Giddy with mental images of action-film heroics, we hold our lines as the commanders inspect the positioning of our shotguns.
“What is the foundation of the Israeli Defense Force!” shouts Moshe, the chiseled special forces leader.
“Love! The IDF is built on morals and values!” we yell back.
A sudden bang, and we are jolted from our formation by a man running at us with a knife. We scatter like bowling pins as trained soldiers crash through our sagging lines, shouting and shoving us out of the way before taking him down.
The “terrorist” is an actor, of course. Our shotguns are wooden props, the knife was made of rubber, and we—a group of Americans playing at being IDF soldiers for a day—are certainly no elite fighting unit. Once the terrorist has been “subdued” and taken off his mask, Moshe tells us with all due solemnity: “It is important that you take note of details. How many attackers were there? Two, four… did I hear someone say we took down eight? The New York Times will arrive and ask you. And if you say eight, they will report eight.”
The whole thing would make a great sitcom sketch, complete with live fire on metal targets filling in for canned applause. In fact, it’s the kind of thing that you could imagine in an episode of Seinfeld: Kramer, his lanky frame knocking over the cardboard marketplace set; George in some sort of action-hero fantasy charging in blinded rage at one of the implausibly buff, disciplined IDF men; our four heroes slowly realizing that their fellow IDF cosplayers are all Christian fundamentalists.
There’s a good reason that Seinfeld comes to mind. I’m at Caliber 3, “the premier academy for counter terror and security,” made infamous last year when Jerry Seinfeld visited with his family and took photos with the instructors. Caliber 3 posted the photos of Seinfeld on their Facebook page, bragging about the visit: “Finally we are allowed to tell you! Jerry Seinfeld and his family were in Caliber 3. During their visit to Israel last week, they came to us for a special and exciting activity with displays of combat, [the Israeli martial art] Krav Maga, assault dogs and lots of Zionism. It was great.”
As Jerry himself might say, what’s the deal with spending your holiday at an anti-terrorist training center? Set up in 2003 and run by active members of the IDF, Caliber 3 is a sort of fantasy camp for the people who think that “creeping Sharia” is a threat to our way of life, and an increasingly popular stop on the evangelical tourist trail through Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
Not that we hear that word “Palestinian” at all during our “adventure.” The identity of the terrorists goes without saying, just as the stated assertion that they have “forfeited their right to life” also goes without challenge. The evangelical tour group’s leader, Ross Nichols, a Louisianan who really puts the MAGA into the eagle-and-sword Krav Maga t-shirt he’s wearing, says it more bluntly: “Israel is a sheep among the wolves.”
It’s not as though my fellow travelers are frothing at the mouth fundamentalists. They’re perfectly pleasant, red state suburbanites who quietly welcome war with Iran to bring about the end of days.
Nichols himself doesn’t identify as either Christian or Jewish, having assembled his own belief system from the religious currents of what he considers his two homelands. Once a self-described fundamentalist Christian, he was ordained as a minister of the Hebrew Faith through something called the United Israel World Union, Inc. in 2003 and believes that “Christianity was not the religion of Jesus, rather a religion about him.” But perhaps most tellingly, Nichols describes himself as an “ardent Zionist” and “active in the Anti-BDS [Boycott Divestment Sanctions] movement” working on “many fronts to present the Jewish State in a positive light.” To this end, he informs his flock, creepily, that “every Jew is a miracle, so we are seeing not just one miracle but miracles all over the nation of Israel.”
The tour group itself may mostly be made up of more standard-issue evangelical Christians than Nichols represents, but they nevertheless embody the relatively-recent philosemitism of much of America’s Christian right. Only a few decades ago, they might have been calling Moshe and his crew “Christ killers”, but today they are fervent disciples of the gospel of “Judeo-Christian values.” This profound shift is as much political as it is religious.
The driving force here is the looming apocalypse, and the prospect of setting it in motion. For most Christian Zionists, supporting Israel is a stepping stone for God’s plan for the end of days. The prophecies in the Book of Revelation suggest that all Jews need to return to the land of Israel, where supposedly the Jewish state will rule the world before the final conflict can begin. But when the Rapture arrives, it’s not so great for the Jewish people, who must convert or die.
