New Israeli Banknotes Let the Ashkenazi-Sephardi Genie Out the Bottle, Again

Bank of Israel presents new set of bills that will feature the likenesses of famous Hebrew poets, amid criticism that they lack Sephardi and Arab figures; Netanyahu: We will have Sephardi poet on next bills.

Moti Bassok
Moti Bassok
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Moti Bassok
Moti Bassok

The cabinet approved on Sunday a new series of banknotes to be produced by the Bank of Israel, following protests that women and Mizrahim − Jews of Middle Eastern descent − continue to be absent or underrepresented as figures on Israel’s currency.

Of the four poets to appear on the new banknotes, due out by the end of the year, two are women − Rachel ‏(Blobstein‏) and Leah Goldberg. Nathan Alterman and Shaul Tchernichovsky will also appear. No Sephardic or Mizrahi figures were chosen for this new series.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the criticism at Sunday's cabinet meeting, suggesting that the next figure to appear on an Israeli banknote be Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, the Spanish-Jewish poet and philosopher. But his declaration is unlikely to come to fruition, as the Bank of Israel governor is responsible for the design and production of currency, and no more new banknotes are expected to be issued for the next decade.

Sunday's approval drew scathing criticism from Shas MK Aryeh Deri, who on Friday had called on the cabinet not to approve the new issue.

“This morning’s approval is a symptom of the government’s behavior toward the Mizrahi public,” Deri said. “Mizrahim are excluded from the Supreme Court, academia, the media, the Israel Prize, the current government, and now it’s reached our banknotes. A banknote with a Mizrahi portrait isn’t worth any less. We will not make do with declarations and promises. We will battle discrimination with all the tools at my disposal.”

Of the 16 figures to have previously appeared on Israeli banknotes over the years, only two were women − former Prime Minister Golda Meir and Hadassah Women’s Organization founder Henrietta Szold. Only one − the Rambam ‏(Maimonides‏) − could be firmly construed as representing the Sephardi/Mizrahi community, although one could make a case for British-Jewish philanthropist Moses Montefiore, who had Sephardic ancestry.

However, all the others were Ashkenazi. Rounding out the list are the state’s visionary, Theodor Herzl; first President Chaim Weizmann; second President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi; third President Zalman Shazar; former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion; former Prime Minister Moshe Sharett; former Prime Minister Levi Eshkol; Nobel Prize-winning writer S.Y. Agnon; Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky; Baron Edmond de Rothschild; physicist Albert Einstein and poet Haim Nahman Bialik.

The newly approved banknotes have been assigned as follows: Rachel will be gracing the NIS 20 bill, while Leah Goldberg will appear on the NIS 100 note. Alterman will be on the NIS 200 banknote, while the NIS 50 bill will bear Tchernichovsky’s portrait. These assignments were made based on the person’s date of death; the earlier the person died, the lower the denomination of their bill.

No Arab has ever appeared on an Israeli banknote and this won’t be changing with the new set, a fact that did not pass unnoticed.

“During the public debate on whether to put a Mizrahi portrait on the new banknotes, we didn’t see even a hint of intent to put a non-Jew on the bills,” complained MK Issawi Freij ‏(Meretz‏). “Sixty-five years have passed since the state was founded, and the Arab public still isn’t considered a part of it, not in its symbols nor in its substance.”

“I welcome the plan to memorialize intellectuals like the poetess Rachel on the banknotes, but Israeli writer Emile Habibi is more than worthy of being found at the side of women of letters like her,” Freij said.

The new banknotes’ design was determined by a committee headed by former Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel. Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer accepted the panel’s recommendations with no objections.

Turkel Sunday attacked the critics.

“I’m not belittling anyone − some of our greatest men of the spirit came from Spain, but this obsession is silly,” Turkel told Ynet. “I can’t even define what I am, since my ancestors were exiled from Spain to Turkey and from there to Galicia [Poland] 500 years ago. It seems pretty insignificant to me, but maybe there are people for whom this is important.”

Currency wars are far from new. During the Mandate period, the British deliberated the issue and in the end, to avoid disputes, they made do with drawings of famous places in Eretz Israel. “That’s how they were able to maintain balance,” says Dr. Yair Wallach, who has researched the subject.

The first banknotes issued after the state was founded had generic figures on them, such as a fisherman, a scientist and a female farmer. It was only later that famous figures began to appear.

“It’s no coincidence that there are no Mizrahi or Arab figures. The banknote always transmits a message the state wants to convey,” Wallach says.

A screen shot of the new banknotes taken from Facebook. Credit: Facebook
The poet Rachel.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

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