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The ‘Splainer: What is the Star of David and what does it mean for Jews?

A member of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel wears a medallion with the Star of David as he takes part in a ceremony marking the holiday of Sigd in Jerusalem on Nov. 11, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/ Amir Cohen

The ’Splainer (as in, “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which RNS gives you everything you need to know about current events to help you hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) Donald Trump’s recent use of a six-pointed star in a tweet widely deemed anti-Semitic has raised many questions about the Star of David, a symbol of Judaism. It adorns synagogues the world over and is central to Israel’s flag. But it has also been used to denigrate Jews.

Where did this star come from, and what makes it Jewish? Let us ‘Splain.

Q: Does the star go back to the biblical King David?

A: That’s the one. But don’t go looking in the Bible for references to the Star of David. Legend has it the “Magen David,” in Hebrew, the “Shield of David,” was shaped like a six-pointed star, or that his shield was embossed with that shape. But there is no written or archaeological evidence to prove this. And for thousands of years the menorah was the more common symbol of Judaism.

Q: So where did the star come from?

“The interlocking symmetric triangle was a common symbol in the Near East in the ancient world,” Chabad Rabbi Pinchas Taylor explains in a video about its origins. You can find examples of it in ancient Hindu, Shinto and Persian cultures, among others — and ancient Jewish settings too. It seems to point to both heaven and earth, God and mankind, and all the corners of the universe. Among mystics, it was thought to hold special powers.

A banner with the yellow Star of David, and the word "Jude", German for Jew, and the Hebrew words "not even eternity will heal the wounds" is hung on a fence at Rimonim Prison during a ceremony marking the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel May 5, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Nir Elias

A banner with the yellow Star of David and the word “Jude,” German for Jew, and the Hebrew words “not even eternity will heal the wounds” is hung on a fence at Rimonim Prison during a ceremony marking the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel on May 5, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Nir Elias

 

Q: When did Jews start using the star?

A: Some European Jews, most notably in Prague, used it in the 1600s. But its widespread adoption by Jewish communities didn’t happen until the early 19th century, first among German Jews, said Jonathan Sarna, professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University.

“Scholars believe that newly emancipated German Jews adopted the symbol to stand opposite to the cross that so visibly symbolized Germany’s Christianity,” Sarna wrote in his book “American Judaism.” The Star of David made its first American appearance in a stained glass window at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in 1845. Soon after, “it became a visible proclamation of Jewishness” on books, ceremonial objects and tombstones.

Q: Is that why the Nazis used it to identify Jews? 

A: Yes, but the Nazis were far from the first to make Jews wear an identifying mark. In the Islamic world, Caliph Umar II (who ruled from 717–720) forced Jews, as well as Christians, to wear “distinguishing marks.” Throughout medieval Europe, Jews were required to wear badges — often yellow — and sometimes pointed hats.

The Nazis forced Jews to wear the yellow badges, though the color was occasionally different in other lands under control of the Third Reich. The star separated and isolated Jews, marking them for deportation to concentration camps. A Jew found without a badge could be fined, imprisoned or shot.

Q: What is the connection between the star and Israel?

A: The Zionist movement in 1897 adopted the Star of David as its symbol. It became the flag of the State of Israel shortly after the nation’s founding in 1948. The star is sandwiched between a single light blue stripe on top and another on the bottom, which are supposed to evoke the tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl, which is most typically blue and white.

Q: What about Trump’s claim that there is nothing anti-Semitic about the red six-pointed star his campaign tweeted?

A: The Trump campaign set the words “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” atop the red six-pointed star against a background of dollar bills and next to a photo of Hillary Clinton. Given that much of anti-Semitic rhetoric blames Jews for manipulating the world’s economy, the star’s appearance on money was quickly seen by Jews and non-Jews alike as blatantly anti-Semitic.

More to the point, the image was traced to a message board that attracts anti-Semitic and white supremacist memes and rants.

The campaign’s explanation, that it was a sheriff’s badge, was widely ridiculed.

The original tweet was posted on @realDonaldTrump — the confirmed account of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee — at 9:37 a.m. Saturday, July 2.

The original tweet was posted on @realDonaldTrump — the confirmed account of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee — at 9:37 a.m. Saturday, July 2.

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About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)

34 Comments

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  • “More to the point, the image was traced to a message board that attracts anti-Semitic and white supremacist memes and rants.”

    To a message board that attracts “trolls trying to piss people off”, you mean. For goodness’ sake, the board is literally called “Politically Incorrect”!!

  • Yeah, sure, the man with an Orthodox Jewish daughter, son-in-law, and grandchild is a secret anti-Semite.

    C’mon. This is TRUMP. You SHOULDN’T need falsehoods to explain why Trump is a bad choice. The man is clearly not an anti-Semite, as horrible as his other characteristics. Focus on the REAL reasons to vote against Trump or else you’ll just make criticism against him seem less valid.

  • Justin said “The man is a blatant racist” THEREFORE “of course [the image] was anti-Semitic”.

    When you say the REASON an image was antisemitic was that the person posting it was RACIST, that kinda IMPLIES that the poster thinks the person posting it is antisemitic. There’s LITERALLY no other POSSIBLE interpretation that would make a cause/effect statement of “Person A is a Racist therefore Person A’s Post was Antisemitism” make any sense whatsoever except to draw equivalence between racism and antisemitism.

