Category Archives: Law, Politics & Military

Jews in the World of Law and Politics

Jew of the Week: David Wolffsohn

The Man Who Created the Flag of Israel

David Wolffsohn (1856-1914) was born to a poor, religious Jewish family in the Lithuanian-Polish town of Darbenai (then part of Russia). His father was a Torah scholar and teacher, and Wolffsohn, too, was learning in yeshiva with the same goal in mind. In his teens, he was sent to live with relatives in Germany to avoid being conscripted to the Russian army. There, he met the rabbi, philosopher, and early Zionist leader Isaac Rülf, and became his devoted disciple. Meanwhile, Wolffsohn took up secular studies and went on to apprentice at a trading company. In 1877, he started his own flouring business, and was soon one of the most prominent Jewish businessmen in Europe. Henceforth, he dedicated his life to realizing that ancient dream of his people’s return to Israel. He played a key role within the Hovevei Zion movement, and in 1894 was a cofounder of the Society for the Promotion and Support of Jewish Agriculture in Syria and Palestine. When Herzl’s The Jewish State was published two years later, Wolffsohn immediately journeyed to Vienna to meet him. The two became very close and traveled the Holy Land together, setting the foundations for what would become the State of Israel. Not surprisingly, when the World Zionist Congress was founded, Herzl was made its president and Wolffsohn its vice-president. Upon Herzl’s death shortly after, Wolffsohn succeeded him. As president, he was instrumental in reinvigorating Jewish life in the Holy Land (among other things, it was under his tenure that the city of Tel-Aviv was founded). However, Wolffsohn is most famous for being the one who created the flag of modern Israel. Back in 1896, Herzl had written: “We have no flag, and we need one. If we desire to lead many men, we must raise a symbol above their heads. I would suggest a white flag, with seven golden stars…” Herzl’s proposal was good, but his flag gained little support. Wolffsohn responded to Herzl thus: “We have a flag—and it is blue and white. The talit with which we wrap ourselves when we pray: that is our symbol. Let us take this talit from its bag and unroll it before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all nations…” Wolffsohn designed a simple flag with blue talit-like stripes and a star of David in the centre. The flag caught on quickly, and the rest is history.

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Words of the Week

What is the meaning of human life, or, for that matter, of the life of any creature? To know an answer to this question means to be religious. You ask: Does it make any sense, then, to pose this question? I answer: The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unhappy but hardly fit for life…
– Albert Einstein

The traditional design of the talit inspired the modern flag of Israel.

Jew of the Week: Mordechai

‘The Triumph of Mordechai’ by Pieter Lastman (1624)

Mordechai “Bilshan” ben Yair (c. 5th century BCE) was a Jewish official in the court of the Persian King Xerxes (Ahashverosh). He raised his orphan cousin Esther, who subsequently became the queen of Persia. Mordechai famously refused to bow down to the evil genocidal minister Haman, who sought to deify himself as a god. Thanks to Mordechai’s previous foiling of a plot to overthrow the king, Haman was unable to take revenge on him. Instead, Haman himself was hanged on the gallows he had made for Mordechai, and Haman’s plot to exterminate the Jews was averted. Mordechai was elected to replace Haman as minister. He and Esther instituted the holiday of Purim to commemorate the miraculous victory, and wrote its history in the Scroll of Esther. (Establishing a new holiday was no easy feat, and was one of the great debates of its day, with significant implications for the future of Judaism.) The Talmud states that Mordechai was a prophet, and ultimately returned to Israel, helping to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and re-establish Jewish life in the Holy Land following the Babylonian Captivity. He is sometimes identified with the prophet Malachi, and is called “Bilshan” because he was a ba’al lashon, a speaker of many languages (seventy languages, according to several sources). He ended his life as a member of the Knesset haGedolah, the Great Assembly which composed the first formal texts of Jewish prayer and compiled the Holy Scriptures to produce the first official Tanakh. Happy Purim!

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Words of the Week

The people which faithfully honoured for 2500 years the oath sworn by the Rivers of Babylon not to forget Jerusalem – this people will never reconcile itself with separation from Jerusalem… For the State of Israel there has always been, and always will be, one capital only – Jerusalem the eternal.
– David Ben-Gurion