New Brandeis research reveals historic U.S.-Israeli ties

President Ron Liebowitz presented research from Professor Jonathan Sarna to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week

(l to r) Brandeis President Ron Liebowitz, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Consul General of Israel to New England Yehuda Yaakov hold a replica of an 1890s flag from Boston that, according to Brandeis research, influenced the design of today’s Israeli flag.

New research released by Brandeis Professor of American Jewish History Jonathan Sarna '75, MA '75, shows that as early as 1891, 57 years before the founding of the modern state of Israel, a prototype of the Israeli flag was created and displayed in Boston’s North End that would eventually be one of several significant influences on the present-day flag of Israel. His groundbreaking study titled "American Jews and the Flag of Israel" reveals a rich new chapter in the long history of deep bonds between the United States and Israel that had previously gone largely untold. The research underscores the depth, role and influence the United States played in the earliest days of the Zionist movement.

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Read Professor Sarna's paper

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Sarna’s research was released during Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s economic mission to Israel with more than 50 Massachusetts CEOs and academic leaders. It was presented to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by Brandeis University President Ron Liebowitz in a meeting with the Governor and Prime Minister in Jerusalem on Monday. Liebowitz also presented Netanyahu with a replica of the 1892 version of the flag that was hung more than a century ago at Zion Hall in Boston.

Specifically, Sarna’s research found that Rabbi Jacob Baruch Askowith, a prominent member of Boston’s vibrant Lithuanian Jewish community in the late 1800s, developed a design of the Israeli flag that was displayed as early as 1892 inside Zion Hall on Hanover Street in Boston’s North End. Flags of the same design would later be displayed at the 2nd Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland, and then again at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. Its design is believed to have played an influential role and contributed – among other designs from elsewhere in the diaspora and within pre-independence Israel – to the design that was ultimately adopted by the State of Israel.

“Every so often, vivid colors that create the rich tapestry of Israel-U.S. history and relations are illuminated – and this is one of those moments,” said Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History. “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.”

“As 50 business and academic leaders from Massachusetts join me in Israel to build upon the Commonwealth’s critical economic relationship with Israel – this research reminds us how just how historic and deeply personal our relationship with the State of Israel truly is,” said Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker. “I was honored to join President Liebowitz and appreciate Brandeis University sharing these findings while in Israel.”

“Brandeis University has deep historic bonds with the State of Israel, beginning with our namesake Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, one of the most prominent American supporters of Jewish statehood,” said Ron Liebowitz, President of Brandeis University. “It is altogether fitting that Professor Sarna, our university’s preeminent expert on American Jewish history, would bring these fascinating findings into the light and continue our legacy of academic scholarship in this field. I am thankful to Governor Baker for inviting us on his mission to Israel, and particularly grateful for the opportunity to share this new research with Israeli government officials during the visit."

Excerpts from Sarna’s research paper ‘American Jews and the Flag of Israel’:

Seven years after his arrival in Boston, Rabbi Jacob Baruch Askowith, in 1891, designed the B’nai Zion flag. “My father...had charge of decorating the hall for the public opening,” his son, Charles, recalled in a memoir. “Bunting and flags of all nations with Biblical mottoes under the flags were part of the decorations. There being no Jewish flag available, he proceeded to design one.” It is not surprising that Rabbi Askowith took the initiative here, for he was likewise involved in the establishment of several other Jewish communal institutions, including a synagogue, a Hebrew School and a society for Talmudic learning. The Jewish Advocate described him, upon his death, as one of Boston’s “sanest and most widely learned men.” When things needed to be done within the Jewish immigrant community, he was often called upon to do them…

… The flag that Jacob Askowith created in 1891 for B’nai Zion contained three critical design elements that we associate with the flag of Israel. First, the colors blue and white. By the late 19th century, these had become Jews’ “national colors.” “Blue and white are the colors of Judah,” an Austrian Jewish poet named Ludwig August Frankl sang out in 1864. “White is the radiance of the priesthood, and blue, the splendors of the firmament.”

The explanations vary, but those two colors have remained the defining colors of the Jewish people to the present day. The second design element of the flag were the two horizontal stripes, echoing the stripes of the tallith, the Jewish prayer shawl. And the third element was a central hexagram, or Star of David (Magen David)…

…Rabbi Askowith’s “flag of Judah” debuted on the streets of Boston a year after Zion Hall opened. In 1892, as part of the gala nationwide celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World, a grand parade snaked its way through the city; some 400 Jews participated. Led by Charles and Elias Askowith, among others, the Jewish marchers set forth from Zion Hall proudly carrying the “flag of Judah” along- side the American flag. A headline in The Boston Globe captured the scene. “Flag of Judah,” it read. “It Was Carried in Boston for the First Time Yesterday.” The short accompanying article recounts that the flag of Judah was “the first of its kind ever seen in Boston.”

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