Pounds, Lira and Shekels Old & New: the multiple currencies of Israel

The State of Israel was founded over 74 years ago in May 1948. In that time it has seen several economic crises, with many of its oldest citizens having been through four separate official currencies in their lifetime.

Below we’ll take a look at the different currencies that have been used since the Israeli state began life in the 1940s.

Before we start though, it’s worth noting that the shekel (by certain metrics) can lay claim to being one of the world’s oldest currencies. 

Shekels were in use in Ancient Israel during biblical times. 

In the winter of 2021, a discovery was made in Jerusalem of a coin that was minted at the time of the second temple, over 2,000 years ago! The coin shows a cup and has the words ‘Israeli Shekel’ engraved around it. (For more on the world’s oldest continually used you can read our previous blog post here.)

Let’s now begin back in the 1940s at the founding of the modern Israeli state.

The Palestinian Pound was originally the currency of the British Mandate

Palestinian Pound (1948-1952)

Until WW1 almost the entirety of the Middle East was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, ruled from their capital of Istanbul. Following their defeat in WW1, the British took over the administration of the whole of the lands that now make up Israel, Palestine and Jordan as well as parts of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. They did this as a ‘mandate’ on behalf of the League of Nations (the precursor to the UN.) These lands, therefore, were not formally a colony of Britain. 

In Mandatory Palestine, between 1926 and 1927, the British introduced a monetary authority known as the Palestinian Currency Board which would administer a currency called the Palestinian Pound. The currency was pegged to Sterling at 1:1 and the banknotes and coins were written in Arabic, English and Hebrew.

In May 1948, Israel proclaimed its independence and dissolved the currency board. The new Israeli Government took the decision to not axe the Palestinian Pound overnight (introducing new currencies is always risky and Israel was beset by crises in its early days).  For a while, the issuance of the currency was undertaken by the Anglo-Palestinian Bank in London which was controlled by the Jewish Agency. In May 1951 this became the Israel National Bank which would go on to oversee the introduction of the new currency, the Israeli Lira.

Israeli Lira (1952-1980)

The Israeli Lira was formally introduced in 1952 and in 1955 the modern Israeli monetary authority, the Bank of Israel was established.

The Israeli Lira was in place for nearly 30 years and was in use during crucial periods in Israeli history including the Yom Kippur War and the Six Day War. 

For a long time, tensions had been brewing over the currency’s name Lira. Lira is a Latin-derived word and many in Israel wanted a currency with a Hebrew name.

Over the course of the 1970s, the Israeli Finance Ministry and the central bank worked toward introducing a new currency when the time was ripe.

The Lira had several different coins/sub-denominations during its tenure. Firstly it had the ‘Mil’. Between 1949 and 1960 it had the ‘Pruta’ and from 1960 until its removal from circulation it had the Agora.

The banknotes of the lira never displayed the currency name in English, but interestingly did state ‘Bank of Israel’ in that language. Almost all banknotes featured both Hebrew and Arabic.

Image of the old 500 Lira Bank note
(Copyright Bank of Israel, see page for license, via Wikimedia Commons)
1 (Old) Israeli Shekel
(Copyright Bank of Israel, see page for license, via Wikimedia Commons)

'Old' Israeli shekel (1980-1985)

On 22nd February 1980, the Israeli Shekel was introduced into circulation. Sharing its name with the currency of Biblical times (mentioned in the introduction to this article) it was celebrated widely.

Unfortunately, Israel was at the beginning of experiencing another vast financial crisis that would lead to the replacement of the shekel within just five years.

The currency was introduced at 3.89 shekels for every 1 USD but by the time of its replacement in 1985, 1 USD would get you over 1200 Shekels!

The Shekel was subdivided into ‘New Agrot’ however they quickly become obsolete following the rapid hyperinflation.

New Israeli Shekel (1985-present)

The currency in use today in Israel, the Israeli New Shekel was introduced in 1985. Following that year’s Economic Stabilization Plan, the new Shekel saw three zeros be removed from the currency. It also took on a new ISO Code: ILS.

The ILS’s introduction has been linked with fundamental reforms in the Israeli economy over the last 30 years; which would see the country become a much more free-market economy.

The currency is tightly managed by the Israeli government and the Bank of Israel and has been a free-floating currency since 2003. Over the years it has strengthened its position and become a much more resilient currency when compared with its predecessors. As of today, it is one of the strongest currencies in the region.

Like the other Israeli currencies before it, the new shekel is subdivided into 100 Agrot coins.

The banknotes of the ILS prominently feature Arabic, English and Hebrew

Banknotes of the New Israeli Shekel

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