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A poet in your pocket: Modern Israeli money

New 50 NIS

Could you spare a couple of Tchernichovskys for a Goldberg?

New Israeli Currency:

If you were in Israel right now and needed to break a 100 New Israel Shekel bill, that question might not sound quite so absurd. As Israel ushers in a new batch of colourful new currency, it’s time to look back. The select few who have adorned Israeli bills represent their elite: presidents and prime ministers, rabbis and poets. And their portraits can be yours to hang on a wall or carry in your pocket. Israel’s modern currency tells the story of the evolution of the country by depicting its heroes and its symbols, new and old.

The Bank of Israel has put together a striking and well written English site about Israeli Notes and Coins. As the Bank explains, “Banknotes and coins are not only means of payment, they are also a symbol of sovereignty.” You get a concise, illustrated history of the evolution of money this century from the Palestine Pound and Prutot to Israeli Pounds and Agarot to the hyper-inflation which ushered in Shekalim and finally New Shekalim.

Every so often you come across a website that is not only thorough and entertaining but clearly a labour of love. Pinchas Bar-Zeev’s SHEQEL – The Online Catalog of Israel Numismatics 1927-present clearly falls in that category. It painstakingly illustrates coins dating back to the British Mandate through the New Shekel series.

 How would a resident of ancient Jerusalem feel if he could hold a handful of modern Israeli change? A sense of strange familiarity, I presume. Since the State of Israel was founded, its mint has always looked to the past for the designs and symbols to engrave onto its coins. The Jerusalem through Coins website does a great job illustrating ancient coins with grapes, pomegranates and of course, menorahs, alongside their modern counterparts. (Note: this page loads slowly and some images are missing.)

There are some fascinating anecdotes about Israeli history through its money. On the eve of the establishment of the country, banknotes could not be printed locally since the British Mandate had not yet expired. At the same time, foreign firms did not want to print money for a nonexistent state. Eventually, the American Banknote Company of New York agreed help. But in order to get approval from the U.S. State Department to print foreign banknotes, the notes could give no indication that they were “legal tender”. That phrase had to be printed onto the bills later.


When the notes were printed, the name of the new country hadn’t yet been decided, so the phrase “Palestine Pound” was used on the notes (as was the practice during the Mandate.) The banknotes reached the country secretly in July 1948 and went into circulation the following month. It wasn’t until the country was four years old that it had its own “Israel Pounds.”

Although many Israeli coins feature traditional motifs like menorahs or olive branches, that doesn’t mean you won’t find contemporary themes on them, too. Legal tender have been minted to mark the International Chess Olympiad, the First International Harp Competition, the Ingathering of the Exiles and not surprisingly, “The People of the Book.”

Many coins minted in Israel are not legal tender but have been created to honour a personality or an event. (If you have a Six Day War commemorative gathering dust on a bookshelf, you know what I mean.) The Israel Government Coins & Medals Corporation has released a Book of Psalms with a Shema Israel medal, medallions with the likeness of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, as well as reproductions of the works of Chagall and Manet.

As in most countries every few years, those honoured on old bills are replaced by new faces. (Good-bye and thanks Golda Meir, Shai Agnon and the Rambam.) As for whose images are introduced, things in Israel are never simple, are they? As planning was underway for the most recent set of bills, there was a behind-the-scenes feud whether the new bills should feature cultural figures or politicians like Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Yitzchak Rabin. The politicians won out but then Menachem Begin’s family balked because they did not want their father on a bill. That led to more wrangling and a decision to honour the country’s cultural icons: Rachel (Bluwstein) the Poetess, Shaul Tchernichovsky, Leah Goldberg and Natan Alterman.

All four bills are finally in circulation. Not only are they quite lovely but they’re chock full of high tech features to foil counterfeiters. As for the long-standing promise for the country to finally release a 500 New Israel Shekel bill, no such luck. That may be just a bit too much incentive for the forgers to try their hand at printing some bills of their own.

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