t have a Betsy Ross story, and I think some of them would be astonished to learn that American Jews have anything to do with it,” Brandeis professor Jonathan Sarna, a scholar of American Jewish history, said Wednesday by phone from Israel, where he is on sabbatical.
Sarna’s new research mines the largely unknown story of the American role — starting with Rabbi Jacob Baruch Askowith of Boston — in advancing a design ultimately adopted by Israeli leaders in 1948.
Sarna’s story hinges on Columbus Day in 1892, when a few hundred Jews from the tenements of Boston set out from Hanover Street’s Zion Hall. They marched through Scollay Square, the West End, and back again to the North End, parading behind a marching band and a new banner bearing the now-familiar design.
That “flag of Judah,” as the Globe called it, appears to be the earliest known recorded evidence of a white flag with a blue six-pointed star and two stripes, Sarna said, though there’s evidence of a similar flag a few years earlier in Palestine.
The Askowith flag tale wasn’t entirely a secret, but the details had been obscured over the years, Sarna said. Growing up in the Boston area, he had heard occasional mentions of the Israeli flag’s supposed origins here. And when Sarna edited the 1995 book “The Jews of Boston,” he was intrigued by a line in a Zionism chapter written by historian Mark Raider that attributed “the creation of the Jewish national flag in 1891” to Askowith. But when they tried to dig further, they found little else.
Widespread digitization of old newspapers in the years since has enabled Sarna to produce a clearer portrait this time around; he also found images of that flag in old Jewish Advocate clippings and a more recent Israeli book. Sarna learned that Askowith, a father of 11, came to Boston from Lithuania in 1884, near the beginning of a flood of immigration that would push the city’s Jewish population from a few thousand to more than 100,000 in a few decades.
At the same time, the Zionist movement, seeking the creation of a nation-state for a scattered and persecuted people, began to spread in Europe and the United States. In many American cities, the idea divided the Jewish community, competing with desires to assimilate and fears of being seen as loyal to two nations.
But Zionism proved especially popular in Boston, Sarna said, readily accepted in a city where many Irish immigrants also yearned for an independent homeland and the preservation of their language and culture.
In January 1891, a group of mostly young men — primarily the upwardly mobile children of immigrants, enrolled in college and finding their footing in Boston — founded an organization they dubbed B’nai Zion, or Children of Zion, to further “the moral, intellectual, and social status” of Jews. They rented a hall at 170 Hanover St., in the then-heavily Jewish North End. Members included the future founders of Beth Israel Hospital, Sarna said. Harvard president Charles W. Eliot and future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis were among the early speakers.
Charged with decorating the hall, Askowith — who would legally anglicize his name from Asikowitz in 1896 — wanted to hang flags from many nations. “There being no Jewish flag available, he proceeded to design one,” his son Charles, a dentist, recalled in 1952 in the Jewish Advocate. Askowith drew inspiration from the tallit, or prayer shawl, placing a blue Star of David on a white ground, between two blue stripes.
That homemade flag, which had the Hebrew word “Maccabee” written inside the star, hung inside the hall. The next year, the Askowiths ordered a professional version for a parade coinciding with the city’s 400th-anniversary Columbus Day celebration, replacing Maccabee — the name of the Jewish resistance fighters in the Hanukkah story — with “Zion” inside the star.
When the world’s Second Zionist Congress convened in Switzerland in 1898, a nearly identical flag flew outside. It’s unclear if the design was coincidental or inspired by Askowith’s flag, which may have traveled beyond Boston on reproduced postcards, Sarna said. Competing origin stories point to a similar flag — albeit with more stripes — reportedly flying in Palestine as early as 1885, though no pictures survive, he said.
What’s clear is that American Jews embraced the star-and-two-stripes flag even as no consensus emerged among European Zionists. Theodor Herzl himself, a father of modern Zionism, advocated for a flag with a lion and seven stars, representing the seven-hour workday he envisioned for a socialist Jewish state.
But the “flag first seen in Boston” held sway in the United States, Sarna said. Its photographed appearance in the Hall of Nations at the celebrated 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair cemented that design’s status as the standard Jewish banner in an America that was experiencing “a kind of flag mania” in the patriotic new century, he said.
In 1948, leaders of the new Israeli state considered at least 164 different flag designs, but American Zionists — led by a rabbi from Cleveland — pressed the case for the official flag that still flies today.
While the Askowith story may not be “quite as romantic as the many-times-told tale of Betsy Ross, I certainly think the story of the flag and its origins in Boston are significant,” Sarna said. “A lot of Israeli scholars even think that American Jewry is at best a footnote to Zionism until much later.”
And if the Boston angle may have been obscured in a microfilm era, it was not forgotten by Askowith’s descendants. Though the flag was not mentioned in his 1908 obituary, it has been consistently noted in obituaries for descendants in the decades since. And Askowith’s daughter Dora, a Hunter College educator, detailed her father’s role in a 1944 journal article. As for the original flag itself? After Zion Hall closed, she wrote, the banner was interred with her brother Elias, one of the lead marchers in that original parade, upon his untimely death in 1905.