Haggai Ram, Intoxicating Zion: A Social History of Hashish in Mandatory Palestine and Israel (Stanford University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Haggai Ram (HR): My decision to write this book came about by chance, after discovering historical scholarship on various stimulants—cannabis, opiates, cocaine, but also tobacco and coffee—in several spaces and temporalities. Part of what historian Paul Gootenberg has described as “the new drug history” emerging since the 1990s, some of these interventions examined the history of drugs (as well as the practices, ideas, and persons associated with them) as intrinsic to larger connected realms of cross-border politics, economics, and cultures—topics impossible to research adequately if we privilege the state as the exclusive category of analysis. I was immediately attracted to the topic. Having taken some more time to thoroughly acquaint myself with this literature, I discovered that it offered exciting observations about societies across many continents, including the Middle East. Yet to date, no historical study on drugs in Palestine-Israel has been undertaken. Although we know a lot about the history of criminalized drugs in other parts of the British Empire (most notably India and Egypt), we know very little about this history in Mandatory Palestine. Similarly, very little academic attention has been paid thus far to the links between hashish use, trafficking, and regulation in the State of Israel. My book, then, is the first study to fully explore the history of hashish as a criminalized drug in Palestine-Israel, and it presents a first-of-a-kind window through which one can explore broader political, economic, social, and cultural change.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

HR: The overall study is concerned with the previously untold social history of hashish-marijuana in Palestine-Israel. Drawing on a large body of untapped archival sources collected in Israel, Europe, and the United States, and from press reports, works of fiction, memoirs, and film, the book starts in the Mandate period, which coincided with the criminalization of cannabis (and other drugs) in the international arena; it ends with the 1967 War, which, together with global circumstances, dramatically transformed patterns of illicit hashish flows and illicit hashish consumption in Israel and the Levant for years to come.

The book has two interrelated objectives: first, to follow 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 humans project their class, ethnic, and gendered desires and anxieties. My book shows that the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Mandatory period, and then from the latter period to the State of Israel, were not epochal breakpoints in history. In addition to the persistence of the political and cultural horizons of the country’s Jewish and Arab inhabitants (discussed in earlier scholarship), the book traces trends of continuity in the fields of the regional drug networks, criminality, and drug culture which survived these transitions, albeit in transfigured forms.

The second objective is to situate the history of hashish in Palestine-Israel in a transnational context. The forces that were at play in the rise of hashish culture in Palestine-Israel originated elsewhere in the Levant, and beyond. Contrary to conventional wisdom, hashish consumption in late-Ottoman Palestine appears to have been negligible. This, however, began to change with the establishment of unprecedented global and regional controls over opiates and cannabis in the interwar years. To overcome these incipient drug control regimes, new circuits of exchange linked Palestine, and later Israel, to illicit supply chains stretching from Lebanon, the producing country in the north, to Egypt, the consuming country in the south—ensuring  the smuggling of vast quantities of hashish supplies across its territory. This, in turn, led to a significant increase in hashish consumption by Palestine’s urban working-class Arab population. Hence, by the 1930s hashish smoking ran rampant throughout Palestine’s urban centers of Jaffa, Haifa, Jerusalem, Acre (`Akka), Nablus, Tiberius (Tabariyya), Ramla, Lod (al-Lydda)—and even Tel Aviv, “the first Hebrew city.” Venues for consumption—makeshift hashish dens, coffeehouses, brothels—proliferated in these towns, and many persons could be seen wandering the streets intoxicated.

