The 'shnekel' story

The fanfare, mystery and struggles of the two-shekel coin.

two shekel coin 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
two shekel coin 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The NIS 2 coin, the infant of Israeli legal tender, is celebrating its sixth month of life in July. The coin burst onto the scene in December 2007 to great fanfare. Israelis and tourists alike found themselves requesting change in two-shekel increments and reluctantly spending the NIS 2 piece whenever they were just two shekels short. The coin was even designed with special notches around its edges to be easily recognized by the blind. It also has a cultural following. On social networking Web site Facebook.com, a group was founded by two Israeli fans of the coin, with the mission to advocate using the name "shnekel" for the new coin - a snappy combination of the words shnayim (two) and shekel. Mordechai Fein, head of the Bank of Israel's Currency Department, said the shnekel had been invented because "it is better for the public." "Any transactions should be more efficient for the public and to all who use the coins," he said. "It will be easier for the public to carry fewer coins in their pocket." NIS 2 coins are slowly making their way into the marketplace, but the bank believes patience is the key. "It was launched in December 2007," Fein said. "The results until now [have been] so good - we've never had such results in a launch." He called it a "high-quality release," with more than 15 million shnekels on the market after six months. By comparison, the NIS 1 coin, released in 1991, currently has 367 million coins in circulation. However, there have been notable struggles in the young life of the shnekel. Israelis have found that their beloved shnekel is not usable in most parking meters, vending machines or laundry machines. Twice a year, the Bank of Israel organizes meetings with the largest vendors and machine importers in the county. Over the past year, they have discussed calibrating machines for the NIS 2 coin. "You can imagine that each calibration would cost money, and for each machine they need to pay between NIS 50 and NIS 100," Fein said. "These are [privately owned] machines. We have no authority to enforce people to update machines." When the Bank of Israel in July 2007 asked how much time vendors needed to calibrate the country's 100,000-plus machines, "all of them said half a year is enough," he said. Some even implied that the process would be well under way in two months. As things stand, that six-month window has passed. The vendors maintain that they didn't have enough time to calibrate machines, but have informed the Bank of Israel, without evidence of how or where it was done, that "more and more machines have been calibrated." Blame for the delay in calibrating machines has been passed from the Bank of Israel to the machine-importers, and finally to the machine-owners. Lior Lichtman, the head of the Bank of Israel's Issue Unit Currency Department, attributes the current problems to the vendors' unwillingness to invest the necessary money. "They have their customers, too," he said. "The importers were ready with the software, the hardware, everything, but their customers don't want to pay." One possible solution would be a subsidy to support the transition process. However, the bank stated that a subsidy was not a likely solution and had never been seriously discussed. The shnekel is truly shrouded in mystery. The public doesn't even know where the coins come from - that is, where they are minted. "We will not disclose where we mint the coins," said Fein. Coins have not been minted in Israel since the 1950s, when they realized it wasn't beneficial to do so. Why the secret? "Not everyone likes Israel," said Fein. "In the days of the intifada, the mints around the world that produced Israeli coins asked us not to disclose them because they faced demonstrations." "We still have mints that aren't very happy to work with us," Lichtman said. "It's also for security." So what's what fuss over the shnekel? "Let me tell you a secret," said Fein. "The 10-shekel [coin] isn't usable in the parking meters. If you put one in the machine, it will swallow it... People ignore that the 10-shekel coin is not accepted in vending machines." He said the shnekel has flourished, and will continue to flourish, in the confines of shops and grocery stores, adding: "Not everything in life is a vending machine." Using the new two-shekel coin is not rocket science, but apparently consumers may find its presence daunting, Fein said. "It's not magic," he said. "The public will learn how to use it. They will change habits." "Everyone needs to understand that this process takes time, but after six months, we are very happy with the results," he added.