Israel's New Shekel Bills Summon National Demon

When the Bank of Israel unveiled a new set of bills featuring Zionist poets - all of whom happen to be Ashkenazi - it unleashed ethnic resentments Israel thought it had long ago banished.

Asher Schechter
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In theory, at least, the presentation of new bills of Israeli currency is a joyous occasion. Like kids in a candy store, we're supposed to marvel at our new, shiny, more colorful shekel bills and honor the miscellaneous historical figures printed on them, before quickly getting used to the bills, putting them in our pockets and moving on – spending them as we go along. But every once in a while, the choice of what exactly to print on our banknotes touches a nerve. Suddenly, what should be a mundane event turns into a source of bitter controversy. Sometimes it can even awaken social demons from the past. And that's exactly what happened in Israel this week.

Quick recap for late joiners: Every 10 to 15 years, like every other central bank, the Bank of Israel issues a new set of bills to help prevent counterfeiting. As in many countries, these bills feature portraits of important political and cultural figures who played key roles in the history of Israel. Previous bills honored figures like former Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol and the Jewish scholar Maimonides. Figures on our current shekel notes include former Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, Nobel laureate author S. Y. Agnon and former President Zalman Shazar. This week, the Bank of Israel presented a new set of bills, to be printed from 2013 to 2014, featuring four famous Zionist poets: Rachel Bluwstein (20 shekels), Shaul Tchernichovsky (50 shekels), Leah Goldberg (100 shekels) and Nathan Alterman (200 shekels).

What's missing? Give up? Images of Sephardi (or Mizrahi) Jews, which in Israel means those of Middle Eastern or North African descent (not to mention Arabs, but that's a whole other story). All the new bills are of poets of Ashkenazi heritage – born in European countries, like Poland and Ukraine, or in Russia. Are there no Sephardic poets, or did the State of Israel not see fit to commemorate them? That's exactly the kind of question Israelis have been fighting over for the past week, since the presentation of the new bills caused a furor, fueled by comments from prominent Sephardi politicians, like ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, and several cultural figureheads of Sephardi origin.

This is by no means a purely academic debate. And it's not really about the bills either. The choices for the new bills caused a public outrage, because they touched one of the most sensitive nerves in Israel's history: the hegemony of Ashkenazi Jews in Israeli society until the great political coup of 1977, and in the eyes of many to this day. It's not just that Israel has never had a prime minister of Sephardi origin, or that Sephardi Jews were and are discriminated against when it comes to pay and promotions. It's also that Sephardi culture – which Jews brought with them to Israel from their home countries of Iran, Iraq, Morocco and elsewhere – was for many years ostracized, ridiculed and downright oppressed by the cultural elites. Even today, in an age where the most popular genre of Israeli music is Middle Eastern-influenced pop, known as "Mizrahi Music," Sephardi culture is in large part kept out of the Israeli canon. The issue of the new notes opened that old, festering cultural wound, which cuts deep into our the heart of our society.

This kind of ethnic divide is, of course, not without parallels in other countries. You won't see any African-Americans on American dollar bills or for that matter any Native Americans or other minorities. In the United States too, this is an embodiment of much bigger cultural and social gaps. In Israel, it has served as a reminder to many third-generation Sephardim that even in the year 2013, when they can supposedly rise to any position in the business or public sectors, their culture and heritage are not as respected as those of the Ashkenazi elite.

So they began to rebel. It was a cultural rebellion that was birthed by social media and quickly spread through the Internet and into the headlines. All this week, the Web was awash with suggestions and alternative designs for the new shekel bills that featured famous Sephardi poets, writers and singers. The web was also awash, of course, with parodies of the alternative bills, most of them mocking the protest and featuring stereotypical images of Sephardi Jews from movies and TV shows, especially stupid and coarse Sephardi Jews, commonly called "arsim." Café Gibraltar magazine featured examples of bills depicting famous Mizrahi poets and writers.

