Real Israel: People of note

When it comes to printing money, you can bank on there being a controversy.

Money Shekels bills 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Money Shekels bills 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Money doesn’t grow on trees; it is born in committee meetings. And that’s just one more place where people argue over making money.
The official announcement last month was simple enough: “The Governor of the Bank of Israel, Professor Stanley Fischer, has informed the Committee for the Planning of Banknotes, Coins and Commemorative Coins, headed by Judge Yaacov Turkel, that he has chosen four personalities – to be submitted for government approval – to appear on the planned new series of banknotes.
“After a long process of consultation and discussions between the Committee and the Governor, the Governor decided to incorporate two aspects of Israel’s history – the political and the cultural – by depicting two politicians who signed peace agreements with Israel’s neighbors, and two outstanding people in the fields of literature and poetry.
“The Governor said that it was of historical importance, in particular for future generations, to denote the leaders of the nation and the characters chosen convey an important lesson in Israel’s heritage. The Governor thanked the members of the Committee, chaired by Judge Turkel, for the time they devoted to this matter and for their recommendations.”
The personalities are Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, S.Y. (Shmuel Yosef) Agnon and Rachel the poetess.
And that’s where the issue of the money started getting dirty.
Yediot Aharonot’s Gad Lior followed the $64 million question in detail: Why them? Why now? The wording of the press release says a lot: “Fischer has informed the Committee for the Planning of Banknotes, Coins and Commemorative Coins, headed by Judge Yaacov Turkel...” You might have thought, noted Lior, that it would be the other way round: The committee, which has held serious discussions on the subject for more than a year and a half, is generally expected to make the decision and inform the governor of the Bank of Israel – especially as Fischer’s proposals are opposed by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, who had already rejected one set of the panel’s suggestions, because he objects to politicians appearing on the country’s banknotes.
In this case, time really is money, and the committee feels that a lot of its work, time and you-know-what has been wasted. Turkel, in case you need a reminder, is busy with several other committees, not least of them the investigation into the Gaza flotilla affair. Floating money should be the least of his concerns.
In a sort of buy-one-get-one-free move, Fischer’s recommendations include two figures in particular who have raised eyebrows (and even hackles). Over the years, the idea of printing Menachem Begin’s image on the country’s currency has been raised more than once, and the family has consistently objected to having the modest late prime minister being thrown around on banknotes – giving, perhaps, a new twist to the phrase “the unacceptable face of capitalism.”
And Agnon seems to be getting more than his money’s worth. The Nobel laureate for literature has already appeared twice on the country’s banknotes. If money really could talk, surely it would be crying out that there are other literary figures worth their weight in gold (or at least the paper they are printed on). The committee reportedly considered, for example, Nathan Alterman and Shaul Tchernichowsky.
And you don’t have to be a die-hard feminist to believe that there is more than one worthy woman who could be included in the new series of notes. Much valued writer Leah Goldberg sprang to the minds of many.
Was this a case of having more money than sense? Ultimately, the decision added up to yet another controversy in which various commentators put their mouths where the money is. Talk, after all, is cheap.
Given the discussions about the latest proposals, I dread to think what would happen were the country to adopt the motto “In God we trust” on its coins and notes. You can bet your bottom dollar that the religious would point out that the paper would need to be treated with a great deal more respect (and end its days in a geniza rather than the Bank of Israel shredder), while the secular would tear the very phrase to pieces.
And using the president’s image as a figurehead would be a particularly sore point at the moment, in view of the Katsav case – would the bank be forced to recall countless notes and coins following his personal devaluation?
PLACING POLITICIANS on currency is always problematic; very few are consensus figures, and you can bank on someone objecting.
Politicians are never given this honor in their own lifetimes, which is probably fortunate as the choice among, for example, Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni might provide more entertainment value than value for money. And what would be the fate of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, whose ongoing trials for corruption might give the phrase “dirty money” another connotation? There’s no such thing as easy money when it comes to commemoration. We’d all be better off were we to let the personalities of the past take their money with them (at least in the metaphorical sense) and print money – like stamps – with readily approved images such as local birds, flowers, trees and animals.
Whatever characters the government, governor and committee finally decide on, may this be a year in which we laugh all the way to the bank, for all the right reasons.