The History of the Shekel

by Joseph Fraenkel


First Edition - 1952
Second Edition - 1956

Published by the United Shekel Committee and Central Election Board of Great Britain and Ireland

"First came the idea"-

and Herzl, in order to implement the plan outlined in his "Judenstaat", called for the first Zionist Congress which was held in Basle in August, 1897.

         Congress, the most outstanding Jewish event of the last century, initiated the history of modern Zionism and posed the "Jewish Question" as a political world problem. It formulated the Zionist programme, introduced the Shekel, and created the World Zionist Organisation which, after 50 years of activity, ultimately led to the establishment of the State of Israel.

         The first Zionist Congress was attended by "Representatives", but all the following 22 Congresses have been attended by elected delegates.

         Those who participated in the first Zionist Congress came together as "Representatives" of 117 Zionist bodies, student groups and Friendly Societies, and there were also prominent personalities who had received personal invitations either from Herzl or from the Organising Committee. A few distinguished "observers", who had not yet made up their minds whether to declare themselves as political Zionists, arrived in Basle, as well as several guests, among them wives accompanying their husbands. It can be assumed that the first Zionist Congress represented approximately 8,000 organised Zionists.

         The majority of the 117 Zionist bodies held special meetings to decide on their "representatives" for Basle. A student group which had 15 members in the year 1897 could appoint one or more representatives. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that anyone could have attended the first Congress. there were several people who were prepared to go to Basle at their own "expense", but this was declined, as only persons already known as Zionists were acceptable.

         In dealing with the question of organisation and the elections at Basle more than 100 issues arose, which were transferred to the Organising Committee for decision. Dr. Max Bodenheimer was the first to speak on these problems. Dr. O. Kokesch was the first head of the Organising Department, and Heinrich York-Steiner the first Chairman of the Organising Committee. Consideration was given to a suitable name for the contribution to be paid by persons who wished to become members of the Z.O. and to have the right to vote in the elections for the Congress delegates. Several suggestions were put foward, such as "contribution", "Chevra money", and "tax", but David Wolffsohn finally found the right word - "Shekel".

         The Bible narrative (Exod. xxx, 11-17), concerning the census taken of the Jews while in the desert, relates how everyone over 20 years of age was obliged to pay a certain amount - half a shekel - poor and rich alike. Indeed the rich not more, and the poor not less.

         When the Maccabeans liberated the country the Shekel was re-introduced as their coinage.

         Even after the destruction of Jerusalem the Shekel was still retained as a national symbol. When, for example, Mordecai Noah in the year 1825 published a Declaration to the Jews of the world, outlining his idea for creating a place of refuge in America (Grand Island) - in prepartion for the re-establishment of the Jewish State in Palestine - he, too, demanded from every Jew "3 shekalim" in order to realise his plan.

         In the whole history of Zionism the name of the English Chovevei-Zionist, Samuel Levy of Southsea, is never mentioned, yet he was the first to propose in 1890 combining the purchase of the shekel with the Congress. He advocated an Annual Congress based upon the introduction of the Biblical half-shekel as a "Poll tax" for all Jews. "This", he remarked in a letter to the Editor of the "Jewish Chronicle", "may appear an Utopia, but history has always taught us how much can be gained by a flame of genuine enthusiasm".

         This flame of enthusiasm dominating the first Zionist Congress in Basle, gave the Jewish people the Shekel once again, but with a new interpretation. The Zionist Shekel gradually democratised the whole of Jewish communal life. The Congress-Shekel "revolutionised" the Jewish masses, and in due course drove off the Shtadlanim, the self-styled leaders who spoke "in the name of the Jews". Thus for the first time democratic voting rights were introduced through the Shekel and those elected were obliged to account for their actions and activities.

         With the help of the Shekel, Herzl began to organise Jewry "for its approaching destiny". Every Zionist - whether poor of rich - had exactly the same rights and obligations. He could vote, be elected, was entitled to take part in discussions, to exercise control, and express confidence or suspicion. It was the Shekel, therefore, which helped the Zionist Organisation to become great and strong. And the Shekel owner gained knowledge of something quite new to him: Jewish Parliamentary procedure. Nearly every Minister in the Israeli government today learned his political A.B.C. and his knowledge of State leadership in Congress, and his tuition fee was the Shekel.

         The actual text of the decision of the 31st August, 1897, reads: "Every Zionist who wants the right to elect delegates to Congress, pays of his own accord an annual contribution of at least one Shekel for Zionist purposes. The amount is 1 franc - 1 shilling - 25 cents - half a gulden - 40 kopeks - 1 mark".