Outside forces also helped in determining Jewish attitudes to hashish. Jews in Mandatory Palestine, both Sephardi veterans and East European immigrants, tended to stay clear of hashish. In this, they were particularly receptive to colonial knowledge produced in three sites: India and Egypt, where the British had contended with cannabis-oriented cultures long before arriving to Palestine; and from the Geneva-based League of Nations, whose role was fundamental in shaping displaced and distorted ideas about cannabis around the world. This knowledge molded hashish into a distinctively racialized Oriental drug, capable of animating the supposed pathologies inherent in the “mentality” of Oriental peoples—namely, inordinate and excessive (homo)sexuality, femininity, irrationality, insanity, criminality, indolence, and manipulability. Hence, during the first decades of Zionism, Jews largely refrained from hashish smoking—partly due to its reputation as an “Arab” vice, and partly due to the fear that hashish use by Jews would likely put the Zionist project in danger of submerging in a Levantine environment.

These colonial misperceptions survived the establishment of the State of Israel, and at the same time responded to new demographic and political realities: the expulsion and flight of the Arab population of Palestine in the Nakba, and the country’s repopulation by Jews from the Middle East and North Africa (or Mizrahim). Some of these Jews had used hashish in their countries of origin and brought the habit with them to Israel. Other first- and second-generation immigrants from Muslim countries picked up on the habit in Israel, owing to their socio-economic and ethnic-cum-racial marginalization. In this way, hashish became a Jewish “problem,” where formerly it had largely been considered an Arab one. Although the number of hashish smokers did not exceed a few thousand in the 1950s and 1960s, the habit concretized and dramatized the dominant Ashkenazi classes’ anxieties about over-Levantinization. At the same time, it exacerbated the marginalization and criminalization of the Mizrahi underclass in Israeli society.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

HR: My book is connected to my previous work in its approach. For the greater part of my career, I have been a social historian of modern Iran. Over time, I became increasingly aware that methodological nationalisms may not be the most appropriate approach to doing history. Realizing that this kind of compartmentalization of history obscures the parallels, entanglements, and connections that contribute to shaping the modern world, I set out to research Israel’s misplaced understandings and conceptualizations of pre- and post-revolutionary 1979 Iran through a cultural transnational lens. This research culminated in my 2009 book Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obsession (Stanford University Press). Inspired by works that read metropolitan and colonial cultures as zones of encounter, the book demonstrated that Israeli anxieties about Iran have been fashioned on the basis of what the Israeli dominant classes believed to be the (dis)ordering of their society at home. Israelis went about setting Iran apart as fanatically religious and Oriental precisely because they have come to see in it the ethnic (for example, Mizrahi) and religious (for example, ultra-Orthodox) “outsiders within” who threatened their own putative secular, western identity. Hence, these anxieties are most linked to Israeli defensive mechanisms of the home, in view of the fear of the Jewish state becoming foreign and unrecognizable to itself. Intoxicating Zion takes the transnational approach which I applied in Iranophobia in new directions.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

HR: Intoxicating Zion stands at the intersection of several fields. Firstly, it is intended for scholars and students interested in the social history of the modern Middle East, particularly those specializing in the Levant, Palestine, colonialism, nationalism, and consumption. Since it provides an unconventional vista into the history of Mandatory Palestine, Israel, and the Levant, it will be an effective text for teaching purposes in undergraduate and graduate courses such as Introduction to the Modern Middle East, State and Society in the Middle East, Colonialism in the Middle East, and the sociolegal history of the Middle East. At the same time, the book will be extremely relevant to scholars and students of drugs across the humanities and the social sciences. In addition, this study should also appeal to non-academic readers, particularly those engaged in drug policy. I believe that this book is timely, given the progressive removal of cannabis products from lists of criminalized recreational drugs in the United States, South America, and Europe, as well as increasing public and expert awareness of the benefits of medical cannabis worldwide.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

HR: I have recently launched a research project exploring the links between the interwar Viennese Jewish underworld and the Levant. While researching Intoxicating Zion, I came across numerous archival sources in Israel, Europe, and the United States attesting to the active involvement of numerous Jewish members of the interwar Viennese underworld in drug smuggling to and from the region. Based mainly in Cairo—and in some cases, in Palestine and Lebanon as well—this group specialized in the heroin trade to Egypt, Europe, and the United States. This revelation was beyond the purport and scope of my book, so I set it aside for future engagement. Although histories (and novels) about the Viennese Jewish underworld and its global reach have been published, none have explored its activities in the Arab Middle East. I intend to rectify this lacuna.


