High Times in Zion: An Israeli History of Drugs

New book by historian Haggai Ram chronicles hashish in Mandatory Palestine and Israel – from the camel smuggling operations to Jabotinsky’s psychedelic experience and Tel Aviv cafés that offered customers more than just baked goods

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A bohemian cafe in Israel in the 1960s.
A bohemian cafe in Israel in the 1960s.Credit: Dan Hadani Archives
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

In May 1955, Zena Harman, who was at the time a member of the Israeli mission to the United Nations in New York, sent a coded, secret cable to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. The diplomat immediately alerted the ministry to the fact that she had learned from reliable sources that the Arab League was preparing a report, to be submitted to the 10th session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, alleging that Israel was deeply complicit in the Levant drug trade in Egypt.

Harman warned her superiors in Jerusalem that “the Arab League is planning to publish a memo on the situation of dangerous drugs in the Middle East. [It] alleges that we’re disseminating intoxicating drugs . . . with the intention of reducing the Arabs’ strength. . . . We need to prepare for this.”

Harman’s information was correct. Shortly afterward, Brig. Abdel Aziz Safwat, who headed the Arab League’s anti-narcotics bureau, did in fact submit the report to the UN commission, in time for its meeting. As expected, the report was scathingly damning of Israel, accusing it of two interrelated methods of “drug poisoning” the Arabs in general and the Egyptians in particular, as well as Europeans and Americans. The first alleged method was ambitious and expensive, requiring unusual infrastructure and expertise, but also highly cunning in nature; the second was simpler and more economical.

Safwat described the first method as follows: “It seems certain that there are small factories in Israel for manufacturing cocaine, heroin, and synthetic drugs, and that it has been arranged to smuggle these drugs to certain countries in the Middle East and to certain European countries, using false labels bearing names of respectable firms. It has also arranged to smuggle ‘white’ drugs to the United States of America by sea via Cyprus, Genoa and Marseille, and by air by means usually arriving from Israel.”

Safwat’s account of Israel’s second and more modest method of disseminating drugs among Arab publics focused specifically on hashish. This method merely required Israel to recycle hashish supplies smuggled into the country from Lebanon or Jordan and then seized for re-smuggling to Egypt. The report claimed: “The enquiries made by me have revealed that Israel is not intended to cultivate ... Indian hemp within the country, [and] is considering [it] sufficient to deal with quantities of ... prepared hashish smuggled into it from Lebanon and Jordan.”

Similar accusations were made in the years that followed, and they resonated in the Egyptian press. The important daily Al Ahram wrote that during the Sinai Campaign (1956), hashish smugglers, probably Bedouin from the Negev who were seized by the Egyptian army, had told their interrogators that soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces had given them permission to continue to Egypt with the smuggled drugs. According to the newspaper, “the Jews used military vehicles to transfer [hashish] to the desert during the period of [Sinai’s] occupation.”

Official Israeli representatives vigorously denied the Egyptian allegations. Cannabis was “cultivated in Israel in negligible quantities,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement – based on information from the Israel Police – and added: “It was established beyond doubt that this hashish was earmarked for personal home consumption only … No cannabis grown in Israel was ever smuggled abroad.”

Although in 1954 Israeli police did discover that cannabis was grown in various transit camps around the country, the claim that hashish was not smuggled abroad was a lie – part of the propaganda war that was conducted between Israel and Egypt. Hashish in large, not negligible, quantities was smuggled from Lebanon via Israel into Egypt, which was then the Jewish state’s largest and most dangerous enemy.

The documents quoted here, along with many others, appear in a fascinating new book by historian Haggai Ram, of the department of Middle East studies at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. Ram’s research focused for years on Iran, and his books and articles have established him as an expert in that field. There is nothing self-evident about his decision to diversify his areas of interest and study the hashish phenomenon in Palestine of the Mandate period and in Israel. In any event, the result, titled “Intoxicating Zion: A Social History of Hashish in Mandatory Palestine and Israel” (Stanford University Press), is a singular, original work of research.