         For England it was at first decided to charge two shillings, and for America 50 cents, but the journalist Jaques Behar protested against this, declaring that when someone was poor he was poor in every respect. Both he and Dr. David Farbstein doubted whether the "Russian-Polish" Proletariat in England could afford to pay even two shillings for a Shekel. "Why should the poor English have to pay two shillings and the poor man from the Orient one franc only", asked Behar. It was not until after the first World War that the contribution of two shillings for a Shekel in England was decided upon.

         Each member of the Zionist Organisation, at the age of 18, acquired the active right to participate in the Congress elections, and at the age of 24 the right to be elected. A zionist group of one hundred Shekel-holders elected one delegate and, where the number of members exceeded a hundred, a further delegate could be elected for each additional hundred. Every Shekel-holder had one vote and the election was direct and secret. At first the Shekel-holder could be elected to represent more than one group with a maximum of "10 votes" at the Zionist Congress. But actually there was no such plural Congress voting. Even when a delegate was entitled to several mandates he only used one. The Third Congress (1899) decided that every delegate was entitled to accept up to "five mandates" but with one Congress vote only. Delegates elected several times could transfer mandates, but even this system was very soon discontinued.

         All Congresses dealt with the Shekel and with the election regulations, in the desire to formulate the best and the most equitable form of democracy within the Zionist Organisation.

         According to the Bible, women were exempted from payment of the Shekel. Yet Miss Marie Reinus fought successfully for emancipation and for equal rights for women at the First Congress, at a time when women of nearly all nations were still without franchise. Marie Reinus possessed a card as delegate and took part - in spite of protests - in the voting. The Second Congress (1898) confirmed categorically that women were entitled to a seat and have a vote at Congress. At the Third Congress (1899), Dr. Sigmund Werner proposed that the age of the purchaser should be entered on the Shekel in order ascertain the age of the voter and of those elected. "Women, of course", declared the gallant Werner, "are exempted from completing this item on the Shekel".

         Miss Marie Reinus made the first interjections at the First Congress. Mrs Rosie Ellman delivered the first speech "in the name of Women" at the Second Congress. At the same Congress Prof. S. Shapira was the first woman to become a member of a Committee. Prof. Gottheil was the first woman (Fifth Congress, 1901) to be appointed to the Congress Presidium, and Henrietta Szold (Fifteenth Congress, 1927) was elected a member of the Executive of the World Zionist Organisation. Today, Golda Myerson is a Minister in the Israel Government. The granting of equal rights for women has done much to add strength to the Zionist Organisation.

         The first experiments in organising the Zionists is reminiscent of the story of the Jews in the wilderness. The proposals made by Jethro to Moses (Exodus xviii, 21-22) were, to appoint "rulers over thousands, rulers over hundreds, rulers over fifties, rulers over tens". Each "ruler" was the leader of his group and was entitled to approach Moses direct with important questions.

         Zionists organised themselves into Societies. Several such Societies formed a District and the Districts combined into "Landsmannschaften" (today: Parties). The supreme legislative body of the Zionist Organisation is the congress which elects an executive (Smaller Actions Committee) and a Larger Actions Committee.

         Only elected delegates were allowed to take part in the sessions of the Congress.

         How did they elect delegates 50 years ago?

         The person in charge of the Shekel books who was at the same time responsible for the elections summoned a meeting of the voters in his Society. At that time, each Shekel booklet contained 25 Shekalim - it now contains 10. In cases where there were more than one person in charge of Shekel books, it was mutually decided upon who would act as convener and who as Chairman. The meeting of the voters elected, in addition, three assistants to the Chairman and a secretary. It was customary for the candidates to appear at such meetings and address those present. The voting then followed, the Shekel serving as the legitimation card. Ballot papers were used, although at one time a show of hands was the election method employed. An absolute majority was required, but in cases where there was no such majority a further vote was taken, and the one with the highest number of votes was duly elected. In the event of equal votes the decision was reached by casting lots. The records of the voting were then sent to Basle, where the votes were re-checked and, subject to being found in order and all Shekel fees paid, the elected person in due course received a delegate's Congress Credential.

         Instead of "holder of Shekel books" we have now a United Shekel Committee and instead of "one person in charge" we have a Central Election Board.

