Stars and Bucks in Bethlehem — a cafe or something more?

The West Bank city of Bethlehem is the traditional site of Jesus’s birthplace. Tourist flock to the 4th century Church of the Nativity, which marks the spot. Some of them are bound to see Stars and Bucks, just down the hill from the church plaza.

The logo adorning the big sign in front, and stamped on the plastic cups, looks a lot like Starbucks’. The offerings are a little different though: freshly made juices and smoothies, ice cream and hot drinks like mocha and espresso. There’s (slightly cramped) outdoor and indoor seating. The young men I met working there told me it’s popular with locals and Palestinians from various West Bank cities — and tourists.

Photos by Chetanya Robinson

Though I’d read about it in other travel blogs and reviews, I wanted to find out more — who started it and why? Was it just a quirky Starbucks lookalike, or was there more to it?

Apparently, the story of Stars and Bucks is well-known among Palestinians. My Arabic teacher in Jerusalem, where I was studying, later told me about how after the founder applied to open a Starbucks branch in the West Bank and was refused, he started his own version.

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Raed Arafat (right), said to be the CEO of Stars and Bucks. Photo from Facebook.

That man might be Raed Arafat, who according to the guys working at the Bethlehem Stars and Bucks is the head, “the CEO.” They said Arafat runs Stars and Bucks branches in the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem.

I found a Raed Arafat on Facebook who listed his job as manager at Stars and Bucks. Hometown of Ramallah, now living in California. He never responded to my messages.

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However, I was able to learn a bit about the political meaning behind the company from the guys working there.

“Of course we know that Starbucks supports Israel, gives money to Israel,” they said. Bahia, a young activist I met at Stars and Bucks (and who only wanted to be identified by her first name), translated from Arabic.

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“One of the first goals that they had when they started Stars and Bucks was that they could create a counterpart that is Palestinian and supports Palestinians,” she translated. “The fact that they changed the name to Stars and Bucks is emphasizing their position as a counterpart to Starbucks.”

The name was also chosen for business reasons, the guys told me. The idea was that tourists who visit the Church of the Nativity will already associate Starbucks with good quality coffee, and so might give Stars and Bucks a try. According to them, the name has generated a lot of profit already.

If you want to do the same, Stars and Bucks is fairly easy to find. If you walk down the main road from Manger Square, (and you’re like most people in the Starbucks-colonized world) the round green logo of Stars and Bucks will be impossible to miss.

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