During a subsequent briefing, Zohan expresses his displeasure about having his vacation cut short. After being heckled by his officer, he eventually agrees to do yet another mission of recapturing a key Palestinian terrorist, the "Phantom" (John Turturro), who had been freed by the Israeli government in exchange for a captured Mossad agent, plus an additional "to-be-named-later" spy. Later, as Zohan expresses his desire to leave Israel and become a hairdresser in New York City, his wishes are met with laughter by his mother and his father, who had fought in Israel's Six-Day War.
The disgruntled Zohan fakes his own death during the pursuit of the Phantom, who is tricked into believing he had killed Zohan. Zohan smuggles himself into a flight to New York City in a pet crate of two dogs named Scrappy and Coco. Changing his hairstyle into a 1980s Paul Mitchell's Avalon style and taking "Scrappy Coco" as a new alias, he sets out to pursue his dreams in the Big Apple.
Initially unsuccessful in getting hired at an upscale Paul Mitchell salon (as well as an African American salon and a children's salon), Zohan's military expertise earns him a new friend, Michael (Nick Swardson), who gives him a place to stay. However, Michael feels uncomfortable with Zohan's sexual activities with Michael's mother, Gail (Lainie Kazan). Zohan's passion for disco (Discothèques) runs him into a fellow Israeli named Uri (Ido Mosseri), a Zohan fan who is aware of Scrappy Coco's true identity but agrees to keep it a secret. Uri introduces him to a block in lower Manhattan filled with Middle Eastern Americans, who are split between a Palestinian side and an Israeli side of the street.
Zohan attempts to land a job in a struggling salon of a Palestinian woman named Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui). After first only allowing the ostentatious Zohan to sweep floors for free, she eventually allows him to be a stylist after he pleases a senior lady with a satisfactory haircut and back room sexual service. Zohan's reputation spreads instantly among the elder women of lower Manhattan, who comment that "besides the sex, he gives a pretty good haircut." Dalia's business booms, upsetting Walbridge (Michael Buffer), a corporate magnate who has been trying to force out all the local tenants on the block so that he may build a huge mall. Zohan brags to his colleague Claude (Alec Mapa) that he has a big one, which is understood as big penis, but he meant big amount of pubic hair.
Eventually Zohan is identified by a Palestinian cab driver named Salim (Rob Schneider), whose goat Zohan had stolen after Salim threw his shoe at Zohan and spit in his face. Salim convinces his friends to help him exact revenge on Zohan. He rebuffs their advice to "let the professionals" take care of it because Salim wants the glory of killing Zohan for himself. He and his friends decide to build a bomb, but they are unsure how to do so. Thinking that they need "chemicals," Salim and his friends walk into a pharmacy and try to ask for liquid nitroglycerin. Hearing Salim's mispronunciation, the pharmacist instead presents Salim with Neosporin. Seeing that the Neosporin doesn't destroy Zohan's workplace, Salim reluctantly informs Phantom through a Hezbollah hotline. Now a successful fastfood chain owner, Phantom then pays a visit to New York to hunt Zohan down.
Meanwhile, Zohan realizes that he has fallen in love with Dalia when he discovers that he has unexplainable erectile disfunction except in her presence. However, Dalia rejects Zohan's feelings for her after he reveals he was formerly an Israeli counter-terrorist operative. Zohan decides to leave Dalia and confront the Phantom in a Hacky Sack game. His fight is cut short with sudden news of the Middle Eastern block being attacked by racist white arsonists dressed in Arabic clothing, the leader of them being played by Dave Matthews. (The arsonists are hired by Walbridge to instigate an inter-ethnic riot between the Israelis and Palestinians and hopefully allow him to take over their stores more easily.)
As Zohan and Phantom are working together to save the block, Dalia appears, revealing that she is the Phantom's sister – or "Fattoush" as she calls him. Zohan's personal dossier allows him to discover the arsonists' true identities as rednecks hired by Walbridge. Zohan and Phantom lead the united Israelis and Palestinians of the block to save their shops, defeating the rednecks, thwarting Walbridge's plans, and damaging all of the shops on the block, as well as Walbridge's female companions' breast implants, by using "The Sound" which is a combination of stereotypical Arabic rhythmic calling and stereotypical Hebrew "chhhh" sounds. The police arrive to arrest Walbridge for his crimes.
With the Israelis and the Palestinians united, the block is transformed into a collectively-owned mall, in which Zohan and Dalia realize their dream, opening a joint beauty parlor. The Phantom also fulfills his lifelong passion of opening up a shoe store. The movie ends happily as Zohan's parents approve of his new wife (Dalia) and hair salon, called "Dalohan," becoming customers themselves in a surprise visit.
Sandler, Smigel, and Apatow wrote the first draft of the script in 2000, but the movie was put on hold after the events of 9/11 because those involved felt that the subject would be too sensitive. During an interview, Smigel indicated that Apatow left the project after the first draft in 2000 to work on his show Undeclared and that he has, for the most part, not been involved in the project since.
