Jerry Seinfeld drew criticism earlier this month when it emerged that while in Israel to perform in Tel Aviv, the famous comedian visited an air force base and took his family to a tourist attraction in the occupied West Bank for ideological and military instruction.
Caliber 3, the Israeli firm that runs what Israeli newspaper Haaretz calls an “anti-terror fantasy camp,” boasted about the Seinfeld family’s patronage in a Facebook post on 7 January.
“Finally we are allowed to tell you!! The legendary Jerry Seinfeld and his family were at Caliber 3 during their visit to Israel last week, they came to us for shooting training with displays of combat, Krav Maga [martial arts], assault dogs and lots of Zionism,” the post – which has since been deleted – said, according to Haaretz.
Currently located in the settlement of Efrat, Caliber 3 says it was founded in 2002 by Colonel Sharon Gat and “works in close cooperation” with the Israeli army.
Seinfeld was not the first high-profile American entertainer to receive Israeli military training-as-tourism.
In this June 2017 report, Israel’s Channel 10 noted that the veteran American rock band Aerosmith had recently taken a course with Caliber 3:
The report features a photograph of the band’s lead guitarist Joe Perry posing with a machine gun, surrounded by Caliber 3 instructors wearing Israeli army fatigues.
The video also reveals that the training courses include live weapons fire on targets designed to look like Palestinians and simulated armed combat in faux Palestinian villages.
Reinforcing anti-Palestinian narrative
For millions of Palestinians, Israel’s military is an occupying army that prevents their refugee relatives from returning home, crushes almost every aspect of their lives and regularly kills, maims and imprisons them and their children with impunity.
There are, for instance, currently 350 Palestinian children in Israeli military custody.
Israel’s supporters, however, believe that the sectarian army’s seven decades of experience are evidence of its acumen and claim it is one of the most effective and moral fighting forces in the world.
Seinfeld’s antics embody a stream of American liberalism that abhors guns and the gun culture at home, but glorifies Israeli militarism and violence whose targets are Palestinians.
In recent years, some Israeli entrepreneurs have moved to capitalize on the soldiers’ ill-gotten reputations as combat crackerjacks: training tourists of all age groups to shoot cardboard cut-outs of Palestinians.
“In a world under terror attacks, Israel is no longer only a major exporter of weapons. Now it also provides the real deal – live-fire training sessions for Becky’s bat mitzvah,” the Channel 10 report states, as it interviews American tourists who appear to be in awe of Israel.
Most of Caliber 3’s customers are from the United States but the company is also increasingly reaching out to Chinese tourists.
The two-hour Caliber 3 “experience” – which starts with a simulated hijacking of the tourists’ bus – costs from $85 for children to $115 for adults, but the company makes more from selling souvenirs. One of their popular gift shop items is a bullet hung from a necklace chain, selling for about $28.
The “thrill” of occupation
For some customers, Caliber 3’s location in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinians live under military rule, is a positive attraction.
This “only intensifies the thrill for the visitors, who often appear disappointed when told by their guides that they are not in any danger,” a 2012 article about Caliber 3 on Israeli news site Ynet observed.
At that time, at least one promoter of Israeli tourism to Jewish-only West Bank settlements worried that their reputations could be further tarnished by associating them with militarism.
“For years we have been looking to change the perception,” a former tourism official Yoram Bitane told the AFP news agency in 2012. “The image given by Caliber 3 is contrary to that goal.”
But Caliber 3 and similar firms have figured out how to monetize Israel’s image as a militarized garrison surrounded by “terrorist” enemies in what writer Matt Carr calls an “overlap between entertainment, voyeurism and propaganda.”
Channel 10 acknowledges the connection, noting that “the success of drama series like Homeland and Fauda may mean the dawn of a world in which kidnappings and attacks serve as entertainment for the masses.”
And not surprisingly, the line between entertainment and real-life brutal, racialized violence is a blurry one. “I never shot anybody. But I’m going to learn how to shoot some f-ing Palestinian,” one American tourist tells Channel 10.
A 2017 Al Jazeera documentary shows visitors to Caliber 3 learning to shoot to kill. Their instructor demonstrates this with a poster depicting a man wearing the traditional Palestinian checkered headscarf, or kuffiyeh.
These military simulation centers have profited and proliferated in recent years.
However practicing to shoot Palestinians – and doing it for real – has been a traditional tourist activity in Israel for decades.
And Jews from around the world volunteer for Israeli military training, often starting during their “gap year,” between high school and college – an opportunity that is marketed as the “Ultimate Israel Experience.”
These programs expose foreign teenagers to the kind of hardcore military indoctrination to which Israeli Jewish high-schoolers are subjected.
Shortened programs that might last only a few weeks promise foreign visitors they will “strengthen your ties to Israel.” But the goal is clear: to entice them to stay on or return permanently as full-fledged combat soldiers.
In addition to recruiting foreign teens, the Israeli army also targets older adults – including senior citizens – to help out on bases.
One of the most famous graduates of this program is Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama’s first White House chief of staff and now mayor of Chicago, who volunteered on a base repairing tanks during the early 1990s.
Foreign fighters may have served an important purpose in the early years of the Israeli state, when its army was short of troops.
In the current age of highly mechanized warfare, militaries no longer require as many foot soldiers; in recent years, Israel has even cut the duration of mandatory military service.
Still, Israel continues to train foreign fighters, who make up about three percent of its army’s ranks, according to the Al Jazeera documentary.
It’s not because Israel needs more soldiers on the battlefield, but because it needs more fighters in its propaganda war.
By recruiting tourists into its army, Israel hopes to cement their loyalty to Zionism, convert them to permanent immigrants and turn cautious supporters of the Israeli state into passionate patriots and vocal advocates.
Moreover, in their home countries, the so-called “lone soldiers” serve as a rallying point for Jewish organizations, who can use them as the beneficiaries of fundraisers and other events that aim to propagandize Jewish communities in support of Israel.
Donations from pro-Israel groups abroad have included care packages and even equipment soldiers may use during attacks on Palestinians.
Companies like Caliber 3 may be motivated by profit but they are also part of Israel’s ideological apparatus.
As Haaretz put it last year, these firms describe their mission in “idealistic terms” – “showing the world that all the awful things said about the IDF [Israeli army] abroad have no basis whatsoever and that this is the most wonderful and moral army that exists.”
“We’re running a Zionist tourist project here, that when people complete it, they have tears in their eyes,” Caliber 3 founder Sharon Gat told Israeli television last year. He added that his satisfied customers tell him, “Now we can be better ambassadors for the State of Israel.”
In this context, many observers do not see Seinfeld’s and Aerosmith’s Israeli-themed military training as harmless fun and adventure, but as moral disappointments and a clear endorsement of Israel’s anti-Palestinian narrative and violence that continues to deprive millions of their most basic rights.