what about that star, anyway?

about the “star of david” / “magen david” as a jewish symbol…

tl;dr: yes, the idea that it is an old or universal jewish emblem was completely fabricated by the zionist movement in the 20th century.

after a conversation with a friend & comrade about the chicago dyke march drama of this summer, i finally tracked down the essay i vaguely remembered about the history of the six-pointed star as a jewish symbol. it’s by gershom scholem, the great historian of jewish mysticism, religion, and symbology (and a zionist liberal who rejected his family’s secular leftism). it was written for the right-wing u.s. jewish magazine Commentary in 1949 and later expanded into a book. i’m going to try to track down a copy of the longer version, but nothing i’ve seen about it gives any hint that the basic story it tells is different from what’s in the essay.

so here, summarized from scholem’s “The Curious History of the Six-Pointed Star”, is the story of the invention of a symbol…

scholem’s conclusion from all of this: “The upshot of the matter is this: in the very days of its greatest popularity the Shield of David was a meaningless symbol of Judaism; and the Judaism of those days, in turn, tended to be meaningless.”

the zionism movement adopted the six-pointed star as a symbol in 1897, scholem says, precisely because it was newly popular and basically meaningless: “the symbol did not arouse memories of the past: it could be filled with hope for the future.” its “wide diffusion during the previous century… had made it known” widely among the german-speaking central european jews who were the original zionist constituency (and to some degree among the yiddish-speaking eastern european jews who they hoped to recruit as foot-soldiers), and yet “it was not explicitly identified with a religious association” or any other specific meaning.

ultimately, though, scholem sees the rise of the six-pointed star as a jewish symbol as less a triumph of herzl than of hitler. “even Zionism did not do so much to confer the sacredness of a true symbol on the Shield of David as did that mad dictator who made of it a badge of shame for millions of our people,” he concludes, interpreting the history through the jewish mystical idea that holiness can found through a descent into evil (the idea at the heart of the eybeschuetz controversy 300 years ago). but scholem begs the question of what is it that has been made holy: a jewish symbol or a zionist one? if, as he so persuasively shows, only its zionist use made the six-pointed star mean anything before the 1930s, it is nothing more than another example of the zionist movement using the deaths of the six million to lend legitimacy to its pre-existing agenda.

so there it is. the six-pointed star was never a specifically jewish thing outside one small slice of the germanized ashkenazi world until right before the zionists started to promote it, and never widely used outside of europe until afterwards. it never had any specific jewish symbolic content anywhere. it was never a unifying or general jewish symbol in any way.

in other words: yes, according to its history, the six-pointed star is pretty purely a zionist symbol, and any claims otherwise are the usual zionist attempts to rewrite the past.

what that means right now, though, after nearly a century of zionist control of almost all jewish education and most other jewish community organizations, is a lot fuzzier. most folks (jewish and not) have never encountered any jewish culture or symbols of any kind except through a zionist lens. until we create some new ones, or re-energize older ones that can be recaptured from the uses zionism has made of them (the seven-branched menorah? the lion?), folks are going to keep using the six-pointed star to mean jewishness as well as zionism, and we’re going to have to figure out what they mean as best we can based on what else they say, who they are, and what else we know about them. just like the chicago dyke march organizers did.

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