Tel Aviv's 'High Life' Makes Young Europeans Feel at Home

Tourists can enjoy a joint there fairly easily, as abroad, but as for the locals, a new survey shows that Israelis are much less likely to have tried smoking grass than Europeans and Americans.

Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel
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A young man smoking marijuana during "Marijuana Day" in Haifa in April, 2015. Credit: Rami Shllush
Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel

A number of popular bars and restaurants have opened in recent years in the area abutting the parking lot of Tel Aviv's Great Synagogue, of all places, and they have also become popular with young, hip tourists from abroad.

For example, on one steamy August evening, those enjoying a night out in the complex had an experience that would allow them to tell their friends back home that they had seen the “real” Israel: Four Torah scrolls had been donated to the synagogue in honor of its 90th anniversary, and at the dedication ceremony were participants including Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and MK Ofir Akunis (Likud). Between the speeches, which were screened on the facade of the synagogue and viewed by the amazed tourists, singer Benny Elbaz entertained the audience.

After the ceremony ended and the guests left, along with the many policemen who had secured the event, the "Tel Aviv atmosphere" returned to normal at the site, with the aroma of marijuana wafting occasionally from one of the tables. Our tourist could once again have said to himself that a night out in Tel Aviv is no different from a night out in any major Western European city, including smoking joints in public without fear.

The Great Synagogue, central Tel Aviv.Credit: Aviad Bar Ness

An American tourist on a date with a young Israeli woman, sitting at one of the local establishments, summed up his impressions by saying that he doesn’t know any Israeli who doesn’t smoke grass; his date nodded in agreement. But as with many aspects of life, the impression received by visitors to Tel Aviv, and by many of the residents of the city themselves, is far from the reality experienced by most Israelis outside the metropolitan Tel Aviv area.

According to a new Haaretz survey, 82 percent of Israelis have never smoked marijuana; 2 percent refused even to answer the question about using the drug. The poll reveals that 30 percent of Israelis support legalization of drugs in general, while 54 percent are opposed.

The differences between Jews and Arabs respondents are very significant. In the latter community, only 7 percent admit to smoking dope, now or in the past, although among those aged 15-24 the number jumps to almost 30 percent – far higher than among their Jewish counterparts.

This figure attests to a change in the attitude toward cannabis among Israeli Arabs – or at least in their willingness to admit to it. Among Jewish respondents, 18 percent said they had smoked or now smoke marijuana; among secular Jews, 23 percent admit that they have used the drug at some point. Among the religious and ultra-Orthodox population the percentage of smokers, past or present, is 5 percent and 7 percent, respectively.

Limited Americanization

The gap between the data in Israel and those in the United States indicates that when it comes to the attitude toward marijuana, the influence of so-called Americanization on local culture is only limited. According to a 2013 Pew Institute survey, 48 percent of Americans admitted that they had smoked a joint at some time in their lives, and 50 percent of baby boomers (aged 50-70) support legalization – as do 54 percent of Gen Xers (aged 35-50) and 65 percent of Americans below the age of 35.

In comparison to Europe, the picture is more complex. According to studies by the European Union, 23.3 percent of the population has smoked marijuana at least once – a figure that is not much higher than the overall average in Israel (18 percent). In effect, only in nine EU countries is the percentage of those who have used the drug higher than in Israel: the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Spain, France (with the highest rate, 40 percent), Italy, Holland and Great Britain. The percentage of smokers in Finland is almost identical to that in Israel: 18.3 percent.

In eastern and southern Europe, use of marijuana is particularly low: in Romania, 1.6 percent; in Bulgaria and Hungary, 7.5 percent and 8.5 percent, respectively; in Greece, 8.9 percent; in Cyprus, 9.9 percent; in Lithuania, 10.5 percent; and in Poland, 12.2 percent.

A representative of medical cannabis provider Tikun Olam holds a marijuana tree outside Israel's Knesset as a parliamentary health committee discussed regulating the industry, Nov. 24, 2009. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

As is true vis-a-vis the population as a whole, young Israelis (18 percent of whom have tried marijuana) are in the middle of the scale when compared to Europeans: They smoke more grass than Romanians, Greeks and Hungarians; at rates similar to Swedes, Croatians and Belgians; and far less than the Italians, the Irish and the French.

In general, the view that drug use is a legitimate part of leisure culture is increasing in western and central Europe, where exposure to marijuana is high compared to the east and the south. Young tourists visiting Greece or Cyprus are warned that the police are tough on drug users.

'Hashish, hashish'

On the other hand, on almost every street corner in the center of Prague (where 45 percent of young people have smoked or smoke now) you can find a young man whispering “hashish, hashish” to passersby. And when darkness falls, the city squares of Madrid (where 39 percent of young people say they have smoked dope in the past or smoke now) fill up with young people drinking beer and rolling joints.

But the presence of marijuana in the public domain is influenced by various factors aside from those reflected in public opinion polls, one's degree of exposure to the drug or support for its legalization. Such factors include just how liberal the society is, and how large cultural gaps are between peripheral areas and central urban areas. The impression one gets from visits to large European cities where young people seem to smoke grass without fear does not necessarily reflect the prevailing attitude in the population toward drugs, in general.

A good example is Portugal. Those touring downtown Lisbon encounter many young people smoking grass in the parks and the bars; this is after the government decided, back in 2001, to allow full legalization of narcotic drugs. And yet Portugal is on the bottom of the scale when compared to the rest of Europe, with 9.4 of its citizens having smoked at some point, and 16 percent of those aged 15-24.

Another example is Warsaw. In spite of the Polish capital's hipster revolution, the easily identified smell of grass does not fill the air in the many bars that have opened in recent years – certainly as compared to Berlin, which has served as Warsaw’s source of "inspiration" for this pastime. But despite the fact that cannabis is absent from the public space in the city, the percentage of young people who smoke drugs in Poland (30 percent) is even somewhat higher than in Germany (29 percent), as well as Holland (29 percent).

In the case of Israel, the presence of marijuana in public areas is influenced by differing attitude toward its users on the part of the authorities in various regions. Whereas in Tel Aviv smoking a joint in a cafe is an accepted activity, in Kiryat Bialik outside Haifa, or in Jerusalem, the same behavior is liable to end up with the smoker spending time at a police station.

Moreover, tolerance toward marijuana-smokers also increases with the level of education and income of the respondent (38 percent of those with a college education support legalization, compared to 29 percent of those with a high school education), and the influx of educated young people from the periphery leads to a situation where such a habit is more acceptable in the center of the country.

The result is that the European pothead tourist would feel at home in Tel Aviv, but would find it more difficult to enjoy a joint if he plans to visit places outside the Tel Aviv metropolitan area.