“I decided to write about it about 10 years ago, when I encountered by chance abundant research literature about various histories of drugs – cannabis, opiates, cocaine, but also tobacco and coffee – in different places and periods,” Prof. Ram explains. “Those studies examined histories of drugs, as parts of larger and connected realms of cross-border politics, economics and culture, which cannot be studied adequately if we privilege the state as the exclusive category of analysis. I was immediately drawn to the subject.”

Ram discovered that “even though we know quite a bit about the histories of drugs, especially cannabis and opium, in other parts of the British Empire, particularly India and Egypt, we know very little about them in Palestine-Israel. My book examines the transition from Mandatory Palestine to the State of Israel in the 1950s and 1960s through the perspective of hashish, as an illicit commodity that is smuggled across borders, traded, consumed, regulated and endlessly debated; and as a screen on which human beings project their class, ethnic, and gendered desires and anxieties.”

Hashish, he notes, started to arrive in Mandatory Palestine in commercial quantities only in the 1920s and, more particularly, the 1930s.

“The history of hashish in Palestine-Israel is unique, but at the same time it has similarities with histories of the drug in other places,” Ram emphasizes. Whereas in “many locales in the Arab, Iranian and Ottoman-Turkish Middle East, where the use of cannabis was widespread already in the Middle Ages, and at the latest in the early modern era – the use of hashish in Palestine-Israel is a relatively new phenomenon.

“It started, effectively, after unprecedented global measures were introduced to control the use of drugs and commerce around the world. That development put an end to the smuggling route of hashish from Greece to Egypt. To compensate for the disruption in the supply of hashish from Greece, Egyptian consumers of the drug turned to suppliers from Syria and Lebanon. As a result, Mandatory Palestine became a central link in the commodity chains of the drug, which stretched from Lebanon in the north to Egypt in the south.”

How did the route operate?

“The railway lines that the Mandatory authorities laid in the country were one of the major smuggling routes of hashish. In 1942, the line that connected the Egyptian city of Qantara, on the Suez Canal, with Haifa, was extended to the Lebanese cities of Beirut and Tripoli. The line branched off and passed through Al-Lid [today’s Lod] and Jaffa, and was close to the large urban center of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.”

In his book, Ram portrays many crafty hashish-smuggling operations that ran across Mandatory Palestine en route to Egypt. For example, there’s an amusing description of an embarrassing incident that befell the British high commissioner in Egypt, George Ambrose Lloyd, in 1929. On his way back from a visit to Damascus, 24 packages of hashish were found in his train car. The chief suspects, according to a report in the newspaper Davar, were “Egyptian guards and servants” – employees of the railway company.

The sophistication and boldness employed in smuggling operations were sometimes accompanied by cruelty as well. Then as now, a common method was to use camel caravans. British reports refer to smugglers from the Gaza Strip who placed hashish in tin cylinders and forced camels to swallow them. After a caravan crossed the border and reached a safe haven, the camels would be slaughtered and their stomachs cut open to allow the containers to be removed.

As Russell Pasha, the senior British official in Egypt in the 1930s and 1940s in charge of battling drugs in the country, noted that the loss incurred in butchering camels was negligible compared to the profit made from the sale of the drugs.

According to the records of the Mandatory police, about 35,000 camels a year passed through the Qantara customs terminal after crossing Sinai. British authorities quickly discovered this mode of operation and launched a systematic effort to deal with it. Thus, in the 1940s they installed X-ray machines at Qantara to randomly screen camels that had crossed the border.

In other cases, and in order to reduce the distance needed to be traversed, gangs of smugglers began to grow cannabis in fields around Tul Karm and Jenin, in today’s occupied West Bank. Another ploy was to smuggle the drugs by sea from ports in Lebanon (such as Beirut and Sidon) via Ras Naqura (Rosh Hanikra) to Acre and Haifa, and even as far as Gaza and El Arish. In response, the police set up a small coast guard, which had meager resources and was largely ineffective.

Your book suggests that the efforts of the Mandatory police to contain the phenomenon were largely unsuccessful.

