“Come visit Israel, where you can stop by the Western Wall, tour the Holocaust Museum, view the Dead Sea Scrolls, and shoot live bullets at cardboard cutouts of Palestinian terrorists!”
Israel is becoming a destination for a whole new experience: it’s called military tourism, and there are half a dozen companies that run these popular fantasy camps—some on settlements in the occupied West Bank, others in Israel. They are also running these camps in the U.S. (see details below).
An excellent introduction to this latest recreational activity can be found in a heart-stopping two-minute roller coaster of a video (see below). Here is a transcript, with a few comments, to get things started.
The video opens with Sharon Gat, founder and CEO of one fantasy camp, Caliber 3. He is dressed in fatigues and sports dark glasses. Gat is speaking to a group of tourists—at the moment, a group from Hong Kong.
“The first demo,” he bellows in drill sergeant fashion, “is the reaction to a terror attack. But before we go into the demo, let me ask you a question: what is terror?”
The answer to his rhetorical question is visible: various posters hang in the makeshift target practice room. Some are menacing-looking men in ski masks or red-and-white kuffiyehs; others are innocent-looking men in clothes roughly the same color as Gat’s. Soldiers run out from between the tourists and shoot live bullets point blank at the men in kuffiyehs and ski masks.
Next we see an attack dog hanging onto the padded arm of a man in an orange jumpsuit and ski mask. Then the tour group, including a little girl in a ponytail, is seen walking through what looks like a weapon display, and wall covered with posters like the ones used in the target practice demo. Some are of “good guys” (Israeli-looking) and “bad guys,” (kuffiyeh-wearing) some are just outlines. These designate the middle of the target’s chest and forehead as A, neck as B, and outer areas of chest as C and D.
One of the instructors, Yoav Flayshman, speaks: “This place was founded, and still stands, for the purpose of training Jews and friends of Israel all over the world how to defend themselves and their families.”
What does that statement mean? Do all Jews need military training to defend themselves and their families? Are Jews worldwide at risk of terror attacks? What dangerous world do they live in? Or is the unspoken message, “This place exists for the purpose of rationalizing Israeli violence to the world by inventing a narrative of how Jews in Israel are innocent victims who must always be on the defensive”?
Yoav continues: “The program [is a] match for families, and I definitely recommend for kids to come here because everything we say here is about morality, values, and education.”
This statement begs the question, what is the Israeli definition of morality? How to discern right from wrong? What morality will families learn at camp?
One way to find out would be to look at the Israeli army after which the camps are modeled. The IDF has been called (mostly by its own leaders) “the most moral army in the world.” IDF morality seems to include:
- a shoot-to-kill policy toward everyone including stone throwers
- collective punishment as a norm
- few or no restrictions on dealing with minors
- permission to assign detention without charge
- and more
Is that the kind of morality that military fantasy camp teaches children? What about values? Will this camp teach children the importance of overpowering others, of considering Israeli lives more valuable than others’? What about education? Kids can learn how to get an A: by aiming at the forehead or center of the chest.
An American tourist, Matt Parker, speaks next in the video: “My ten-year-old, when we first got here and he heard the shooting, said he wasn’t going to do it. But now that he’s involved in it, he seems to enjoy it a lot.”
Great – now we have one young American who might have grown up pursuing peace, but has developed a taste for guns.
A tourist from Hong Kong speaks: I was surprised it was real arms. I thought it was the bullet without hats [blanks]. The holy books say you don’t use sword, for those who use sword will be killed by sword [a New Testament reference to a teaching by Jesus]. But for life protection, I really understand why they do all this, to protect the civilians.
This tourist has bought into the narrative that Jewish lives are in constant danger. The Palestinian threat is so dire that Israeli Jews should be exempt from obedience to their holy book. Israeli violence is normalized.
The irony here is that Israel was created to be a safe haven for Jews, but it is actually the most dangerous place in the world for them to live. Somehow they hope that better gun skills will make their lives safer.
Matt speaks again: “Just very, very cool, something I don’t know if you can get anywhere else in the world. So far it’s been awesome, and I’m looking forward to shooting a gun. [He is called from off camera.] Ok, great, now I’m going to go shoot something.”
“So far it’s been awesome” is a statement of privilege that does not acknowledge the existence or humanity of the victim. “Now I’m going to go shoot something” is not far off from “a Palestinian is a something, not a someone.” It’s a slippery slope.
Back in the USA – summer camp indoctrination
Matt would be excited to hear that there are other places in the world where he and his ten-year-old son can get this experience: the United States. Caliber 3 has scheduled a number of trainings, from San Diego to Connecticut. One can only wonder whether the instructors will bring the same morality, values, and education that they teach in Israel—and in Israeli settlements on land expropriated from Palestinians in the West Bank.
There are already camps in the U.S. that feature Israeli military training. For example, last year Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper described a promotional video for a private New York Modern Orthodox Jewish sports camp for kids aged 8-16 called Camp Mesorah, which has been in operation since 1990. The video promotes the camp’s “IDF Training Program.” (Many rabbis and Jewish educators objected vehemently to the video.) Ha’aretz reports:
It looks like a slick military recruiting video – exciting background music pulsing in the background, soldiers in training wearing camouflage and face masks crawling through the mud as a commander urges them on, wielding rifles as they ambush an enemy in the wilderness, and, at the end, an Israeli flag waving patriotically in the background with the message to “Enlist Now” printed across the screen.
