Symbols of Oppression – The Yellow Star of David

12524093_211472245861532_1949531427549630620_nPlease remember when reading this, that as a Historian, my efforts to recount the past are done objectively. However in matters such as these which lay close to my heart, I cannot help but to allow a little of my own feelings into such topics. You must forgive me for this, but I find it difficult to separate my own emotions when such issues are discussed. It is what makes me human. You may not agree with my views, but I would ask that you respect them when commenting.

I started off this controversial series with a look at the battle flag of the Confederate army, now widely and ambiguously known as the Confederate flag. Over time, to some, it has become a negative symbol, closely associated with oppression, slavery and so forth rather than the flag of the opposition to the Union and a symbol of the struggle for the independence and the fight for the perceived rights of the 13 states of secession. Many have now moved to recognise the negative connotations the symbol now represents, particularly to black citizens, and have removed the flags from their government buildings and so forth. Whilst I stand by my original point, that the Civil war was not about a flag, when all is said and done, the Confederacy lost the war and the states rejoined the Union.

I heartily feel that the time has long been, where a united America should stand together under one flag. In reality, there are no confederate states remaining in America, so continuing to promote the symbol only serves to be divisive. This is repeatedly confirmed when hate-mongers continue to use the flag and what they believe it represents in a modern context to validate race crimes. Having said that, it is also time for certain parties to accept that this history happened, and removing flags and statues, sweeping history under a carpet is not going to change that. Above all, work together to reinforce what the true lesson of the time was, and what has been learned from it.

I’m going to continue on a similar theme with part two of my series, again a highly contentious emblem of intolerance for many, and yet at the same time embraced by others of the same culture; the star of David or to give it the more historically accurate names, the Hexagram, the Shield of David or the Magen David.

The Shield of David has its roots in many places. Not specifically a symbol reserved for Judaism, examples can be found in early Christianity, Islam and indeed Egyptian writings. The earliest uses of the symbol date back to the 6thC BCE in ancient Israel where it was used on a seal. The symbol can also be found dated to around the 4th/5th century on the Capernaum synagogue wall frieze, along with that of the swastika, another ancient symbol. The Hexagram is arguably linked to similar pre-Christian depictions of for example the Pentagram, which is argued to have its roots in ancient paganism, representing as the Hexagram, an upturned arrow/triangle as a symbol of female, and a downturned triangle/arrow for the male. In the Pentagram, there is often a circle surrounding the star, denoting the circle of life. In Christianity this is argued to represent the crown of thorns thrust upon the head of Jesus at his crucifixion. In many representations of the Hexagram, the triangles are facing each other “back to back” as two separate bodies, rather than intertwined as a star.

The star therefore was considered a generic symbol rather that one associated with the Jewish faith, which found its major representative symbol with the Menorah. It was not until the 18th century that we first see clear signs of the adoption of the shield of David as the star, in association with Judaism. Medieval Jewish texts refer to a magical shield owned by David to protect him from evil. The shield of David in early times has been argued to not be a physical symbol, but a reference to God and his protection of King David. Some have theorised that the Hexagram has its roots in Messianic traditions because of its connection with Jesus being of the House of David. In its role as the Seal of Solomon which arguably has its roots in Kabbalah in the 6th Century CE, the Hexagram is associated with the Tetragrammaton, a four lettered sacred name for God, replaced by the pointed star, either a Hexagram or Pentagram, on the magical signet ring worn by Solomon again to ward off evil spirits and demons. This star was known as the Seal of Solomon.7386_211473189194771_1476012901705628110_n

In 1354, Emperor Charles IV proclaimed the Jews of Prague be allowed to fly their own flag on state occasions, they, led by the prominent Foa family, of Prague, Italy and Holland chose a Jewish printer’s mark, or heraldic theme of a six pointed star in the centre of their banner. A similar flag can still be seen flying at the Altneuschul synagogue in Prague. By the 17th C, the symbol had spread across parts of Europe and was seen eventually to be claimed by Judaism in general by its depiction on a boundary wall separating the Jewish quarter of Vienna from the Christian area of the city. The stone had a Hexagram on one side, and a cross on the other. In the 18th C following the French revolution and the emancipation of Jews, they strove to find a new symbol representative of their people and faith in the same way that their Christian neighbours had the symbol of the Cross. They chose the six-pointed star, a heraldic symbol which satisfied the taste of the non-Jewish architects of the synagogues. As a secular symbol, it was embraced by the religious Jews of Europe and the Middle East as a symbol of enlightenment from their brothers, despite its lack of religious significance, and an extension of the familiar Hexagram. The Zionist movement in 1897 further promoted the symbol as the Star of David, specifically because of its lack of religious connections, and it was later adopted by the state of Israel.

