When Jewish LGBTQ activists first heard about the DC Dyke March policy prohibiting marchers from carrying Israeli flags and Pride flags with the Star of David earlier this month, they thought all Star of David symbols were banned. March organizers initially explained that the Star of David was an inherently Zionist symbol, synonymic with the State of Israel, which could offend any Palestinian Marchers. At the march, organizer Jill Raney clarified that the event only prohibited the Israeli flag and the Pride flag with the Star of David because of their nationalist symbolism. But the question underlying the controversy remained: What does the Star of David symbolize?
The Star of David, often called the Magen David or Shield of David, has a rich ecumenical history, reaching across many centuries, countries and contexts. Before it became the Magen David, the Star of David simply existed as a six-pointed star or hexagram—a standard geometric design found on ancient artifacts dating back to as early as the Bronze Age.
Decorative uses of the six-pointed star on objects such as seals, notarial signs, lamps and thrones continued throughout the Middle Ages. Images of the star occur in areas ranging from Mesopotamia to Britain. In the Hindu tradition, the hexagram, known as the Shatkona, symbolizes the union of Purusha (the supreme being), and Prakriti (mother nature). Japanese shrines from as early as the 5th century contain six-pointed stars culturally referred to as Kagome crests. Additionally, the hexagram appears in early Byzantine and medieval churches.
Ancient Arabic sources use the name “Seal of Solomon” to refer to the six-pointed star and other geometric images. The Talmud (Git. 68a-b) says King Solomon’s seal had an engraving of God’s name, however, and historians have not dated the hexagram’s addition. The term “Seal of Solomon” began appearing in Jewish circles in the 14th century. Mainly found on Jewish amulets and other magical items, “Seal of Solomon” often referred to both the hexagram and five-pointed star, or pentagram. According to late historian Gershom Scholem, Magen David or Shield of David began appearing in association with the star around this time. In his essay “The Curious History of the Six-Pointed Star,” Scholem cites the earliest use in the Book of Boundary, a kabbalistic book written by Naḥmanides’s grandson, David Ben Judah the Pious.
Scholem asserts that, while derived from a Jewish Talmudic source, the title “Seal of Solomon” was first adopted into Arab culture before emerging in Jewish contexts. Leonora Leet, author and professor of English at St. John’s University before her death in 2004, disagreed with Scholem, arguing that the hexagram has Jewish origins dating back to biblical times. Leet writes in her book The Secret Doctrine of the Kabbalah that “since in the Arabic literature employing this symbol the hexagram is normally given a Hebrew derivation…another possibility is that there was a continuous association of the Jewish esoteric tradition with this esoteric symbol of David and Solomon that preceded Islam.” She also cites the Talmudic origins of “Seal of Solomon” as evidence of the hexagram’s Jewish origination.
Steven Fine, a historian of Judaism in the Greco-Roman world at Yeshiva University, does not agree with either Scholem or Leet’s claims: “We never know when things start, we just know what they look like later,” he says. He cites French historian Marc Bloch’s theory of the “idolatry of origins” that criticizes historians for focusing on the emergence of a symbol at the expense of studying its current meaning. “The real issue,” he says, “is what does a living community do with it?”
According to Rabbi Richard Hidary, associate professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and rabbi at Sephardic Synagogue in Brooklyn, ancient and medieval Jewish communities did not view the Magen David as an identifying symbol, having used the menorah to represent Judaism since before the Second Temple period. “Coins, tombstones and other artwork consistently use a menorah as a symbol for the Jewish people,” says Hidary. “I feel much less resonance with the kabbalistic origins of the Star of David, and I prefer to reach back and recover the depth of thought found in the rich Jewish literature of late antiquity.” While recently redesigning his synagogue’s logo, Hidary requested designs highlighting the menorah instead of the Star of David, which he said felt more authentic.
