The Zionist Shekel
Published by the Executive of the Zionist Organisation.
The Shekel in Ancient Times
The Shekel was an ancient Hebrew coin which has accompanied us throughout our history, from the time that Israel became a nation until the present day. In the Talmud can be found many striking passages recounting the importance of the Shekel in Israel. Everybody had to pay the Shekel in a certain month, as a "Redemption-price" when the people were numbered, so that it served as a kind of census indication of Jewry at all times. "Whosoever passes to those enumerated, of the age of twenty years and upwards...the rich shall not pay more and the poor man shall not pay less."
The tradition of the Shekel was faithfully observed during the period of the Second Temple. On the first day of Adar the Jews gathered in the synagogues and proclaimed the season for paying the Shekel. If anyone, we are told, did not pay the Shekel at the proper time, a pledge was taken from him. If anyone did not pay in a given year, he was required to pay double during the year following. The Jews living in Babylon in those days also paid the Shekel for the upkeep of the Temple, for the repair of the wall and for the religious institutions. From that time the Shekel was called the Holy Shekel.
During that period the half-Shekel was made an annual-tax. Even the priests, who were exempt from all taxation, were expected to pay it. One passage in this connection reads: Any priest who does not pay the Shekel is a sinner (sinning?). Furthermore, this tax had to be paid not only by the fathers and the adults, but also on behalf of children under age. Their fathers used to pay the Shekel for them every year, and undertook to do so until the children reached the age at which they would have to pay it for themselves.
A Hallowed Symbol
The Shekel was regarded as a hallowed symbol by the Jews who dwelt far from their homeland, among the Greeks and the Romans. They used to give expression to their sense of Jewish unity and their links with their national centre by sending their Shekalim across the seas and through the deserts to the Temple of Jerusalem. They sent it not as a gift or personal contribution, but as a tax that fell on rich and poor alike, and which was holy and precious to everybody because it helped to buttress the political and religious centre of the nation; to which every Jew felt himself to be firmly linked. The Shekel served as an expression of national unity and national responsibility.
Even after the destruction of the Second Temple, when the overwhelming majority of the Jewish people were already cut off from their homeland, the Jews of the Diaspora still maintained the tradition of the Shekel. They continued to pay it as a poll-tax for maintaining the House of Study and the sages. Even after the Romans prohibited the payment of the national Shekel, the Jews continued to send Shekalim to their Nasi or Prince in the Land of Israel. At the end of the 18th century, to jump some fifteen hundred years, emissaries would go up to the Land of Israel from the Exile, bringing with them the contributions made by Jewish Communities in Poland, Germany, Italy, etc., for the maintenance of the Holy Cities in the Land of Israel.
Dr. Herzl, the Founder of political Zionism and herald of the Jewish revival, proclaimed the re-introduction of the Shekel at the First Zionist Congress. By doing so he associated the new Eretz Israel with a lofty tradition which had been in existence not merely during the most glorious periods of Jewish independence, but also during the cruel and numerous wanderings in the course of two thousand years.
The Shekel Nowadays
When the First Zionist Congress was convened in 1897 by Dr. Herzl, the foundation was laid for the establishment of the World Zionist Organisation, which has brought about the great wonder of the Jewish national revival after two thousand years in exile. Jews in all parts of the world heard the clarion call of Herzl, responded to it and for the first time in Jewish history gathered together in order to think unitedly of the tragic fate that has befallen all Israel, to take counsel together and to seek ways and means of rescuing the people from extermination. Herzl and his collaborators felt in their hearts that the Jewish Nation was standing on the verge of the abyss, and that there was no place for the complacency prevalent in extensive Jewish circles, who had lulled themselves into the illusion that emancipation would offer the Jews all that they required.
The call issued from the forum of the First Zionist Congress not only made an idelible impression on the Jews throughout the world, but also moved the conscience of the best of the non-Jews. From that time the idea of the Zionist solution to the Jewish question began to engage many statesmen, and the Jewish question began to receive international consideration. One important stage in its development closed when the League of Nations entrusted to Great Britain the Mandate for Palestine,which includes the Balfour Declaration whereby Great Britain undertook to help the Jews in establishing the Jewish National Home in Palestine.
As an outcome of the deliberation at the First Zionist Congress the World Zionist Organisation was established and undertook the difficult task of preparing the Jewish people for redemption from the servitude of Exile, and the return of independent life to the Jewish People in their Homeland. The Zionist Organisation pulled down barriers of space and environment and united the entire nation in a common purpose.
A Badge of Citizenship
When the First Zionist Congress proclaimed the existence of the Jewish People as a national entity and its desire to be redeemed, together with its own plan for liberation, it likewise proclaimed the right of every member of the Jewish people who so wishes to participate in those liberation activities and to influence their character and progress. The Establishment of the Zionist Organisation restored Jewish Citizenship, and the Jewish citizen became the Guardian of his own destiny. He elected the leaders of the Zionist Organisation, which was the Jewish State in the making, as Herzl called it. The members of the Zionist Organisation were the Citizens of that State, possessing the rights and duties responsible for it.
Zionism aspires to find a solution to the Jewish question on an international basis according to international law; which means that the nations of the world should recognise the justice of our aspirations and our right to national freedom. The Nations of the world are likely to, and indeed would, give consideration to the expressed will of the Jewish masses. We must therefore prove that the masses of the people are with us; that Zionism is not the dream and vision of a scant handful, but expresses the firm resolve of the Jewish masses. The first proof of this aspiration of the Jewish masses and of their unflinching resolve for a Zionist solution to the Jewish problems is the Shekel, the symbol of Zionist citizenship.
The Shekel, established at the First Zionist Congress at Basle in 1897, serves as an annual tax to the World Zionist Organisation for every Jew who recognises the Basle programme, which aims "to erect for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law."
The Shekel is the symbol of membership of the World Zionist Organisation, which has restored to the Jewish people its honour and its place in the family of nations.
The Shekel serves as the instrument of a Zionist census. Every Jew who acquires the Shekel demonstrates that he shares in Zionist aspirations and in the redemptive activites of the Movement. At the same time he strengthens the Zionist Movement for its hard fight ahead.
The Shekel provides the right of participation in the elections to the Zionist Congress. Every Shekel-Payer of either sex, aged 18 and over, is entitled to a vote in the election of delegates, while those aged 24 or over may also be elected to the Zionist Congress, the supreme legislative institution of the World Zionist Organisation. The final decision in respect of all the activities of the Zionist Organisation is in the hands of the delegate to the Zionist Congress. Thus the Shekel-payers directly influence the developement of the Zionist Movement and are responsible for the conduct of the affairs of the Zionist Organisation like the sovereign peoples of the democratic countries.