         At the Sixth Congress (1903) it was decided to increase the number of voters required to elect a delegate, to two hundred. As the Congresses since 1901 have assembled every two years, it was decided that "two such groups of two hundred each" would be required for a delegate. Following the First World War the number of Shekel-holders per delegate was increased to 5,000 at least. In order to vote, the Shekel had to be acquired both for the Congress year as well as the non-Congress year. After the twenty-second Congress (1946) the twenty-third Congress should have been held in Jerusalem in 1948. But because of the war of liberation and the conditions prevailing at that time in Israel, the Zionist General Council decided to postpone the Congress until 1951. It was then agreed to hold the Zionist Congress every three years.

         With the creation of political parties within the Zionist Movement, special Shekalim - "Federative Shekalim" - were introduced, such as the Country Shekel, the Mizrahi Shekel, the Poale Zion Shekel, etc. In 1921, after the twelfth Zionist Congress, the Zionist Executive in London took control of the "Federative Shekalim" and had them printed in various colours. In 1925, however, at the Fourteenth Congress, and as a result of the demands of the English delegation headed by Prof. S. Brodetsky, the "unified" or "united" Shekel was introduced once again, i.e., one kind of Shekel for Parties and Organisations all over the world. The distribution of the Shekalim was carried out by local Central Shekel Committees (United Shekel Committees), composed of representatives of the parties and/or of the lists, according to the results of the previous Congress elections.

         "The Golden Shekel" which was subsequently introduced and sold for at least 1 Pound has nothing in common with the Congress elections, and was in fact a form of donation.

         Protests have invariably been made against the conduct of various elections and the laxity in observing voting regulations. In consequence of these protests, the election system has steadily improved, and the observance of the many voting regulations has been strictly enforced. The aim was to establish a Congress which really reflected the wishes of the voters.

         At first, the Congress Bureau was the only authority entitled to issue Shekel books, printed on special paper with a distinctive watermark in order to avoid forgeries. The ballot papers were likewise distributed by the Congress Bureau and were the only ballot forms allowed.

         Shekalim could be sold to anyone identifying himself with the "Basle Programme", the text of which was reproduced on the back of the Shekel. Since 1933, however, the Shekel includes a regulation on discipline, i.e., the holder of the Shekel binds himself to observe the discipline of the Zionist Organisation in all Zionist matters. The right to vote depends upon the acquisition of a Shekel for the two years preceding the elections. The right to be elected depends upon the purchase of the Shekel and the fulfilment of obligations to the Keren Hayesod (United Palestine Appeal) and Keren Kayemeth, during the two years before the elections.

         Side by side with the party campaign to secure the maximum number of votes at the elections, the various differences in Zionist political ideologies had to be explained. Special meetings for the information of voters on the events in the Movement were organised. The best weapon of Zionism and of the Organisation is that every Jew should know what happens in the Zionist camp, in Eretz Israel, and in the Diaspora. The Congress elections themselves stimulate interest in Israel and the prestige of the Zionist Organisation grows accordingly.

         Income from Shekel sales was among the most important sources of revenue of the young Zionist Organisation. With these funds the Zionist Organisation was built, propaganda for the movement initiated, and many institutions and cultural bodies established. But the Shekel had at the same time a great political and moral value, as it demonstrated to the whole world the number of organised adherents of the Zionist Organisation; and in fact, whenever danger threatened Zionism, the number of Shekel purchasers actually increased. The Jews thereby were able to show their faith in the ultimate aims of Zionism and that, in spite of great difficulties, their belief in the function and purpose of the Zionist Organisation remained undaunted.

         In October, 1897, just two months after the decision of the First Congress, Shekalim were already on sale, and in the Second Congress year (1898) the number of Zionists who were Shekel-holders reached 78,000. The first financial report published by the Zionist Organisation at the Thrid Congress (1899) stated that the revenue for the period from August, 1898 - August, 1899, was more than 158,000 francs, of which sum over 114,000 francs had been derived from the sale of Shekalim - over 114,000 Shekel-buyers. This number doubled in the year preceding the First World War. At the Twelfth Congress (1921) - the first Congress to take place after the World War and the Balfour Declaration - Richard Lichtheim reported that there were 770,000 organised Zionists. David Ben Gurion in his report to the Nineteenth Congress (1935) stated that the sale of a million Shekalim had been reached for the first time. Even during the war, Shekalim were being sold in democratic countries. By 1946 (Twenty-second Congress) more than 1,843,000 Shekalim had been sold, and by the following year the figure 1,870,000 was reached. This number remained about the same, increasing by a few thousand each year until the elections to the Twenty-third Congress. In some countries (Egypt, Hungary, Poland, Rumania) the sale of Shekalim was not permitted. In the non-Congress years, however, the number of Shekalim sold sometimes dropped by 50%.

