Bingeing On Ecstasy

At 3 in the morning, Elon Daizada is hanging out in front of Allenby 58, one of Tel Aviv's hottest dance clubs. With his spiked yellow hair, black jeans and white patent-leather shoes, he's preening before a flamboyantly dressed bouncer, hoping to be admitted. Inside, the earsplitting thump of techno pop is shaking the foundations of the club, which is at the center of Israel's thriving rave culture. Tattooed, pierced--and in many cases fueled by the drug ecstasy--the clubbers writhe with abandon.

Not long ago, Daizada was dodging Hizbullah guerrillas instead of fellow ravers. He finished serving his mandatory tour with the Israeli Army in southern Lebanon late last year, and is proud of his sacrifice. "I love this land like my own family," the 22-year-old says. "I would die for this country." But Daizada also reflects another powerful current among young Israelis: in an era of relative peace and prosperity, they are cutting loose--often by consuming drugs. Standing outside Allenby 58, Daizada marvels at the new Israel. "Something big is happening here," he says. "The old men can't tell us what to do anymore." Cocking his head, grinning and pumping a fist into the warm Mediterranean air, he can barely contain his enthusiasm: "Now we have ecstasy!"

And in record quantities. What began here in the early 1990s as an underground drug for the artsy Tel Aviv fringe is fast going mainstream. When the rave scene hit Israel in the mid-1990s, ecstasy, a mildly psychedelic drug that produces feelings of euphoria, took off with a vengeance. Though marijuana is still the most popular drug in the country, ecstasy is catching up, especially among the younger set. Police seizures of ecstasy have skyrocketed; in 1998 Israeli authorities seized 118,000 tablets of the drug, most of it coming into Ben-Gurion Airport from Belgium and the Netherlands, where it is produced. Last year police confiscated 465,000 hits--a 400 percent increase.

The drug's growing popularity at home has inspired Israeli dealers to go global. In recent months, U.S. drug authorities have cracked at least three major ecstasy rings run by Israelis. In February, six Israeli nationals were arrested in the United States and accused of running a multimillion-dollar ecstasy network. Federal drug authorities will soon make arrests in several other ecstasy-trafficking cases involving Israelis, a senior law-enforcement official tells NEWSWEEK. In one case, the Feds have gathered evidence that the Israelis have been laundering millions of dollars in drug profits through rabbinical schools in the New York area. According to U.S. Customs Commissioner Ray Kelly, Israeli syndicates now dominate the worldwide ecstasy trade.

Ecstasy's global appeal is easy to understand. It's relatively cheap (about $15 a hit for a high that can last three to six hours). A synthetic hybrid of the hallucinogen mescaline and the stimulant amphetamine, ecstasy is not a "dropout" drug like heroin; kids can pop the little breath-mint-size pills on the weekend and return to work or school during the week, largely unaffected. Though research indicates that ecstasy--or MDMA, as it's known to chemists--may cause long-term harm, including heart and kidney problems or memory loss, it is rarely fatal.

Still, many Israelis are drawn to the drug for homegrown reasons. Deep into a peace process that most believe will end well, the country is finally opening up. The dance scene may be the most obvious expression of the new openness. Israelis no longer think they have to submerge their individualism to a collective struggle. "In Zionism we were all committed to the same cause," says Israeli journalist and social critic Ari Shavit. "We were always under demand to serve that cause, and there was always a sense of guilt if we didn't." Put in the ravers' vernacular: "Israelis are really going mental," says Adi Shabat, a 23-year-old clubber whose father is a top aide to Israeli Education Minister Yossi Sarid. Although the drug is illegal, Israeli law-enforcement officials tend to target the biggest dealers, leaving the weekend ravers alone. Still, possession of ecstasy--as of heroin and cocaine--is considered a serious offense, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

For many, ecstasy helps ease the tensions of this volatile and fractious society. Users say the drug induces feelings of warmth and tolerance. Step into a Tel Aviv nightclub at 5 a.m., and you'll see large groups of sweaty teenagers embracing on the dance floor. The techno pop may be deafening, but it drowns out the high decibels of Israeli life. "Ecstasy makes Israelis mellow," says Benny Meir, a rave promoter from the resort town of Eilat. "To see 600 or 700 people crowded together like this with no aggression, this is the appeal."

In addition, Israelis like ecstasy because it makes them feel connected to the rest of the world. On Web sites dedicated to the rave scene, Israelis chat with Brits, Swedes, Americans and others about the latest e-vogues. Now Israelis are not only part of this global culture, they are in its vanguard. The top DJs from Berlin, Amsterdam and London are spinning their discs in Israeli nightclubs. "The Israelis are great and grotesque," says DJ Montana, one of the Netherlands' up-and-coming techno DJs, sipping wine on the beach in Eilat. "These people know how to party," he says, biding his time before that night's rave kicks off at about 1:30 a.m.

But while some Israelis clearly relish their admission to the club, others fret. "There is something sexy about the scene," says Shavit. "But at the heart of this culture, it says, 'We cannot stand the Israeli condition'." Even those who embrace the techno-drug culture have doubts. Guy Osherov, 23, who occasionally hits the clubs, says the hunger for ecstasy is "an act of desperation," a pursuit of harmony. "But when Israelis leave the clubs," he says, "they go back to beeping their horns and shouting. Nothing changes."

Don't tell Elon Daizada, still waiting to get into Allenby 58 as dawn begins to break. "These are the greatest days for Israel," he says. Until the high wears off, anyway.