Excerpt from the book (from the Conclusion)

Arguing the case for the legalization of recreational cannabis in Israel, a recent op-ed in the liberal daily Ha-Aretz described the country’s Jewish citizens as “a nation of stoners.” Titled “What Really Unites Israel’s Right, Left and Center,” the op-ed stated its case thus:

A love of pot smoking is shared among all populations in Israel. Hilltop settler youth and Tel Aviv radicals, young and old, Knesset members and simple folk, city and country people, religious and secular, everyone loves pot. Marijuana and hashish are the largest common denominator in Israeli society…. Despite the common ideals held by hippies, in Israel it turns out that one can be a religious fanatic, a human rights–trampling racist, or a warmongering militarist, and still be incredibly good at rolling joints. No problem. Pot couldn’t be any more common in Israel. There aren’t enough lungs.

This description of Jewish Israel as “a nation of stoners” is surely an overstatement. However, a 2017 survey conducted by the Israel Anti-Drug Authority validates the general impression, backing it up with hard numbers. The survey found a dramatic surge in the prevalence of cannabis use by Israelis, Jews and non-Jews alike. Twenty-seven percent of the adult population reported using cannabis in the past year, in comparison to just under 9 percent in 2009. A comparison with surveys conducted in other countries shows that Israel is probably at the top of cannabis use by adult populations, Iceland and the US lagging behind at 18 and 16 percent respectively. In addition, during the same years, the number of medical cannabis licenses granted in Israel increased more than tenfold, from less than 2,000 in 2009 to 28,000 in 2017.

As I have demonstrated in this book, the love of cannabis in Palestine-Israel, among non-Jews and certainly among Jews, is a relatively recent phenomenon. The rise in the recreational use of hashish in Palestine was directly linked to the creation of the trans-Levant hashish trade in the interwar years. There is no doubt that the international legal structures prohibiting and/or regulating drugs in the interwar period, particularly those deployed by the League of Nations, enjoyed “small successes.” For the most part, however, these structures proved to be no match for illicit drug flows between states. On the contrary, “international drug diplomacy did little more than to push the drug trade to new markets, prompting traffickers and distributors to search for new sources and consequently catalyzing an evolution in the … illicit drug trade….” Smugglers moved swiftly across established and incipient political borders to exploit weak points in international law enforcement systems, ensuring that the loss of one drug source would quickly be replaced by another. In a recent study of trafficking across the Arabian Sea from the 1860s to the 1950s, Johan Mathew suggests, “Trafficking, in particular, confounds the desire for a smooth narrative. The opportunistic quality of traffics lends simultaneously erratic and repetitive rhythm to … events…. New laws were met with new methods of evasion, which elicited even stronger laws and more ingenious evasions. The cycle repeated itself ad nauseam.” In the setting explored in this book, the disruption of Egypt-bound hashish supplies from Greece was offset by supplies to the same destination from Lebanon and Syria, ensuring that the Levant in general and Palestine in particular (i.e., weak points in the international drug control system) would become new theaters for extensive border-crossing hashish smuggling operations.

Paul Gootenberg suggests that the movement of drugs from their place of origin to their place of destination was born autonomously of political borders; with those borders becoming a “a nuisance” and “an obstacle course,” they were destined to be overcome by imaginative smuggling operations. Little wonder, then, that with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the delineation of the new state’s borders, smuggling operations across the Levant, from Lebanon in the north and into Egypt in the south, continued with a vengeance. Hence, after certain adjustments necessitated by border and demographic changes, the territory now ruled by Israel remained an arena for hashish flows to Egypt from Lebanon. What is more, due to the absence of diplomatic relations after 1948 between the State of Israel and its Arab neighbors, coupled with the rising tensions and animosities between them, the Levant evolved into an even weaker point in the system of international drug control than it had been in the preceding interwar period. As a result, additional players joined hashish smuggling operations, including Jews and—allegedly—the Israeli army as well.

