Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: Currencies of Ukraine and Israel— Part 1 Historical parallels

Banknotes and coins are not only means of payment, they are also a symbol of sovereignty.

This is a story about two currencies, two countries, and two peoples with a long and closely intertwined history. The hyrnvia, currency of Ukraine and the shekel, currency of Israel. This is the story of how both of these countries have honoured the other with their respective currencies.

Nothing confirms sovereign statehood like its own unique, identifiable and stable currency. And arguably, no two countries know this better than Ukraine and Israel.

One of the biggest challenges of any new state is being taken seriously on the world stage as a sovereign political entity with a viable economy. To that end, engaging in international trade is crucial. And for that to happen, a new state needs its own currency.

In 1991, shortly after the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, Ukraine suddenly found itself an independent state. After over 70 years of political and economic subordination, Ukraine was finally free of Kremlin control.

But taking control of its own affairs after centuries of foreign control would be no easy task. As a new state, Ukraine found itself stuck with the Soviet ruble as its currency. This situation—using the currency of another country—was not conducive to creating the impression of sovereignty, nor economic strength and stability. So creating its own currency became a high priority for the new Ukrainian state.

In 1948, after the Holocaust decimated the vast majority of European Jews, the Jewish people finally had their own state. And likewise, the new state of Israel found itself stuck with a foreign currency, the Palestine Pound. At the end of World War I, the Ottoman empire conceded Palestine and Transjordan—which at the end of the war were undeveloped, poor, and sparsely populated—to the Allied Forces.

The League of Nations, the forerunner of today’s United Nations, created the British Mandate of Palestine for the British administration of these territories. The Ottoman empire had no official name for these lands. So the Allies chose the term Palestine, which dates back to ancient times. In the second century the Roman empire had crushed a Jewish revolt and recaptured Jerusalem and Judea. They renamed the area of Judea as Palestine in an attempt to minimize Jewish identification with the land of Israel.

With the creation of the new state of Israel in 1948, the British Mandate of Palestine came to an end. But, nonetheless, Israel was stuck with the Palestine pound as its currency. So creating its own currency became a high priority for the new Jewish state.

It took a few years for both states to create and establish their own currencies, but in both cases, the process began almost immediately. In Ukraine, a temporary currency, the karbovanets, was created and by November of 1992 had replaced the Soviet ruble and was sole legal tender in Ukraine. In 1996, the hrynvia was introduced as Ukraine’s national currency, when past president Victor Yushchenko was chairman of the National Bank of Ukraine.

Work to design the hrynvia had, however, begun much earlier and under secrecy. The first banknotes were printed outside the country, in Canada and the UK. The one hryvnia banknotes were printed by the Canadian Bank Note Company in 1992 , and the two, five and ten hryvnia banknotes in 1994. The banknotes were stored in Canada until they were put into circulation two years later.

Israel’s currency also involved secrecy. Planning for it began before the state of Israel was yet established, or named. This was a tricky situation, as no reputable foreign firm was interested in printing banknotes for a non-existent state. Eventually, however, the American Banknote Company of New York was persuaded to print them, but without indication that they were legal tender.

When the banknotes were ordered, no one yet knew what the name of the new state would be, let alone its currency. It was therefore decided to print “Palestine Pound” on the notes, the currency of the mandate. The banknotes reached Israel secretly in July 1948. On August 17 the government passed a law declaring the notes legal tender, and they were put into circulation on the following day.

In 1952, the Israeli Pound, or Lira, was introduced to replace the Palestinian pound. From then onwards, a debate raged over the non-Hebrew name of the currency. This resulted in a law in 1969 ordering the currency to be replaced by the Shekel. It was finally introduced in 1980, after two years of planning in complete secrecy. After a period of hyperinflation, the Shekel was replaced by the much more stable Israeli New Shekel in 1986. Despite some talk of another change in 2013, The Israeli New Shekel remains the country’s monetary unit.

The names of both these currencies … the Ukrainian hryvnia and Israeli New Shekel … have ancient roots.

The hryvnia is named after the currency used in medieval Kievan Rus’ called the grivnia, which means mane. It might have indicated something valuable worn around the neck, usually made of silver or gold. Later, the word was used to describe silver or gold ingots of a certain weight.

Today, the standard English name for Ukraine’s currency is hryvnia. And the National Bank of Ukraine has recommended that a distinction be made between hryvnia and grívna in both historical and practical means.

The shekel’s roots are even older. The shekel was an ancient Near Eastern unit of weight and is mentioned in the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. It was first a currency in ancient Tyre and ancient Carthage and then in ancient Israel under the Maccabees.

The modern state of Israel was created and built by Jewish settlers who came mainly from Eastern Europe, many from the territories of modern-day Ukraine. This modern exodus dates back as far as a century ago, when many Jews fled oppression in both the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires.

Since the establishment of the state of Israel, European Jews continued to emigrate to their ancestral homeland, despite the many obstacles especially in the communist countries of Eastern Europe.

Several Jews from Ukrainian territories have been awarded one of Israel’s highest honors: their portraits depicted on the state’s banknotes and coins. And Ukraine has returned the favour. In recent years, the National Bank of Ukraine has issued dozens of commemorative coins on various topics. Several coins are dedicated to prominent Jewish writers and scientists who lived and worked in Ukraine, as well as religious buildings of Judaism in Ukraine.

And a century ago, Yiddish was used on Ukrainian currency in 1917–1920. So profound was the impact of Jews on Ukraine that Yiddish was one of three state languages on the paper currency of the Ukrainian People’s Republic — an attempt at independence from Russia that lasted four years until 1921.

In the next edition of Ukrainian Jewish Heritage, we’ll bring you the names of some of the distinguished and esteemed Ukrainians and Jews who grace the currencies of both countries.

I’m Pawlina, producer and host of Nash Holos Ukrainian Roots Radio. Until next time, Shalom!

-Written and Narrated by Pawlina

Ukrainian Jewish Heritage is brought to you by The Ukrainian Jewish Encounter based in Toronto, Ontario. To find out more visit their website (here) and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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One thought on “Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: Currencies of Ukraine and Israel— Part 1 Historical parallels

  • Excellent job with the Ukraine-Israel Banknote series!

    Part 1 helps illustrate the Jews connection to the land of Israel dating back well over 2,000 years. With attempts by many to erase history in Israel, Ukraine, Canada. and in the USA, creating a false alternative history, the information you provided in this series is invaluable!

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