In the year 1998 the modern State of Israel celebrated its fiftieth birthday. The Western world joined the celebration accordingly, including many practicing Christians. One could observe, especially in book stores, quantities of large Stars of David exhibited in the display windows as eye catchers in order to announce newly published books, which praise the history of the Zionist state. It is not the only point of criticism that Israel’s history is explained rather one-sidedly in these books – especially by eliminating the fate of the eternal losers in the Middle East conflict, the Palestinians. Another critique deals with the fact that in western countries – fortunately – no one gets angry about advertisements using the Star of David, but that on the other hand public displays of Christian crucifixes in Israel will lead to violent protests and even measures by the legislation. This religious discrimination in Israel is not perceived outside of Israel, because the victims of the past are not allowed to be criticized today. The insight that it was the Catholic Order of the Jesuits that selected the Star of David as a Jewish symbol is rather amusing, if not downright ironic.
Facts about the question how the Star of David evolved and how it was accepted by the Jews as "their" symbol are found only in contributions by good Israeli historians, published in specialized Israeli historical magazines. First of all it is necessary to realize that the Hebraic as well as the Yiddish name for this symbol is actually "Shield of David." I don’t know why it was finally called "Star of David."
It should be noted that during antiquity and the Middle Ages the Jews possessed neither a national nor a religious symbol, even though various symbols were occasionally used, mostly the seven-armed chandelier (the official symbol of Israel) and the mounting lion.
The history of the Shield of David begins in Prague in the year 1648. During that last year of the Thirty Years War, Prague was besieged by the Swedish army. The town was mainly defended by Prague’s citizens’ militia, which included a Jewish unit. (This was the case until the days of Maria Theresa, who terminated the participation of Jews in the militia.) Because the Swedes did not succeed in taking the city, German Emperor Ferdinand III decided to assign honor flags and other decorations to all units of the citizens’ militia in accordance with their self-defined affiliations. This included the Jews. However, no one in Vienna knew what kind of symbol to put on the flag, which was to be assigned to the Jews. Even the family Openhaimer, the emperor’s "court Jews," did not know what to do. In their helplessness they turned to the scholarly Jesuits in Vienna to find a Jewish symbol. They finally came to the conclusion that King David "must have had the first and the last letter of his name, D, on his shield." They knew that the Jewish alphabet transformed towards Aramaic around the year 400 BC, although the earlier alphabet was still used during festive occasions. Ancient Jewish coins, for example, are inscribed with these old letters, which are identical with the Punic letters. In this alphabet the letter D is a triangle, similar to today’s Greek delta (D). Therefore they superimposed two triangles, which formed the Shield of David (Y). This was then embroidered on the Jewish flag and presented to the Jews of Prague as an honorable distinction for their duty for the country.
The Jews in turn liked this symbol, and their scholarly rabbis understood its meaning, since the transformation of the Jewish alphabet was also mentioned in the Talmud. So this new symbol began to spread to those towns, which had ties with Prague, and it was used in synagogues and during festive occasions. One of these towns was Frankfurt on Main, and when the Frankfurt family Rothschild was ennobled in the early nineteenth century, they placed this Jewish symbol, already famous at that time, on their coat of arms. Since then the symbol has spread like wildfire to all Jewish communities, including the non-European, especially because the Rothschild family had a considerable reputation among the Jews at that time. It was even reported in remote communities that the shield had magic powers, and there were stories, for example from Yemen, in which the ancestor of the Rothschild family succeeded in exorcizing the devil from the emperor’s daughter, etc.
The Jews actually never heard of or used this symbol before the year 1648, with the exception of the time between 700 and 400 BC, when it was used by Jews as well as non-Jews in magic spells. In any case, it is rather amusing to know that the Jewish symbol, which is today on the flag of Israel, was actually given prominence by Viennese Jesuits, as demanded by the German Emperor.
It is not maintained today in Israel that this symbol has an antique origin, because many Israelis are interested in Jewish history and are active as hobby archeologists, and such an allegation would be quickly exposed as a lie. Therefore the origin of this symbol is simply ignored. Even the Zionist movement did not use the shield of David until the death of its founder Herzl; on Herzl’s flag was the lion rampant, surrounded by seven five-pronged stars. However, David Wolfsohn, the successor of Herzl, who paid more attention to Jewish sensitivity, created the flag which later was accepted by the State of Israel. The white background with the blue bands at the edges correlates to today’s Jewish prayer scarf. The coloring originates, however, from the Roman toga, where the violet was replaced with blue, as this special blue is a preferred Jewish color for reasons unknown to me at this time.
First published under pen name Ysmael Rubinstein as "Woher stammt eigentlich der David-Stern?" in Vierteljahreshefte für freie Geschichtsforschung 3(2) (1999), pp. 181f. Translated by Fabian Eschen.