The whole thing spiraled fast into an online mini-race war. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to quell the uprising and suggested that the next set of bills, to be issued sometime in the 2020s, will feature the great Jewish-Spanish poet Yehuda Halevi (the fact that the only fitting Sephardi, in the eyes of Netanyahu, lived a thousand years ago tells us plenty about where we're at), but to no avail. Obviously, it didn't help when one of the members of the committee in charge of deciding who to put on the new bills said she didn't know of any Sephardi poets.

The sad part is we thought this was all behind us. We believed, or at least wanted to believe, that in 2013, ethnic heritage does not play a significant role in Israeli society. That the much-feared "ethnic demon," the nickname given to the occasional public reminder that Sephardi Jews still suffer from discrimination when it comes to education, employment, culture and politics, has been put to bed, never to be woken again.

We thought we had come a long way since the days of the Israeli Black Panthers movement, which in the 1970s set out to protest the humiliating treatment Sephardi immigrants received. Since the days of the Black Panthers, famously described by then-Prime Minister Golda Meir as "not nice," many Sephardi Jews have risen to the top of Israeli politics, culture and business. Singers of Sephardi origin, like Eyal Golan or Sarid Hadad, fill stadiums like no one else can. Politicians, like former Deputy Prime Ministers Silvan Shalom or Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, hold immense power and influence. Poets and writers, like Sami Michael, A. B. Yehoshua or Ronny Someck, are taught in high schools, have received multiple literary awards and are known all over the world. And billionaires like Libyan-born Yitzhak Tshuva have risen as far as possible from the development towns of old. Many other Sephardim married Ashkenazi men and women, thereby erasing whatever fictional line separated our cultures.

Or so we thought. The sad truth is that the old wounds of discrimination and condescension never healed. We still think in terms of Ashkenazi-Sephardi. We still divide our cultural tastes by a paradigm that says Mizrahi=low, Ashkenazi= high. We still carry the traumas of the past, and every so often, they find a way to manifest themselves. For instance, when Season 1 of the Israeli Big Brother reality series focused on the ethnic culture war between the notoriously crass Sephardi Bublil family and the Ashkenazi "Dead Friedmans," as the Bublils called them, ending in a tension-filled season finale showdown between the mild mannered but stuck up Cornfeld Friedman and the pushy patriarch Yossi Bublil. Or when Mizrahi activist and feminist Ortal Ben Dayan started, in the beginning of 2012, an online debate on the question "What is Ashkenazi to you?" which spun out of control and amassed more than 17 thousand comments, many of them racist in nature.  

The fact of the matter is ethnicity still plays a huge role in Israeli society. Silvan Shalom, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Shaul Mofaz, Amir Peretz or Aryeh Deri may hold influential posts in politics, but they have never reached the level of prime minister and have faced ridicule and scorn when declaring such ambitions. And while the likes of Eyal Golan or Sarit Hadad fill stadiums and are adored by hundreds of thousands – nay, millions – they are still treated as low-brow entertainers playing for a low-brow audience. And while people like Yitzhak Tshuva and indeed many others, have managed to forge a path for themselves in business and become incredibly rich, their individual successes masks years of discrimination and neglect that have impacted multitudes of Sephardi Jews destined for lives of poverty in development towns, especially in Israel's south.

You see, every country wants to believe it's progressive and egalitarian. Many Americans certainly felt this way, or at least attempted to, after Barack Obama was elected president. But the truth is that these deep-seated cultural scars take decades, perhaps even hundreds of years to truly heal, and they're never really gone anyway. Even as a distant memory, they have the power to debase us, to lower us to our most basic and crude forms of identity. Someday, perhaps, Israeli society will truly be able to put the ethnic demon behind it. But before it does, it will have to acknowledge the demon's existence and fight it with the only weapon it is not immune to. And the weapon is not ignorance.

The new 50-shekel bill featuring Shaul Tchernichovsky.
A screen shot of the new banknotes taken from Facebook. Credit: Facebook
Fictitious bills depicting famous Mizrahi cultural figures, devised by Café Gibraltar magazine in protest against exclusion of Sephardim from official banknotes.Credit: Cafe Gibraltar