Scholem dates the Star of David’s first use as a Jewish symbol to 1354 when Emperor Charles IV allowed the Jews of Prague to display a flag with the star as a symbol of courtesy to the Jewish people. From Prague, use of the star in Jewish communities spread across central Europe, becoming prevalent by the 17th century. Fine attributes the star’s widespread use to its almost universally Jewish yet non-sectarian affiliations. “All the Jews recognized themselves in it because it goes back to even older sources and at the same time, it didn’t have originally anything other than a statement of being Jewish attached to it.”
By the 19th century, the Star of David had reached Jewish communities across the globe. Synagogues and Jewish charities used it on their symbols and seals, and artists began using the star on Jewish ritual objects. Scholem writes that “the prime motive for the remarkably wide diffusion of the Shield of David in the 19th century was the desire to imitate Christianity.”
In 1897, the First Zionist Congress adopted the star in the middle of what is now the Israeli flag to represent themselves and eventually the State of Israel. Theodor Herzl had initially proposed a white flag with seven golden stars, but his suggestion did not garner any support. David Wolffsohn, a businessman prominent in the early Zionist movement, designed the flag Israel uses today. Scholem claims that the Congress adopted the star for the same reasons Fine says the star proliferated throughout Europe in the 17th century: “On the one hand, its wide diffusion during the previous century…had made it known to everybody; and on the other, it was not explicitly identified with a [specific] religious association,” Scholem writes. According to Scholem, because the star did not have affiliations with any specific Jewish sect or denomination, “the symbol did not arouse memories of the past: it could be filled with hope for the future.”
Beginning in the 20th century, sports teams began using the star to represent Jewish affiliation. The Viennese sports club, Hakoah Vienna, added the Star of David to the chest of their uniforms and, in 1933, world heavyweight boxing champion Max Baer wore shorts bearing the Star of David during his victorious match against the Nazi Germany boxing icon, Max Schmeling.
In the wake of the Holocaust, the Nazi’s use of the Star of David as a marker of shame and destruction posed another question: Should Jewish communities replace this symbol used for death with one that will declare life? Scholem contemplates this while offering another reasoning: “The sign that in our days was sanctified by suffering and torture has won its right to be the sign that will light up the road of construction and life.”
Today, Jewish communities both in and out of Israel use the Star of David to represent both Jewish identity and Zionism in places ranging from synagogues and Jewish Community Centers to necklaces and T-shirts. “In our world, the six-pointed star has a resonance,” says Fine. “Now, in order for a symbol to have resonance, Jews have to recognize it, and their neighbors have to recognize it. The six-pointed star has done that all the way through the early modern period and spread throughout the Jewish world.”
Recognition of the symbol, however, has become a contentious issue going beyond the controversy of the DC Dyke March. On June 17, actor John Cusack received outraged feedback from followers over a retweeted anti-Semitic meme. According to The Washington Post, the tweet, since deleted due to the backlash, depicted a black-and-white cartoon of a giant hand with a blue Star of David on the sleeve, crushing a group of weak-looking people. Cusak explained that the tweet was meant to criticize Israel’s policies regarding Palestinians and not the Jewish people, before admitting that using the star in this scenario portrayed anti-Semitic messages. The controversy over Cusak’s retweet reflects a recent pattern of statements and images conflating the Star of David with symbols of Israel, and thus anti-Israel views with anti-Semitism: A statement is made, or a tweet is posted, followed by adverse reactions from the public and an eventual apology and clarification from the original instigator. While many apologies claim simple misunderstandings, these debates always return to the question: Is the Star of David becoming synonymous with Israel and the complicated political stances surrounding it?
In any case, the Star of David has strong associations with both Judaism and Zionism today. One’s personal affiliations may depend on whether Zionism constitutes an essential part of their religious identity. According to Fine, the star always symbolizes Judaism and simultaneously does and does not symbolize Israel and Zionism. “We are bigger than our political entity,” he says, “we are a family. These are the things that made our family our family, and it’s how we recognize each other, whether we are secular or religious whether we are Sephardi or Ethiopian. This is how our family recognizes itself, and tell each other that we’re here.”