MKs decry lack of racial diversity on new shekels

Changes to currency include exclusively Ashkenazic Jewish poets; Bennett says he will insist Sephardic poet included.

New shekel notes 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Bank of Israel)
New shekel notes 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Bank of Israel)
The cabinet on Sunday approved two new Bank of Israel designs for shekel banknotes amid criticism that none of the four poets slated to grace the currency were Sephardi.
Prior the cabinet meeting, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett wrote on his Facebook profile that he will insist that a Sephardi poet be included on the new money, and posted a poem by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi: “My heart is in the East, but I am at the end of the West.”
“This poem was written in the Middle Ages, and expresses the endless longing of the Jewish people for the Land of Israel,” Bennett wrote.
The designs approved on Sunday featured poets Shaul Tchernichovsky, a two-time winner of the Bialik Prize for Literature, on a green NIS 50 note and Natan Alterman, an author, playwright, poet and newspaper columnist who won the 1968 Israel Prize for Literature, on a blue NIS 200 note. They will enter circulation later this year.
The personalities planned for the other notes, whose basic designs were also approved on Sunday and are expected to enter circulation in early 2014, are Rachel the Poetess, a leading poet in modern Hebrew whose works have been set to music, on a red NIS 20 note and Leah Goldberg, a poet, author, playwright, literary translator and researcher who translated War and Peace into Hebrew, on an orange NIS 100 note.
Responding to the criticism at the meeting, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu promised that a poet of Sephardi origin would appear on the next set of notes.
“I heard the criticism on the lack of Sephardi presence on the notes, and I agree that there was room and is room to bring representatives from the Sephardi community and other communities, and to include representatives of Sephardi poets in the next round,” he said, echoing Bennett’s call to feature Yehuda Halevi.
But further displeasure remained with the symbolic shortcoming on the national currency, as Meretz MK Esawi Freige lamented the lack of Arab poets on money.
“We haven’t seen even a hint of intention to put a non-Jewish image on money,” he said. “Sixty-five years have passed since the state was established, and the Arab public is still not considered part of it, not in its symbols or in more significant ways.”
While it is commendable to put poets on money, Freige added, Israeli-Arab writer Emile Habibi is more than worthy to be printed next to the others.
This controversy is not new. Originally, the new notes were to feature politicians, but an outcry that they neglected the country’s humanities changed that.
A subsequent list was nixed for lack of gender equality. When the government approved the list of poets drawn up by an independent committee in April 2011, it faced similar criticisms about lack of racial diversity.
The Bank of Israel said that updating the currency was important because it allowed them to add new technology to make counterfeiting more difficult. The new bills, for example, will all be different sizes, and the bank promises to reveal further details on the notes new security features in the coming months.
The current faces on Israeli currency, introduced 15 years ago, are former prime minister Moshe Sharett on the NIS 20 note; S.Y. Agnon on the NIS 50 note; and former presidents Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and Zalman Shazar on the NIS 100 and NIS 200 notes.
JTA contributed to this report.