By now, the six-pointed star feels inseparable from Jewish identity. So when presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump tweeted out an image of Hillary Clinton with the symbol emblazoned with text accusing her of being corrupt against a background of money last week, critics lambasted Trump for promoting anti-Semitic propaganda.
"The imagery is the classic trope of Jews and money implying that she's raising Jewish money, or something along those lines," Jonathan Greenblatt, the chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, tells CNN's Jeremy Diamond.
Trump's tweet may have originated from an anti-Semitic and white supremacist online message board, reports Anthony Smith for Mic. The campaign's social media director, Dan Scavino, released a statement on Monday evening that claimed the graphic was taken from an "anti-Hillary" Twitter user, not an anti-Semitic site. Greenblatt, however, says he frequently receives variations of the tweet from anti-Semites and white supremacists.
The six-pointed symbol is commonly referred to as the Star of David, a reference to the Biblical king and his legendary "shield." (There are more complicated interpretations of the symbol based on the beliefs of Jewish mystics, but you can read more about those here.) While the hexagram may have become the most common image symbolizing modern Jewish religion and heritage (see: the Israeli flag), the six-pointed star is far from the only or the oldest image of Judaism. For thousands of years, Jews typically used the menorah, a seven-armed ceremonial candelabrum, as a symbol of their faith, according to Haaretz’s Ronen Shnidman.
“Albeit no longer as popular a symbol as it once was, the menorah is still used as the official emblem of Israel and its various government entities, and it appears on the back of the 10-agorot coin,” Shnidman writes.
The earliest uses of the Star of David in Jewish culture had little to do with religion. According to historian Alec Mishory, the star was originally used by Jewish printers to mark their ancestry, decorate their books and to differentiate themselves from their competitors. It was during the 19th century, when European Jews became more integrated with Christian communities, that Jews began to use the star as a religious symbol.
“Jews needed a symbol of Judaism parallel to the cross, the universal symbol of Christianity. In particular, they wanted something to adorn the walls of the modern Jewish house of worship that would be symbolic like the cross,” Mishory wrote for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “This is why the Star of David became prominent in the [19th] century and why it was later used on ritual objects and in synagogues and eventually reached Poland and Russia.”
The star had become so ubiquitous that during the Holocaust, the Nazis tried to subvert its significance by forcing Jews to identify themselves by wearing variations on a yellow six-pointed star, intentionally designed to serve as a perversion of the Jewish symbol.
Unlike symbols such as the menorah and the Lion of Judah, the six-pointed star is not a unique image to Judaism. Other religions, including Hinduism, also use the shape as symbolic of the merging of spiritual elements such as the male and female and as God and humanity, Shnidman writes.
However, few groups are as closely tied to the six-pointed star as the Jewish community. The cultural emblem is so closely associated with Jewish identity that the Trump campaign's insistence that the shape is invoking a sheriff’s star strains credulity.