As we have seen in this book, Palestine’s emergence as a new junction and the most important way station for hashish in the interwar Levant contributed to a significant increase in hashish smoking among the territory’s urban working-class Arab population, the British in Palestine lacking the ability and will to enforce the prohibition of the drug. With few exceptions, the nascent Jewish community of interwar Palestine avoided hashish smoking, due to the fear of accommodating an Oriental, “alien” artifact; a similar discourse, framing marijuana as an “alien” Mexican and black substance was also common in the United States of the era. Orientalist stereotypes and interwar colonial knowledge exacerbated the Jewish aversion to hashish, as this knowledge had taught Jews that hashish’s unique forms of intoxication were racially compatible with the putative deficiencies and pathologies that were an inherent aspect of the Arab mentality—insanity, violence, criminality, hypersexuality, homosexuality, indolence, and manipulability.

Just as hashish flows to Egypt survived the transition from mandatory Palestine to the State of Israel, so too did interwar colonial knowledge about cannabis, albeit by responding to new demographic realities: the country’s loss of its Arab population, and its repopulation by Jews from the Muslim world (Mizrahim), who in the years 1948 to 1967 were identified as the main consumers of the drug. Even though hashish smoking in Israel remained limited to no more than a few thousand Mizrahim during this period, it rekindled the dominant Ashkenazi class’s apprehension of the Levantinization-cum-Arabicization of the Jewish state. In parallel, this conceptualization served to exacerbate the marginalization and criminalization of Mizrahim in Israeli society.


The normalization of recreational cannabis use in Israel has been building up a head of steam in recent years, as old mythologies about the substance evaporate. Yet remnants of obsolete Oriental fantasies about the drug remain, albeit in reconfigured form. One blatant example is a thirty-three-second video clip prepared by the Israel Anti-Drug Authority in 2006. Designed to dissuade teenagers from using drugs, particularly cannabis, and broadcast on Israel’s main public television channel, the clip was produced in the style of the dilettantish “last will and testament” videos recorded by Muslim suicide bombers. It shows a teenage boy wielding his bong like a deadly weapon, standing in front of an unsteady camera and reciting the following monologue:

I, Omer Kandel, aged sixteen, of Raanana, bid goodbye today to my parents Ronit and Shmuel, and to my sister Keren, and am going to a party in Tel Aviv. There’s only one way to be truly liberated: to get drunk, take drugs, and get really stoned. Don’t cry, mom. I’m going to paradise.

It is easy to see in this short clip echoes of the medieval Assassins myth, dressed in twenty-first century anti-Muslim garb. At the time of the clip’s broadcast—during the final days of the al-Aqsa or Second Intifada, and at the height of President George W. Bush’s global War on Terror—the suicide bomber had in the United States, Western Europe, and Israel become emblematic of the so-called Islamic death culture. The clip deliberately played on the strings of the anti-Muslim sentiments rampant in Israeli society at the time. But at the same time, it drew upon the vocabulary of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century images of cannabis—namely, that hashish is an Oriental substance used by uncivilized Muslim Arab zealots, who champion a ritual of death rather than a ritual of life.

Of equal note is the fact that the clip’s “suicide bomber” is a good middle-class Jewish boy from the “white,” prosperous city of Raanana. In terms of his social background and his demographic and ethnic identity, Omer represented something entirely different from the traditional image of hashish consumers in Israel, reflecting contemporary establishment’s understandings that hashish had spread to all parts of Israeli society. It may be that Israelis “are a nation of stoners” after all. Or it may be that the Zionist nightmare of assimilation into the Levant, a nightmare that haunted Jews in Palestine-Israel since the 1920s, seems to have materialized—at least to the extent that cannabis consumption is concerned.