Now we come to the contentious bit….. the Nazi rise to power, and the negative connotations of the Star of David symbol.
It’s the 1930s and Adolf Hitler has secured power in Germany. Pretty soon he is flexing his muscles in the face of neighbouring areas of Europe, Czechoslovakia, Poland, France and so on. As he invaded and “conquered” each nation, slowly the rights of their Jewish citizens were eroded. Starting with Germany, anti-Semitic feeling was fostered and encouraged, followed by the systematic dismantling of everything that German citizens of Jewish faith or ancestry held as a right. Their businesses were confiscated, employment terminated, education barred in mainstream schools. Positions of authority, classically held by Jews, teachers, lawyers, doctors were slowly withdrawn. It became punishable to trade with Jews, or for them to enter certain areas of the cities, parks and cafes. They were forbidden to drink from the same fountains as their non-Jewish peers. Synagogues were targeted, religious texts burned, property vandalized and destroyed. Their houses, often quite respectable properties in desirable areas, were requisitioned for non-Jewish citizens and they were forcibly relocated to over-crowded slums, ghettoized and barricaded in. Permits were required to enable them to leave these slums, mainly for reasons of employment as menial labourers. Food was scarce; Jews began to starve to death, their bodies piling up in the street.

But the most humiliating law passed for the Jewish communities stated that they were from henceforth to wear a yellow star of David sewn on both the front and back of their outer clothes. This symbolic identification served to highlight them as “different” and “Inferior” and helped segregate them from their former friends and colleagues. Many refused to adhere to the law; punishment was severe. As each new nation was swallowed by the Nazi war machine, its Jewish residents were forced to adopt a similar badge. Some included the word “Jew” to the centre of the star; colours varied. The one nation who managed to exempt themselves from this order was Denmark, who refused to comply with many of the orders issued by the Nazi regime. Danish Jews were woven deeply into Danish society and the citizens of Denmark fervently defended their Jewish friends and neighbours. A popular legend has arisen that King Gustav on hearing the decree, himself wore a yellow star, copied by many non-Jewish citizens, making the order moot, and the Jews indistinguishable. Nice story but sadly a myth. Jews forced into the camps of the Holocaust, continued to wear a star to identify them. Other groups were forced to wear similar identification codes.12438971_211472545861502_6004726233202322844_n

Following the end of the war, and the subsequent formation of the new state of Israel, the national flag was chosen as the blue Star of David on a sea of white. The star now officially represents the world Jewish community, many embracing the symbol as a sign of a victory in a way, a triumph over the persecutions and horrors their communities and families faced during the war, and indeed through time. But as for that yellow star of David with the word ‘Jude’; the symbol of shame…. Hitler claimed that Jews were in league with Communists, that they were planning to take over the world. That they were dangerous. And the people believed him, and they stood by and let it happen. And they gave them a star, to make it easy….

In 2015, there was a substantial uproar when American Presidential candidate Donald Trump publicly announced on the back of fears promoted by paranoia and propaganda that innocent people fleeing a similar persecution should be turned away, that all American Muslims should be forced to wear some sort of identification. They should be forced to register. They should be segregated and identifiable as different, as a threat. They should be walled in. In one of his rallies, a Muslim lady was removed amid cat-calls and jeers, from the audience and assisted from the stadium, for standing in silent protest at his previous remarks. On her chest she wore a yellow star with the word “human” written across the centre. On her exit she gave out several of these stars. There were subsequent condemnations from various members of the public, admonishing her action particularly the adoption of the star as offensive to the suffering, the memories, the experiences of Jews who lived through or died during the persecution and horror of the Holocaust.

I will leave you with this thought. Did the Jews feel pride when they were forced to wear a yellow star during the war? Are we right to claim that as ‘their symbol’ when for them it was a symbol of shame, of humiliation, of how they were seen as inferior, unworthy, sub-human? Are we missing the message that this lady was trying to send? In the words of Ruzzi Oppenheimer, survivor of Bergen-Belsen… “Here is my yellow star. I wore it because I had to. I keep it because I want to. It reminds me of what we went through, the hate we were subjected to from people who were supposed to be our friends, the loss we suffered and the evil that men can inflict on one another. It should never happen again. But it does.’

Phoebe