This newfound conservative love for the Jewish people comes from the top down, with Trump last year happily quoting a supporter who called the president “King of Israel,” aping claims by evangelicals that he is their “King Cyrus”, the biblical Persian ruler who freed the Jews from Babylon. Trump might have thrilled hardline Christians and Jews alike when he moved the United States embassy to Jerusalem, but he’s also relied heavily on anti-Semitic tropes. “I’m a negotiator like you folks were negotiators,” he told pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC in 2015. More recently, he said to a Jewish audience, “you’re brutal killers, not nice people at all,” but they have to vote for him, else “you’re going to be out of business in about 15 minutes.” He finished by invoking the age-old stereotype of “dual loyalty” saying there are Jews who “don’t love Israel enough.” Some Jewish groups were quick to condemn the statement, but AIPAC has continued to work with and praise the president in spite of his remarks.
This seeming dissonance has a long history. The Christian right’s firm alliance with modern Israeli Zionism began with the establishment of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in 1979, when then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin found strategic common ground with President Ronald Regan’s evangelical adviser. Today, perhaps the most influential body of American Christian Zionism is Christians United for Israel, formed by John Hagee in 2006, boasting some 8 million members. It routinely advocates for expansion of settlements, increased military aid to Israel, and war with Iran.
Gush Etzion, where Caliber 3 is located, is itself home to many settlements. Swathes of the region were purchased by Jewish settlers in the 1920s and 1930s, at a time when Palestinian lands were often bought from wealthy Arab families outside of Palestine whose names were on the registers due to a quirk of the old Ottoman system. The agricultural villages that were subsequently built on the land were destroyed by the Arab Legion in the years prior to the outbreak of war in 1948. It was left outside of Israel in the 1949 armistice lines, yet Jewish settlements were rebuilt after the 1967 Six-Day War, along with new communities that have expanded the borders of the Etzion bloc.
Today, the enclave is home to around 75,000 largely American-Israelis who moved there in the 1970s. According to international law, and accepted by almost every country outside of America and Israel, the Jewish settlements in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 are illegal, including the 22 settlements of Gush Etzion.
Of course, both this history and the present day reality are noticeably absent from the fantasy camp canon. Neither Nichols nor our IDF commanders mention that this enclave, which melds the dramatic mountainscapes of the region with a dusty suburban ordinariness, is also home to an infamous Israeli detention center. Palestinian activist Issa Amro, 39, has been detained there numerous times, most recently six months ago after he was arrested for filming Israeli settlers in Hebron as they harassed Palestinians on the street.
“It is very close to the tourist camp, but the tourists don’t come to see the situation in the detention centers,” he tells me on the phone from his hometown, where he also leads walking tours to show the other side of the story. “But the terror tourists don’t want to know the real image of the occupation.”
In the West Bank, there are around 100 fixed checkpoints and hundreds more “flying checkpoints”—random stops at the whim of the Israeli military—plus a permit system that severely restricts Palestinians’ freedom of movement, separates families, and causes problems for everything including accessing healthcare to holding a job outside of their immediate neighborhood. It’s bad enough in ordinary times, but recently the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the poor conditions, with thousands of Palestinian workers waiting in cramped lines each day to pass through the checkpoints. For activists like Amro, the constant navigation of discipline and surveillance is part of everyday life. He says that he is routinely detained at the Gush Etzion interrogation center for up to eight days, which (legally) is the longest you can be imprisoned without charge.
“Tourists aren’t coming here to see what it is to be living under military law,” he says. “The idea of training tourists and civilians to use guns is not about justice or fighting terror, it is incitement against the Palestinian people. Tourists are here for a fantasy, and that is to see and practice power. And we Palestinians are cheap targets.”
As Caliber 3 shows, the significant evangelical portion of the 900,000 Americans who are arriving in the Holy Land each year don’t want to be mere spectators. The IDF soldiers like to paint themselves as “the only good guys in a bad neighborhood,” but it’s the more immediate neighborhood that is the true illustration of the terror fantasy camp project.
On the range Moshe asks again if we’re “ready to fight evil.” Our terrorist targets are dressed in Western clothing rather than Palestinian keffiyeh, but we already have the abstract picture in our heads of our villains and heroes. In Moshe, with his jawline that could be a weapon itself, dark stubble, and combat-ready physique, we are able to indulge in the fantasy of the good guy action star that we all imagine ourselves to be—even though, when the actor ran in with his rubber knife earlier, our first instincts were to run. But that’s normal. Of the “three Fs”—freeze, flight, fight—the commanders tell us that only about 10 percent of people will immediately go Rambo on the terrorist. Of that 10 percent, Moshe is in the top 0.1 percent of IDF soldiers, able to respond to a command and shoot in under 1.2 seconds.
