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Israel’s first cannabis cafe tried to bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews


Since its founding Israel has had a troubled history, fighting wars with its neighbours in 1948, 1967, 1973, 1982 and 2006, as well as the first and second intifadas and rocket attacks from Gaza. The same is true for Palestinians losing their homes in the Nakba, and living under occupation in the West Bank, or under siege in Gaza.

Cannabis has a habit of bringing people together. Can Jews and Arabs share a spliff in the Holy Land? An Amsterdam-like coffee shop, the first of its kind in the country, aimed to prove just that.

leafie met Karam Shbeeta and Samuel Zohar at a bar in the hipster neighbourhood of Florentin in Tel Aviv. An Arab and a Jew, respectively, at first glance it was hard to tell who was who.

“Be honest, you thought I was an Arab, right?” asked Zohar.

“When I first met him, I also thought he was an Arab,” Karam chipped in. “He’s very good at speaking many languages.” 

“We’re always arguing which of us speaks better Arabic,” Samuel said.

Karam opened his coffee shop, Smokey Monkey, in the Arab town of Tira, north of Tel Aviv, in November last year. There, customers could relax, roll a joint or smoke a bong, all completely legally – if they had a medical card, of course. Although it’s not yet legal like Colorado, Israel was one of the first places in the world to legalise the herb medicinally, in the 1990s. Today, even the right-wing politicians back legalisation, although a bill allowing up to fifteen plants for personal use fell through last year.

Karam learned about medicinal cannabis while working as a psychiatric nurse, which is also when he met his friend, Samuel.

“We are not doctors, but we can issue it – lawfully, of course,” said Samuel. “Karam handles the Muslims, Druze, and everything Arabic, while I handle everyone else – Jews, Russians. If a Frenchman will come, I don’t speak French, but I’ll find a way.”

The way it worked was this: Karam spread the word about medical marijuana in his community, told clients which conditions make them eligible for a marijuana prescription, and referred them to nearby pharmacies where they could place an order to be picked up either at the pharmacy itself, or the coffee shop. Although plenty of Israelis smoke anyway (according to official data, around 27% of the nation are regular stoners), ordering through pharmacies guarantees a level of quality control unlike the black market, and shields you if your boss wants you drug-tested. Karam also worked to reduce the stigma surrounding the plant, particularly in the conservative Muslim community, finding justification in the holy texts.

“There’s a very strong stigma against cannabis smokers, and people are ashamed to do it because if they’re caught, they’ll be known as a pothead,” Karam explained. “I opened a place where dudes with illnesses and even old ladies can do it openly and without fear of gaining a bad reputation.”

There’s a very strong stigma against cannabis smokers… I opened a place where dudes with illnesses and even old ladies can do it openly and without fear

But more than that, Smokey Monkey was a community, attracting both Arab and Jewish clientele. Karam wanted to promote unity so he hung both Israeli and UAE flags over the shop (the very similar Palestinian flag isn’t banned in Israel, but it can draw unwanted scrutiny). Inside, he hung a photo of soldier Oz Mendelovich, who died in an operation in Gaza. But given the heated politics of the region and the attitudes of many towards what they see as the devil’s lettuce, not everyone was fully appreciative. Three days after it opened, Karam received an anonymous phone call, threatening to kill him and burn the coffee shop down. 

“I didn’t buy the threat, because anyone who really wanted to threaten me would come and do it in person, but I installed more cameras,” he recalled. “But most of our complaints in the first few months came not from religious institutions, who understood the medical need immediately, but ordinary people who thought I was bringing Amsterdam to Tira. And then with the whole thing with the flag and the photo of the soldier, they started calling me a traitor: ‘What are you doing? Are you giving a fuck about the Arab community?’ And criminals took advantage of that.”

Crime is a serious issue in deprived Arab communities, where few trust the cops and the rule of law has been abandoned to mafia-type clans who solve their differences with the vast stockpiles of firearms left over from the Arab-Israeli conflict. On the night of the 24th of April, Smokey Monkey was burnt down. Police are investigating the case as arson. Karam believes the controversy about his alleged pro-Israeli sympathies was used as cover by drug dealers to get rid of their competition.

“I thought this life was over because I invested everything in it: I quit my job and invested 600,000 shekels. It was everything I worked for,” Karam said. “When my shop burnt, all the help and support I got was from my Jewish customers in the Jewish community.”

Only the photo of Staff Sergeant Oz Mendelovich was left untouched by the flames.

But, he added, as one door closed another ten opened, as companies are now approaching him as a bridge to the Arab community for Israel’s growing medical marijuana industry. He plans to open another coffee shop in Tel Aviv, and one day, to introduce medical cannabis to Dubai, a part of the world not exactly known for being relaxed about mary jane. Karam hopes that by convincing religious leaders of its healing qualities, it may become halal (accepted) by Muslim law.

“As you can see from meeting us, people who smoke grass – including Arabs, Jews and Muslims – put aside their politics and become friends,” he said, as he and Sam stood up to leave. “They began to call each other: where are you? Let’s go smoke, I’m waiting for you at the coffee shop. I brought Arabic treats and cakes. And that’s the answer to your million dollar question.”

Additional research by Yoni Elgart. Photos courtesy of Karam Shbeeta.



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