Giving Currency to a Typically Israeli Lyrical Atmosphere

Critics protested the absence of Mizrahi Jews on Israel's new banknotes, but little has been said about the design of the bills themselves. The winner of the Bank of Israel's design competition, Osnat Eshel, describes her approach to the challenge of putting poets on money.

The Bank of Israel’s decision to redesign the country's banknotes caused quite an uproar in the past few weeks. The images of poets, all of them Ashkenazi Jews, were chosen to grace the new currency, provoking justified protest against the disregard for the contribution of Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews to Israeli culture.

Facebook pages were filled with complaints and proposed alternatives, considerable radio and television airtime was dedicated to the issue. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weighed in, suggesting the visage of the 12th-century Sephardi philosopher-poet Yehuda Halevy for the next redesign.

But in all the commotion scant attention was paid to the actual design of the new bills: the work of Osnat Eshel, the young designer who won the Bank of Israel’s competition and a cash prize of NIS 150,000. More than 100 designs were submitted to the competition, which was judged anonymously.

"I was brought up with Hebrew poetry at home," Eshel says about the poets whose images appear on the new banknotes.

"My parents read me Lea Goldberg’s poem 'Mah Osot Ha'ayalot' (‘What Do the Does Do'),’ her story 'Dira Lehaskir' (‘A Flat to Let’) and so on. At home I also got to know the poems of Rachel and of Shaul Tchernichovsky, and my grandfather used to read me works by [Natan] Alterman."

Eshel, 34, graduated from the graphic design program of Jerusalem's Emunah College of Arts and Technology and earned a bachelor's degree in the humanities and social sciences from Israel's Open University. In her more than a decade as a graphic artist Eshel has designed coins, posters and medallions.

Her work has included a Memorial Day stamp, letter and envelope for the Defense Ministry, Israel Post stamps depicting local beaches and projects for Army Radio. Eshel has won many competitions, including one held by the European Union for a logo marking a decade of European-Mediterranean cooperation.

"I was privileged to study and work with the acclaimed typographer Zvi Narkiss, who designed the banknotes featuring images of Maimonides and Rothschild," Eshel says, and "with the great designer Meir Eshel (no relation), who is in charge of the design of the state's current stamps, coins and banknotes."

Eshel says her design for the bill featuring Tchernichovsky was inspired by his "Ho Artzi Moladati" ("Oh, My Land, My Homeland"), which includes the line "fragrance of orchards in the spring." Behind Tchernichovsky on the banknote are the leaves and fruit of a citrus tree; the back shows a detail from the capital of a Corinthian column, and a line from one of his poems.

About the design process Eshel says: "Before I began working on the design I researched each of the poets. I learned their characteristics, studied their personal histories and their relationship with the local culture. I read and listened to their poetry and found unique, fascinating dimensions in their writing and their personalities.

"The concept I chose was the creation of a lyrical atmosphere, an Israeli spirit with a touch of contemporary design," she says. "On the side where the image is, I combined images taken from nature that connect with the poet’s character and the content of his or her poems. The reverse of the banknote has a more general expression of the atmosphere, bordering on the abstract, which includes important content and shows the poets’ work as a kind of ‘background music.’"

Adlai Stock, the founder and creative director of the branding firm Adlai & Partners, also submitted designs for the new currency.

Weighing in on the winning design, he calls it "good but not excellent. It’s clear that it’s professional work done by an experienced designer who understands currency design. The design shows an awareness of current worldwide trends of clean lines and minimalist design and large-sized numbers. The reverse of the banknote is a bit reminiscent of the euro bills. The design is also contemporary in its choice of a single graphic element. The euro, for example, has an architectural one," Stock says.

But, he continues, "I feel the design doesn’t go as far as it might either the design angle or in its treatment of the content. The concept of the leaves containing the lines of poetry is a bit shallow and doesn’t reflect the greatness of the poets who were chosen. As a design solution, it also creates a single shallow plane."

Designer Nadav Barkan, who teaches in Shenkar College's Faculty of Visual Communications at, also feels the design could have been more avant-garde.

"Like the current series of banknotes, the new design is based on sharp color differentiation between the individual bills," he notes, but points out the "odd and confusing decision" to use the green of the current 20-shekel bill for the new 50-shekel note, a change he calls "unnecessary."

Continuing, Barkan calls the new design "pretty general and generic-looking, adding, "The choice in depicting the poets’ images could have led to a search for a more interesting and unique graphic language, particularly as far as the Hebrew letters are concerned. Since the ones being depicted are writers and artists, I would have expected to see something of their own unique character on the banknotes."

Why not Dana International?
Lior Lichtman, the deputy head of the Bank of Israel’s currency department, explains that new guidelines issued by the central bank to prevent confusion were behind the color shift.

"The dominant colors on the bills were chosen out of professional considerations and existing schools of thought on the matter. One rule was that the banknotes had to have clearly separate color schemes that would last as the series was used over time. The new green on the 50-shekel bill is completely different from the green on the current 20-shekel bill," Lichtman says.

"The change in the banknotes isn’t nearly as radical as the discourse around it," says Amit Trainin, head of the Visual Communication Department at Tel Aviv's Minshar for Art school.

"They look like they were always here, which is maybe good for the public but boring for designers. I would be glad to see a lot less focus on national symbols in the bombastic portrayals of the figures on the banknotes. How wonderful it would be to see drawings of friends meeting, a hike along a stream or small civil victories such as (the transgender singer) Dana International winning the Eurovision song competition. But if we’re going to have bombastic national symbols, better poor poets than rich generals."

About the design of the banknotes, Trainin praises "the hierarchy on the bills, which is very clear, and the design, which is very clean and sharp compared with some of the previous bills." He also likes how the denomination is shown in large numbers along the width of the banknote.

"It’s just a shame that the number itself isn’t written larger in Arabic as well, and that there wasn’t a very bold choice of font. The time has come to use a modern Hebrew font," Trainin says.

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