         Shekalim were frequently distributed under exceptionally dangerous circumstances. When Zionism was banned in Russia, Shekalim were sold secretly for many years, and even in the ghettoes and concentration camps Shekalim were distributed.

         English Zionists from the very beginning manifested a deep understanding of the Shekel. England was the first country to initiate the inclusive payment for the Shekel at 1s. (later 2s.), together with membership dues of the local Zionist Society. Very important indeed was "Shekel Day" introduced in 1900 by the English Zionist Federation for the purpose of popularising the Shekel. On a fixed day, meetings were held all over the country to sell Shekalim. The success was so overwhelming that Oscar Marmorek, on behalf of the Executive of the Zionist Organisation, strongly advised the institution of a "Shekel Day" for all countries. The official organ "Die Welt" wrote that the Zionists in England were without doubt the keenest and most practical protagonists of Zionism. This "Shekel Day" ("made in England" - so Berthold Feiwel called it) was almost immediately imitated in other countries, and it soon became an important and festive event. Poor Jews saved cents, pennies, kopeks, hellers and pfennigs in order to buy a Shekel on this day. Three years later a "Shekel Week" was proclaimed, and finally a "Shekel Month". Thus every Shekel-owner became a partner in the Zionist Organisation.

         At the First Congress there were eight delegates from England, representing 14 Zionist Societies. Following this Congress, the number of organised groups of political Zionists increased to 26. When the English Zionist Federation was established, 22 Societies joined, among them the Chovevei Zion Association of Portsmouth, headed by the late Mr. S. Levy, who suggested the Shekel as the basis for representation at Congress. Zionism in England now became more firmly rooted. New Societies sprang up and old ones doubled and trebled their membership. Whereas in 1900 there were 38 Societies, by 1903 the number had grown to 80. With the founding of the Mizrahi and Poale Zion, the Movement gained new forces. Today nearly 500 Zionist Groups are to be found in Great Britain. In the course of time the number of Shekel-holders likewise increased. In the year 1899 England had approximately 2,348 organised Zionists who were Shekel-holders. By the year 1900 the numebr increased to 4,307, by 1901 to 7,200 and by 1910 to 7,978. In 1921, the first Congress year after the Balfour Declaration, 17,000 Shekalim were sold. This dropped to 15,515 in 1931, but rose again to more than 20,000 in 1935. After the Second World War the number was more than doubled, 51,917 Shekalim being sold in the year 1948, 46,560 in the year 1949, and 48,456 in 1950. In 1949 the Zionist General Council decided to permit a "double-Shekel" campaign. A "double-Shekel" costs 4s. in England and covers two years. At the last Zionist Congress held in Jerusalem, England was represented by ten delegates as a result of elections held, 11,014 Shekel-holders went to the polls, 4,263 voted for the list of the Confederation of General Zionists (4 delegates), 3,092 for Mizrahi (3), 2,892 for Poale Zion (3), 606 for Mapam and 161 for the Independent Zionist Revisionists. In addition, England was represented by two members of the Actions Committee and by two who appeared on the World Election List. An English Zionist was also elected as a delegate by Austria.

         The Twenty-third Congress in Jerusalem was attended by 446 delegates, representing more than 3,770,00 Shekalim covering the years 5709 and 5710. These delegates consisted of Poale Zion (161 delegates), Confederation of General Zionists (118), Mizrahi and Hapoel Hamizrahi (69), Mapam (60), Heruth-Hatzohar (33), Independant Zionist Revisionists (2) and unaffiliated (3). Besides the above- mentioned 96 members of the Zionist General Council were also present.

         In the year 1904 Dr. E. M. Zweig called the Shekel a "Barometer" which reflected the fluctuations in the degree of the people's enthusiasm. Thirty years later Ben Gurion termed it the "Token of Citizenship" of a regenerated Jewish people.

         Now at last there is a State of Israel, as visualised by Herzl, and established with the help of the Zionist World Organisation, the Zionist Congress and the Shekel.

         The Zionist Organisation today has the same importance as it had in the days of Herzl, Wolffsohn, Warburg, Sokolow and Weizmann. Then, the task was to fulfil the "Basle Programme", today it is the "Jerusalem Programme". The Zionist Congress is still the highest authority. The Shekel is still the emblem of Zionist Democracy, still the symbol of equal rights for all Zionists, implying equal duties too, thus ensuring the strength and security of Israel. The prestige and might of the Zionist movement in any country depends upon the number of Shekel-holders; the greater the number, the higher the prestige.