“That’s correct. The Mandatory police were occupied with many urgent tasks, and had a limited budget. As a result, the police force was almost helpless in its efforts to suppress the supply and the huge trade in hashish that crossed Palestine en route to Egypt.”

As early as 1922, the commander of the Port Police in Palestine, Douglas Duff, noted that the smugglers “had no masters in the world . . . [and] feared neither God nor man and would do anything for a few piasters.”

The British governor of Sinai, Claude Scudamore Jarvis, seconded him, stating in desperation: “Stopping hashish smuggling is rather like an attempt to dam a stream with a clay barrier – directly you have plugged up one hole the water comes through in another place.”

A 1947 report of the Palestine Police found that “hashish and opium are the main drugs illegally transported through Palestine for the onward passage to Egypt, in the majority of cases . . . hashish arriving from Syria and the Lebanon.”

Besides having no regard for borders, the smugglers were also not confined by religion or nationality. Not only Arabs but also Greeks, Italians, Bulgarians and Cypriots, to name but a few, were involved in transporting the contraband, and occasionally also British soldiers and officers stationed in bases in Palestine and Egypt.

From time to time, as official and press reports attest, names with a Jewish ring to them were involved in drug-smuggling operations – for example, David Shamai, Theodor Shamit and Alexander Rudintzki. Some of them joined up with Arab gangs and cooperated with them. Here and there, reports also mentioned Jews who served in the British Army in Egypt who smuggled or sold drugs.

Who were the consumers in Palestine?

“One result of the new trade route from Lebanon and Syria to Egypt was a considerable rise in the drug’s consumption among the urban working class of Arabs in Palestine – confirming that proximity, familiarity and availability often played a part. Thus, in the 1930s a thick cloud of hashish hovered over Yaffa [Jaffa], Haifa, Al-Quds [Jerusalem], Akka [Acre], Nablus, Tiberias, Ramla and El-Lid [Lod] – and even over Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city.”

Tel Aviv, too?

“Yes. Hashish was offered to clients in cafés, beginning in the 1930s, first in Arab or mixed cities such as Haifa, Acre and Nablus. The descriptions in the press and in official documents refer to cafés frequented by lower class Arabs. But I also found evidence that, beginning from World War II, cafés in the heart of Tel Aviv served hashish to Jewish clients, though drug abuse in Jewish society was negligible and quite rare.”

That’s a bit odd, because in the book you quote an erotic poem of praise by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, titled “Hashish”: “In agonies of delight / I hover ‘twixt death and resurrection / Waves of resonating brass / Cascading from the chapel’s summit / My spirit ebbs, my body’s strength all spent / My mind sinks, sleep no-sleep / The peal of bells / Like a thundering sentence in my ear. / Untouched, a silver fire burns / and into the arms of a formless nymph / a dream of naked shame pulls / me to the cradle of torment / and, in the intoxicating madness, / bids me: ‘Come’ – and I make haste.”

“Indeed, this is a particularly interesting poem, because it was written by the founder of revisionist Zionism and several militant Jewish organizations in Palestine,” Prof. Ram observes. “But we should remember that Jabotinsky was not only a leader, orator and soldier – but also a writer, a poet. He apparently wrote this poem in 1901, when he was a law student at Sapienza University of Rome. [Jabotinsky was born in 1880.] One can glean from the poem that it is describing a personal psychoactive experience of a young man in Europe at the time. But this was not the formative, widespread experience of Jews in Europe or of Jews in Palestine. On the contrary: They generally shunned drugs because of their orientalist connotations.”


“To get high on drugs was considered contrary to Zionist values and did not sit well with the puritan ethos of Zionism, which exalted purism, ascetic pioneering, ‘Hebrew labor’ and working the land. The New Jew was supposed to take responsibility for the nation’s destiny, and if he surrendered to hedonism and promiscuity, he was liable to neglect his national duties. The abstention from hashish also stemmed from the fear of becoming over-assimilated in the Orient. The vast majority of the Yishuv [pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine] abstained from using hashish, because it was viewed as an alien – meaning Arab – substance that could lead the Levantinization of the Zionist project.”

