Israel is in the process of producing new designs for its paper currency. In the past, the bills have featured graphic images of prominent Zionist “heroes” like Herzl, Ben Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, Zalman Shazar, Zeev Jabotinsky, and Moshe Sharett. If you’ll notice, the choices were all Ashkenazi and almost all male (they threw a sop to women by including Golda Meir and Henrietta Szold). There have never been Mizrahi figures chosen, nor Israeli Palestinians.
UPDATE: There are two historical Sefardim featured on Israeli currency, Moses Montefiore and Maimonides. Though neither was known primarily, or recognized for their Mizrahi heritage.
In this decade’s revamping of the currency there will be a few new faces, though only a very few: Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and four poets. They are Shaul Tchernichovsky, Natan Alterman, Leah Goldberg and Rachel. The choice of the last two seems to offer a bone to feminists who might complain that the only previous women to grace an Israeli bill were women who succeeded in a man’s world: politics.
But the choice of Goldberg and Rachel to grace Israeli currency is, at best, ironic. If I can think of Israeli cultural figures less apt for this role I can’t think of many. These were poets, not bankers. Their lives revolved around art and culture, not commerce. Especially Rachel, whose poems were, like Emily Dickinson’s, simply, delicate, yet profound meditations of human identity and mortality.
The biggest scandal of this round of currency redesign is the exclusion of Mizrahi and Israeli Palestinian figures. Bibi Netanyahu has volunteered to rectify the omission of Jews from Arab lands by adding Yehuda HaLevi into the mix. The only problem is that he lived centuries ago. One wonders why Bibi couldn’t find a more contemporary figure to honor.
As for Israeli Palestinians, I’m afraid they go home empty-handed. There is no thought from on high that it might be suitable to honor a leader from a community which comprises 20% of Israel’s overall population. It would violate the far-right ideological notion of Jewish purity to include a non-Jew among the ranks of the honorees.
So the next time you hear a liberal Zionist or other pro-Israel apologist tout the Only Democracy in the Middle East, you might ask why Israel is so frightened of including an Arab face on its currency. In order to get the ball rolling, I have a suggestion for a beautiful, soulful image to include on Israel’s currency. It features the faces of a tired, bearded old man and his pensive, comforting grand-daughter who’ve been driven from their home during the Nakba. I think that’s perfectly suitable for provoking reflection among Israelis pursuing their everyday life, to have to see such an image every time they engage in a commercial transaction. After all, what is Israel’s real currency, as far as its Palestinian citizens, except dispossession and injustice?
UPDATE I: While U.S. paper currrency only includes presidents, who have so far only been white males, U.S. coins feature numerous historical figures of women, African-Americans and Native Americans.
H/t Ira Glunts.