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Ashkenazi-Sephardic Strife and Israel’s New Shekels

by Shmuel Rosner

May 1, 2013 | 8:05 am

Israel's new bank notes, photo: the Bank of Israel

You may have heard that Israel's Cabinet has authorized newly designed bank notes to be issued at the end of this year, despite criticism that the new bills feature only Ashkenazi Jews. The new green 50 shekel bill will feature famed poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, and the blue 200 shekel bill will have a portrait of Nathan Alterman on it.

Yesterday, I wrote an article for the IHT-NYT about this unnecessary (yet illuminating) controversy. You can read it in full here. Or just these few paragraphs:

Now the devil is appearing in the faces of our next shekels. The new bills are an unhelpful reminder that both early Zionism and early Israel were dominated by Ashkenazi Jews. One would be hard-pressed to find a 20th-century Sephardic poet of a stature comparable to those of the four who were selected.

Whether that’s because Sephardic poets were not as prolific, or because they didn’t get their fair chance at becoming prolific is a question for which there will never be an answer. Still, according to the economy and trade minister, Naftali Bennett, issuing new bills without representing Sephardics amounts to an unforced error. “There’s no reason to miss opportunities that could bridge that gap between different sectors,” Bennett said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to quiet the controversy by proposing as his first pick for future bills the great poet rabbi Yehuda Halevi. That’s a telling choice: To come up with the name of a sufficiently significant Sephardic poet, Netanyahu had to go back almost a millennia. And as it is, we’ll have to wait 10 or 15 years to see his face on any new shekels.

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