The Zionist aversion to hashish, writes Ram, drawing also on a study by Dr. Ofri Ilany, was also bound up with a perceived threat to the masculine conception of the “New Jew.” For this reason, hashish dens, cafés and brothels, where Arabs could connect with one another and intermingle socially while smoking hashish, were considered a national and political threat. It wasn’t by chance that these establishments were also marked as places of wanton and dubious sexual – particularly homosexual – practices.

But the ostensible repulsion from the drug halted when it came to national security. According to documents of Shai, the intelligence unit of the Haganah, the pre-independence army of the Yishuv, the breakaway militant organizations – the Irgun and Lehi – which did not heed the policy of the official leadership, were involved in drug-smuggling operations. Shai had personal files on the personnel of these organizations, and some of them mention the names of members who trafficked in hashish to finance their activities.

A report in the newspaper Maariv on May 11, 1948, three days before Israel declared its independence, stated that “Zionist organizations smuggled arms from Lebanon and Syria” with the aid of money acquired from hashish transactions. Three years earlier, Hatzofeh, the newspaper of the national-religious movement, reported that a “Jewish military gang” (a reference to the Irgun or Lehi) had been arrested in Egypt for “smuggling hashish and opium on a large scale.”

According to other information, to underwrite the Jewish war effort of the underground organizations in 1945, hashish was smuggled in a plane flying between Egypt and Palestine. In 1964, journalist Aviezer Golan reported in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth about “rumors” that “the Irgun was engaged in hashish smuggling to Egypt to finance its war.”

Hashish at the top

Following establishment of the state and the War of Independence, fears that drug abuse would contaminate Jewish society abated. The nascent government authorities expressed optimism that closure of the borders, breaking the geographical connection between Lebanon and Egypt, would prevent the continued transport of hashish and other drugs by the previous route. A 1948 report issued by the Israel Police boasted, “Previously, the Land of Israel was a major passageway for [the flow of] dangerous drugs… The vast majority of the smugglers and the majority of the consumers were Arab. Because of the cessation of relations with the neighboring countries, Israel is no longer a market for dangerous drugs.”

But within a short time the mood reverted to pessimism. The old routes by sea and land were renewed. The hostility between Israel and its neighbors reached new heights, but that didn’t stop the drug dealers from continuing to cross the borders.

The waves of Jewish immigration from the Middle East and North Africa heightened fears of hashish. Some of the immigrants had consumed hashish in their countries of origin, and brought the habit with them. Others, from the first and second generations of Mizrahi immigrants (i.e., Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries), acquired the habit in Israel as a result of racial discrimination and being shunted to the margins of society in transit camps and remote, impoverished towns.

The drug thus became a Jewish “problem,” where before it had been considered primarily an Arab “problem.” These circumstances blended with growing contempt by the Ashkenazi establishment for the new arrivals, whom they viewed as backward and primitive in the first place. The combination of drugs and Mizrahim only intensified the stereotyping, orientalization and criminalization that the community suffered in Israel.

In this sense, Haggai Ram adds, the connection that was drawn between drugs and immigrant society in Israel was not much different from what could be seen elsewhere. In the United States, for example, the use of marijuana was identified mainly with Mexican migrants and urban Blacks, whom the white middle class feared.

Beyond this, he says, “the use of cannabis and its derivatives in the world was widespread among despised marginal groups and afterward among the working classes, but even more, was identified with the supposedly barbaric and backward Orient. Accordingly, unclean, despicable and even satanic traits were attributed to the substance, and its psychoactive effects were said to include madness, violence, criminality and excessive sexuality – including homosexuality. In other words, in Israel, as elsewhere, cultural, political, ethnic, racial implications and baggage were foisted on cannabis, without any connection to the substance itself and certainly not to its psychoactive effects.”