Moshe and his combat Belgian Shepherd show us what they can do to a padded-up “terrorist” in those split seconds (“the dog always goes for the butt”). After that, it’s our turn for action, which means 10-foot sprints, squats, and spinning around before target practice with live rounds and a friendly commander gripping our shoulders to make sure we don’t do a Dick Cheney on one of our own.
Concentrating on the job at hand momentarily quietens my moral outrage at the Caliber 3 project. Even though I know perfectly well that Caliber 3 is geared more toward fomenting our politics than improving our combat skills, I find that, strangely, I secretly want to be told that I have the instinct, or the crack shot, or something that justifies the exhilaration I feel at pulling a soft trigger at the smiling photo 10 feet in front of us. At least, I think it’s smiling. I’m too embarrassed to tell the commanders that I still can’t see the orange dot in the target of my live fire, even once I put my glasses on.
Still, I’m high on seeing puffs of dust as I miss the targets and hit the sandstone walls behind them. As are my fellow tourists, who are hooting and cheering as they too feel the rush of hitting anything in sight.
“Why is it that Americans would come to Israel to shoot guns?” Moshe lands the day’s killer gag, to great laughter. “Israelis are bad-ass,” my teammate Bobby says, high from firing a round through a pink balloon 15 feet from us. A barrel-chested, boyish man in his late 30s, he’s here from California on the holiday of a lifetime with his mom. Hearing war tales from a bunch of IDF commanders is, for them, as much a religious experience as visiting the Wailing Wall.
As Moshe pointed out, these guys can go shooting in America any time they want. Many of them already do. The fantasy in this camp isn’t firing a weapon, or taking down a “terrorist,” or even the idea of doing it all in the biblical promised land. The fantasy is Israel itself, with its walls and checkpoints, its constant state of militarism, and the everyday display of “toughness” and “love.”
After a commander steers my gun to pop the last of the balloons, we march back to headquarters for a graduation ceremony, where Moshe tells the story of a fallen comrade, “killed by the terrorists in Gaza,” which inspired them to open Caliber 3. His story of the “the humanity of the IDF soldiers,” is the keepsake that we should go back home to share with our friends and families.
And with that, united by our tepid war skills and a whole lotta love, our group is deployed in the gift shop, elbows and shoulders at the ready against a group of Korean tourists inspecting the tactical caps and Star of David morale patches before their adventure begins.
“I feel so much safer,” a middle-aged woman from Indiana says to her husband.
“I’m buying three,” he replies, holding up the Caliber 3 logo t-shirt. “The IDF is so bad-ass,” he says to no one in particular.
Of course, we’re a world away from the only bad-ass thing actually going on out here: the activists like Issa Amro who are resisting Israeli occupation against impossible odds. For us, this experience consists only of a handsome dude with a few stories to tell, and his dog who can maul either a tennis ball or a terrorist. Perhaps that’s the most disturbing part, that this jovial version of the IDF is the place where we can launder our most violent fantasies against those who don’t share the so-called “Judeo-Christian” dream.
Just like the IDF commanders, we’re performers too, only the stage is the serious business of morals and values. In the two decades after 9/11, that something like the Gush Etzion range even exists shows the extent to which terror and mass violence is now something that is being gamified—not only by the perpertrators, such as the mass shooter in El Paso Walmart last year, but here, in the dusty hills of the Palestinian desert, by the most ordinary of people. Instead of empathy and understanding, we are simulating “authentic” exciting experiences to see how we might handle dangers we’ll never face. While we might be intermittently prompted to shout about love, we’re willing conscripts for a spectacle designed to excite already hardened hearts and minds.
And right now, with U.S. sales of guns and ammunition soaring as coronavirus leads to fears of social unrest, there’s a risk that this fantasy roleplay could turn into a horrible reality. This is the whole point of MAGA theology—we have to terrify ourselves and everyone else into thinking that things are only going to get worse until the End Times, where it comes down to Us versus Them. The final test of our faith will be our willingness to go out with a bang.