But the uniformed participants in the video aren’t soldiers – they’re children at a private New York Modern Orthodox Jewish sports camp for kids aged 8-16 called Camp Mesorah. The video promotes the camp’s “IDF Training Program…”
This is one of many American Jewish summer camps which, according to Ha’aretz, “deliver an ideological Zionist message to campers.”
The Foundation for Jewish Camp reports that “Israeli culture is celebrated through song, food, art, and dance.” The IDF is often glorified. One describes a program in which campers get “their official Jedi training inspired by CIA, Mossad, IDF and George Lucas.” Another extolls the creativity of camp staff who “make Capture the Mattress into an IDF operation complete with medics, artillery, and intelligence units.”
Alternet highlights a double standard: “If you are a young Muslim American and head off to the Middle East for a spell in a fundamentalist “madrassa,” or religious school, Homeland Security will probably greet you at the airport when you return. But if you are an American Jew and you join hundreds of teenagers from Europe and Mexico for an eight-week training course run by the Israel Defense Forces, you can post your picture wearing an Israeli army uniform and holding an automatic weapon on [social media].” This is the Marva program, “part summer camp part indoctrination,” which was launched in Israel in 1981.
Then there’s Gadna, which has been around as long as Israel itself. Its purpose, according to Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, was “training for peace and not for war.” It is a voluntary organization, under the auspices of the IDF, for Israeli youth that trains its members in physical fitness, marksmanship, and more. Its members have been called upon in times of emergency – for example during the 6-Day War – but for the most part it operates within a school framework.
Of course, police in the US have for years been trained by Israeli military both in Israel and in the US. But that’s a whole different subject for another day.
Are Hamas camps the same?
Not surprisingly, Hamas has camps too. But these are not for American tourists. They’re for a population living under a decades-long Israeli occupation, 10-year-siege, and frequent invasions. In some senses these are similar to French resistance work against the German occupation during World War II – except that the Israeli occupation, now at 50 years and counting, has been over 12 times longer.
One trainer at the Hamas-led camps explains that they are there to “boost the Palestinian resistance and to give Gaza’s frustrated and unemployed youths a way to blow off steam — and shoot some guns.”
Another trainer points out that after more than 2,100 Palestinians were killed in the 2014 summer Israeli invasion, “we have plenty who want to join. They want to retaliate. They want revenge. Especially those who lost a family member.” These teens remember the Israeli assaults on Gaza in 2008, 2012 and 2014, during which hundreds of children were killed. They are aware that Gaza is always expecting the next war, and they want to be physically fit and ready to join the ranks when the time comes.
And in between these major invasions, Israeli forces shell and invade Gaza every week. Recently, for example, farmers have been killed, Israeli army vehicles have invaded, and soldiers have bulldozed farmland in Gaza.
What if Palestinians stop resisting, as some suggest they should?—They figure to lose what little they have left. Humanitarian reports state that Gaza may become “unlivable” by 2020.
What if, instead of Palestinians giving up, Israel lightens up a little on its punishing military presence? Palestinians will be able to let up on their resistance—there will be less to resist. Both sides will be able to get on with their lives just a little. But until that happens, the resistance will continue to train.
Media double standard
The internet went ballistic in June of 2016 with news reports of a kindergarten graduation ceremony in Gaza that included “small children performing military style terrorist drills.” One photo caption reads, “Small children are dressed up as terrorists and raid a house with an Israeli flag”; another reads, “the young boys [move] around the stage in a tactical fashion, as if they were terrorists.” The narrator of the skit recites a poem: “Stab! Kill the occupier with stones and knives. Use any available weapon. From the edge of fire, when the blood calls to arms, the morning rises.”
The initial response to such a report may be outrage—but a little information and original thinking will reveal that this is something much less ominous. If Palestinians have, by international law, the right to resist the occupation even with violence (and they do), then these kindergarteners are pretending to be not “terrorists,” but “soldiers.”
American children and Israeli children similarly dress up as soldiers. A recent trend in Israel was for children to dress up (video here) as Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier who had shot a wounded Palestinian in the head as he lay unarmed and unmoving on the ground.
Message of Gaza skit
The Gaza school skit was an act of patriotism, not of savagery. The enemy was identified as “the occupier,” not “the Jew.” After the skit is over, the narrator invites a special guest to the stage: a leader of Islamic Jihad. Surely his message will be one of suicide bombing and blood. But it is the opposite. He says,
The message of the children of Palestine today is a message of love to the whole world. The love that we bear in our hearts is enough to be distributed among all the people of Earth. However, it is this Zionist enemy that kills the children, the women and the elderly, and is occupying the land. It is the enemy that forces us to bear arms, and protect our mothers and fathers, our elderly and the honor of our womenfolk.
The message that these children send the Zionist enemy today is: “We do not want to kill anyone. We are not terrorists or murderers. We do not want to kill you. Get out of our land. Palestine has its owners. Do not force us to kill you. Indeed, if you continue with your aggression, with the plundering of our land, and with the defiling of our Jerusalem, we shall bear arms. We shall be the soldiers of the future, God willing.
In other words, violence is optional. Love and peace are the Palestinians’—even Hamas’—first choice. As long as Israel chooses violence, occupation, and injustice, it will receive violence in return. As long as Israel teaches the necessity of total domination, it will experience resistance.
Israel can promote military tourism all it wants, but it’s no fantasy.
Kathryn Shihadah is a staff writer for If Americans Knew.
Video of Caliber 3 Training described above: