Star images are used as symbols of national identity. Starting with the American flag that is spangled with five-pointed stars, there are currently over 50 nation-states whose national flag features at least one such star. Some of these nations adopted this widespread symbol while under the influence of Soviet communism. Alexander Bogdanov's utopian novel in 1908 about communism in Mars is said to have inspired the red star symbol, but it is unlikely that the Soviets would come up with this copy of the American symbol unless there was civilizational unity about using the same five-pointed star as a symbol of governance.
Within this star system, Israel's unique status as a state that represents Jewish identity is accentuated with a differently shaped star. The Star of David, a hexagram, is commonly perceived as a traditional symbol of the Jewish people.
However, an examination of little heeded yet publicly available images suggests that in the 19th century an eight-pointed star had functioned as a systematic symbol of Judaism before the six-pointed star was introduced in its place.
A tale of two stars
National symbols like the Star of David are made by the directed assignment of meaning and distribution of information. The appeal to a people's tradition is sometimes presented through an act of framing, which misleadingly magnifies the historical role of a symbol. In the Star of David's case, it is popular to point out that the cover page of a Hebrew Bible from the 11th century, named the Leningrad Codex, shows that the six-pointed star was already used as a symbol of Jewish identity in the Middle Ages (while not noting the octagram that surrounds the hexagram in that drawing). Such a claim is misrepresentative because back then the hexagram was used in Jewish circles for decorative or mystical reasons in a similar fashion to how it was used in a variety of societies, and there is no knowledge of the hexagram being used as a national symbol for Jews at that period. In fact, there is evidence to show that just a few decades before Jews became organized politically under the label of Zionism, the hexagram was not the star that was used to symbolize Judaism.
Significantly, the eight-pointed star that preceded the six-pointed star was one that is favored by Muslims. Generally identified as the Rub el Hizb for its purpose in the Quran, this symbol has additional usages, such as being the Star of Oguzkhan in the Muslim-dominant post-Soviet states; the Al-Quds Star in a Muslim representation of Jerusalem; and a logo for the Cairo Metro in Egypt.
It is one thing to understand that the hexagram now known as the Star of David did not have to be a Jewish symbol, but it is quite another thing to learn that a differently shaped star, of Muslim association, was that symbol during a critical time for the organization of Jews toward a modernized identity. When looking at the original form of synagogues that were built in Europe between the late 1830s and the late 1850s, it is clear that an eight-pointed star was present in them and a six-pointed star was not. These synagogues were blueprinted in the foreign style of the Moorish Revival with an appearance that was uncharacteristically grandiose in comparison to the Jewish gathering houses at the time. Somehow, the Semper Synagogue in Dresden, the Leopoldstädter Tempel in Vienna and the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest were all devised to feature the octagram as a symbol. In addition, the effort to promote the eight-pointed star as a Jewish symbol is found in an illustration by Harper's Weekly in 1860 of a Bible cover that was designed on behalf of the Jewish Ladies of Canada.
What could be a good explanation for this?
Jewish nationalism in context
The impact that the Barbary Wars (1801-1815) had on global planning and the eventual demise of the Ottoman Empire is one of the most egregiously understudied aspects of modern history. Conflict between American and local interests on the North African coast in the early 19th century punctuated Ottoman rule's incompatibility with Anglo-American aspirations for overseas commerce. Only after this clash of governing styles became apparent did modernity begin to witness systematic organizations of national groups in the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East and North Africa. Despite this chronological perspective, scholars of the Ottoman collapse have been empowered to focus mainly on the significance of the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878), the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) and World War I (1914-1918), which indeed reached much higher levels of destruction but were plausibly outcomes of a deliberate process that had begun earlier. The Barbary Wars, whose causal relevance has been largely unpronounced in academia, gave Anglo-American leaders a view of what Napoleon Bonaparte saw on the ground in his Egypt-Syria Campaign (1798-1801).
During the Barbary Wars, the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews was established. A year after these wars, the American Society for Evangelizing the Jews began its operations and was later incorporated by New York legislature as the American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews. These organizations did not simply convert individual Jews to Christianity; rather, they sought to assimilate Judaism to Christian civilization. They outdid Bonaparte's effort to regulate a Jewish hierarchy in the quest to mobilize Jews from Europe to the biblical land of the Israelite kingdom. Christian beliefs were used as a justification for reorganizing Judaism, with emphasis on the doctrine of Jewish restoration.
One might hypothesize that the change in the Jewish symbol reflects a change that had occurred in Anglo-American planning for governance in the Ottoman domain. According to this hypothesis, the symbol looked like the Rub el Hizb when the thinking was to use the European Jews as a bridge between Christians and Muslims, with a kind of Judaism that would feature elements of both Christianity and Islam. Along these lines, it was thought that European Jews would be based in the eastern side of the Mediterranean and their coreligionists at the gateway in the Western Mediterranean would come under their influence for a similar effect. But when, in the 1860s, the thinking shifted toward replacing the Ottoman structure entirely with a system of seemingly independent nation-states, then the Jewish symbol became a six-pointed star.
Though already used by the United States government as a symbol in the Great Seal of the United States, the hexagram in its Jewish version was bound to be seen as a distinctive national symbol in the Middle East. As such, it marks the separating quality of a nation-state that would rouse the transformation of the region's tribes to national organizations by way of rivalry.
The star path not taken
In retrospect, the change of the Jewish symbol from the octagram to the hexagram is emblematic of an overall change to a violent path in Ottoman territories, with the Greek revolt serving as a prototype. On this path, people had to go through the rebellion of groups against the Ottoman state; through British or French educational colonialism and the resistance to it; and through the Cold War's imposition of proxy hostilities. Post-Ottoman nation-states may have been platforms for the advancement of governance, but they have done so by adopting a culture of intergroup conflict.
Conversely, the temporary display of the eight-pointed star as a Jewish symbol can be viewed as emblematic of a different vision for the Ottoman territories. Not only does it offer a glimpse of what could have been a more peaceful introduction of new governing standards, but also of what still could be the direction in which governance ought to go. It might be too early for Jews in Israel to loosen up their dependence on national identity, but, at the same time, it is not too late for them to open up more to a regional identity. In spite of the nation-state setting, their potential for connectivity with Muslims was, quite possibly, the original reason for the mobilization of Jews.
Even though the symbiosis between the Star of David and Jewish nationality has become solidified, there is still space for Jews to embrace a symbol that has a positive meaning from Morocco to Kazakhstan. That symbol of wide-ranging inclusivity could be the eight-pointed star, and, to this end, it would appropriately be recognized as the Star of Abraham.
* Ph.D, scholar of international politics