Suffice it to read the book’s sixth chapter, “Mizrahim and the ‘Perils’ of Hashish Smoking,” to understand the stigma that the Ashkenazi establishment attached to the Other. In official government reports and in the press of the time, the Mizrahim thus replaced the Arabs in the context of hashish use and the establishment’s repulsion toward them.

“The huge wave of immigration has been penetrated by criminal elements,” an Israel Police report of 1951 stated, adding, “Multitudes of immigrants arrived from countries whose culture is poor and whose political structures are unstable and inferior or built on oppression and coercion.” In the eyes of the establishment, Jews from the East and their drug abuse were liable to bring about a “regime of lawlessness.” Their use of hashish was termed an “epidemic,” as though the use of the drug was a disease that could easily spread among the “white” Ashkenazi Jews.

But the declared disgust with drug abuse did not prevent Israel’s security services from using drugs for their purposes. The connection between intelligence communities and drugs is global in nature. There are testimonies in the media and from official documents that the American CIA, the British MI6, the Soviet KGB, Syrian generals in Lebanon, military personnel in Burma and other intelligence agencies traded in drugs or ignored the existence of such commerce when they thought it would serve their purposes. Terrorist and underground organizations, such as Taliban in Afghanistan, the IRA in Northern Ireland and Hezbollah in Lebanon grow, process, distill and disseminate drugs to underwrite their activity.

Nor is there anything new in the allegations that intelligence organizations disseminate drugs so as to entrap and harm their enemies and weaken their societies and military forces. Such claims were put forward by Harry J. Anslinger, the founder and first director (1930-1962) of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Before World War II, and during the war as well, Anslinger accused Japan of disseminating drugs for profit but principally to corrupt the citizens of the Allies. He made similar allegations in the 1950s, during the Cold War, with Communist China replacing Japan in the dock.

Echoes of this discourse reverberated in Israel of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The Israeli press depicted Egypt as a country whose population was drugged and where drug consumption was not confined to the poor and to the dealers in the markets or in confectionery shops, but had reached the highest levels, all the way to President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

A few years later, a psychological profile prepared by the Middle East scholar Shimon Shamir for the research division of Israel’s Military Intelligence, stated that President Anwar Sadat was also a hashish user.

The claims about the scale of hashish use in Egypt – estimated in 1955 to encompass eight million citizens, or a third of the population at the time – served well the Israeli propaganda machine, which was out to depict Egypt as a backward country while also boosting the morale of the Israeli public. At the same time, Military Intelligence, headed by Gen. Chaim Herzog, voiced concern that because hashish and other drugs were available in Egypt and Lebanon in abundance, they could easily find their way into Israel, too. That would not only corrupt Israeli society and undermine its morality and morale, it would also weaken the IDF and hamper its combat ability.

It’s not surprising, then, that Egypt maintained that the IDF was officially engaged in smuggling drugs into the Arab states in general, and into Egypt in particular, in order to debilitate and undermine the Arabs, as Ram notes in the book.

Can you give credence to the allegations by an Egyptian general, Safwat, and others in Egypt that Israel operated institutionally in this matter?

“I don’t know. But I wouldn’t rule it out. Especially when one reads reports that were published by Israeli sources alleging that Israel tried to poison water wells in Egypt and to develop viruses against Palestinian Arabs in Acre in 1948, and a report by Ted Cross, an Israeli intelligence officer who operated in Egypt from 1948 to 1950 and financed his work with the aid of hashish smuggling.

“The testimony of an intelligence official named Shimshon Mashbetz, which I found in the Haganah Archive, is also food for thought. According to Mashbetz the idea to smuggle hashish to fund arms for the Haganah was brought up by the organization but ultimately shelved. Because I did not find additional testimonies, it can’t be known unequivocally whether later, because of distress and need, some adopted the idea and the methods, whether before 1948 or afterward.

“Not to mention later reports, from the 1970s and 1980s, claiming that Israeli officers, including from Intelligence, were involved in smuggling drugs from Lebanon. When one surveys the actions of Israeli intelligence, it’s possible to believe many of the things that they did and then denied or refused to admit to, because they were ashamed of their actions and didn’t want the public to find out about them.”

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