  • You’re putting your own thoughts into Justin’s words, which is unfair. He never said what you’re saying he said, period. Trump’s blatant racism explains why he would choose to post and defend an anti-Semitic image. It does not mean that Trump himself is an anti-Semite.

  • Fast Eddie is right. In addition to the presumptuous Republican nominee, he’s such a sleeze ball on so many issues, including rampant racism, that this Jewish star is simply an illustration of that. In itself, it’s not all that critical, just the bigot being a bigot. Again. And again. And . . . . . . .

  • The important point is that he willfully ignores antisemitism among his supporters. This is not the first time. Reporters have been swamped by antisemitic abuse for stories that Trump supporters did not like, and he has said nothing.

    The fact that he has a daughter who converted to Judaism does not mean that he is or is not an antisemite.

    I think I should point out that White Supremacists don’t consider Jews to be White.

  • They often are equivalent. As I said above, White Supremacists do not consider Jews to be White. They often blame Jews, because they are so racist that they can’t believe that Black people are smart enough to create their own movement.

  • Jews are an ethnic group and a people as well as a religion. I know Jewish atheists who wear Jewish stars. It is an expression of identity. It is not necessarily the same as a cross. Especially now when it could be dangerous to be visibly Jewish in Europe.

  • do you mean anti semantic or just plain anti jew.Anti semetic leaves out millions that are semetic but not Jews. Why insult them all

  • So what’s the crime if some his followers don’t like Jews.where is it written that anyone must like anyone else for that matter. Jews marry into all races.But they are not a race.

  • I didn’t say that Jews are are race. The crime is that he should have spoken up and said that was not all right to say or do, but he didn’t. Are you saying that its OK to hate Jews because they are not a race and therefore if you hate Jews you are not a racist? I remember when I was in Junior High someone said something antisemitic. No one there knew I was Jewish. When, I brought it up they apologized by saying that did’ know I was Jewish as if it would be OK it I wasn’t there. I learned from my parents that one should speak up if you hear something prejudice against any group. Jews had a self-enlightened reason to fight all prejudice against anyone. If I hate Dutch people, for example, that is not OK. There is also a vast difference between not liking someone and hating them. That is a whole other level.

  • Semite originally meant being part of a group of people who spoke Semitc languages, but it now means to be ant-Jewish. Everyone knows that except you.

  • What are you talking about? Where did I use the word “Semite?”
    “Anti-Semite” is equal to “anti-Jewish.” And I have no idea why you are directing your comment to me.

  • prejudice means to prejudge with no evidence. However if there truly is a fire in the theater should you be called a troublemaker because you are interrupting the movie.say a movie produced by a Jew?Perhaps the reason why people are wary of Jews might be because of their Old Testament. It is certainly a pornographic murderous book along with the New Testament for that matter and should be banned from children until they reach an age of understanding whatever that is. The heroes that many Jews worship in the Bible were certainly genocidal killers. Even though much of this is exaggerated I can see why those who read the material might come away with a negative view of the people who continue to promote the stories. And make holidays out of mass murders

  • The comment was meant for Tom Metzger, It was not for you. I’m not sure why it ended up here.

  • For someone who is anti-religious you are just a literalist as any Fundamentalist. Jews don’t read the Tanach that way. Even the most Ultra-Orthodox Jew is not as Fundamentalist or as literalist as you are. Jews read the Tanach with Midrash, Torah commentaries and the Talmud which interpret and explain the Tanach. If you have never read any of these sources, you are not fit to comment on the Tanach.

    You have it backward. Most Jewish holidays are about surviving attempts to kill Jews. There is a Jewish joke that Jewish holidays are about, ‘They tried to kill us we survived, lets eat. I wouldn’t say that that Jewish heroes were genocidal, they are certainly not perfect. They are sometimes meant to be examples of what not to do. Jews never pretended that their patriarchs and matriarchs were perfect.

    You have reminded me that religion is not the source of all evil as you would like to think. Atheists and people who are just anti-religion can be as hateful to Jews as any Christian has been. You are not really any different from the Medieval Christians in your anti-Judaism.

    Tanach is an acronym. T = Torah= 5 Books of Moses, N=Neviim – Prophets CH =
    Ketuvim-Writings. Thoughtful Christian now at least call what you call the “Old Testament” the Hebrew Bible, “Old Testament” is supercessionist which is why I always put in in quotes.

    Maccabees and Esther are not part of the Hebrew Bible.

  • They can’t be an ethnic group when they are made up of multiple ethnicities, nationalities, and races. Describe the “Jewish race.” Judaism is a nationalist movement mixed with a religion.

  • Also you can’t honestly call a hexagram a “Jewish star.” Six pointed hexagrams represented Saturn and was used long before Judaism was invented, or even Israelites and Hebrews existed.

  • Which just shows how some white Jews wanted a race card that avoided mentioning that they are Jewish no white… ANTI-SEMITE! This Semitic label goes back to my previous reply to you that to be Jewish is not to be part of a race or ethnicity, but a cult and nationality.

  • Are you trying to down play the Babylonian Talmud and many bigoted and xenophobic aspects of Judaism?

  • The Star of David is the first and last letter of David’s name as written in Ancient Hebrew with the last ‘D’ being placed upside down and on top of the first one. D + D upside down = Star of Davi./ It’s that simple

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