The movie features elements that first appeared in the SNL sketches "Sabra Shopping Network" and "Sabra Price is Right", which starred Tom Hanks and were written by Robert Smigel. They originated lines such as 'Sony guts' and 'Disco, Disco, good, good'. The first is also notable for featuring one of Adam Sandler's first (uncredited) television appearances while the second featured Sandler, Schneider, Smigel and Kevin Nealon in supporting parts.
Robert Smigel worked with Sandler on past films including Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, Little Nicky, etc, but this is the first time in which he has been credited for helping to write the script. He was also an executive producer on the film which allowed him to further contribute to the movie's comedic sense.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz commented that the movie was known in Hollywood circles as the "Israeli movie." Haaretz also noted that while "Israeli actors were rushing to audition [for the movie], the response among Arab actors was far from enthusiastic. (Emmanuelle Chriqui, who plays Zohan's Palestinian love interest, was born and raised an Orthodox Jew.) One possible explanation is that Sandler, who is known as a patron of causes for Israel, is not so popular in the Arab world." Arab actor Sayed Badreya was quoted as saying that "Adam Sandler, in the Arab and Muslim communities, is not having a good reputation." But Sayed then noted that "When it came to working with Adam, I was like, 'Eh, well, I don't know.' My prejudice was bigger than me."
Scattered amid the more puerile humor of the film are some "good and unexpectedly sophisticated jokes" revolving around Israel-Arab conflicts in the Middle East, according to critic John Podhoretz. One joke involves the frequent trading of prisoners from Israel with prisoners held by Arab states or groups, another is about preparations for future fighting even as peace talks are ongoing. Some material is taken from Israeli culture, including a running joke about hummus and a supposedly Israeli orange soda called "Fizzy Bubblech". The Zohan character is a pushtak — a stereotypical figure of "punk" in Israel, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, and the equivalent of a Guido in the United States. "The classic pushtak saunters down a Tel Aviv street with a pack of cigarettes rolled up inside his T-shirt sleeve," according to Podhoretz. "He believes he is God's gift to the world, especially to the ladies, and he takes himself with the utmost seriousness even as others laugh at him."
Sandler researched the role and took inspiration from real-life 'Zohan' characters the Arbib brothers; Nezi, Shaoul and Shalom Arbib. The brothers are former Israeli soldiers and hairstylists. Nezi Arbib runs Shampoo Too in Solana Beach, California, and Shaoul and Shalom Arbib continue to run Shampoo, the brothers' original salon in West Hollywood, California.
The film is the second major Hollywood studio release in 3 years to feature an Israeli protagonist, the other being the Israeli assassins in Steven Spielberg's film Munich, who hunted down and killed the men believed to responsible for killing Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games, according to Podhoretz. (Before that there was Paul Newman's character in the 1960 film Exodus.) Israeli characters in Hollywood films are more often villains, including hit men in Last Embrace, a lascivious wife of an arms dealer in Internal Affairs, bodyguards for a Jewish gangster's gay son in Lucky Number Slevin, and murderous Zionist conspirators in both Eyewitness and Homicide..
The film features actors of both Arab and non-Arab descent playing Arabs. Egyptian-American comedian Ahmed Ahmed plays a bit part as a Palestinian-American, whereas Jewish-Filipino Rob Schneider plays Salim Husaamdiyaa, a Palestinian American who recognizes Zohan in New York. The movie begins with comments from Zohan dismissing his Palestinian adversaries' complaints that Israel encroached on Palestinian lands, but moves toward a conciliatory tone where Palestinian and Israeli-American characters say they don't want to fight any more.
Numerous times throughout the film, a conversation among Israelis and Palestinians who live on Zohan's street begins with some sort of accusation against one or the other, but the animosity ends up becoming more mundane - for example, a Palestinian accuses the Israelis of spraying anti-Arab graffiti on his shop, but the argument eventually transforms into a joint discussion on their preferences regarding politician's wives.
The movie also addresses stereotypes held by Americans regarding Middle Easterners and Arabs in particular. Zohan is mistaken for an Arab by an angry commuter, who tells him to "get back to his pretzel stand". A traditionally clad and bearded Palestinian (Bashir) complains that all Arabs have been stereotyped as terrorists, but a fellow Arab points out that even he wouldn't get on the same plane as Nasser due to his appearance. Similarly, one of the Israelis complains to the Arabs that "people don't like us, because we look like you!"
Despite (or because of) this conciliatory and humorous take on the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as much sexual humor, the film has been banned in Arab states.
John Podhoretz, in The Weekly Standard, wrote that the movie has a "mess" of a plot and features, "as usual for Sandler, plenty of dumb humor of the sort that gives dumb humor a bad name, but that delights his 14-year-old-boy fan base". But the film also has an "unusual" amount of "tantalizing comic ideas" so that "every 10 minutes or so, it makes you explode with laughter."
On the positive side, TIME claimed the film to be a "laugh riot", and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 3 out of 4 stars. David Edelstein of New York Magazine went as far as to say "Adam Sandler is mesmerizing" and A.O Scott of The New York Times said it was "the finest post-Zionist action-hairdressing sex comedy I have ever seen". Entertainment Weekly gave the movie a C+ grade, calling it "another 'mess' from Sandler" which is, unlike Monty Python, a "circus that never flies".