In real life they are accountants, bankers and business executives. Some have already reached retirement age. Today, these tourists from Hong Kong are pretending to be Israeli army commandos, specialists in counterterrorism.
As their Rambo-like trainer barks out orders, they move their assault rifles into position and, using the Hebrew word for fire, repeat after him: “Esh. Esh.”
“Louder,” he demands. “I can’t hear you guys. Don’t be so politically correct.”
“Esh. Esh,” they shout back, this time upping the volume.
By the time they’ve shot a few rounds of real bullets at their targets, they appear to be much less inhibited. In fact, they seem to be enjoying themselves.
“This place is a good attraction,” says Edmund Wong, a retired accountant, as he takes a short break to cool off. “A very good attraction.”
Located in the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank, Caliber 3 is a counterterrorism and security training academy that in recent years has built on its expertise to create a new line of business: special programs for tourists seeking a taste of the Israeli military experience.
It was only a matter of time before local entrepreneurs figured out they could channel Israel’s vast experience in war and counterterrorism in this direction. Today, about half a dozen facilities around the country offer tourists the opportunity to learn from Israeli combat officers, in most cases graduates of elite units. (Understanding that they have nothing to sell the locals because military service is compulsory in Israel, these businesses only target tourists.)
At Caliber 3, a two-hour “shooting adventure” – for which the group from Hong Kong has signed up – includes a simulation of a suicide bombing in a Jerusalem marketplace, immediately followed by a stabbing attack, a live demonstration with attack dogs and a sniper tournament. The cost of this basic package is $115 per adult and $85 per child, with discounts available for large groups.
If they wish, participants can choose a more advanced program in combat rappelling, which lets them pretend they’re Israeli commandos on an Entebbe-like hostage-rescue mission. Sessions are also available in krav maga, the hand-to-hand combat considered a forte of the Israeli army.
The tourists taking part in activities on a recent Friday morning seemed to be enjoying themselves – not minding the push-ups they had to do for not obeying the orders of their “commander.” When questioned, not one participant expressed concern that the activities might be seen as glorifying violence.
Aside from these daily offerings, Caliber 3 runs a month-long summer camp for teenage boys from abroad that includes, according to a large poster on the premises, “three kosher meals a day” and “a daily minyan” – the 10-man quorum required in Orthodox Judaism for reciting certain prayers.
Sharon Gat, the founder and CEO, estimates that between 15,000 and 25,000 tourists visit his facility each year. The overwhelming majority are American Jews, many of them families visiting Israel for a bar mitzvah and other celebrations. But growing numbers in recent years have been coming from Brazil, Argentina, France, Italy, Russia and especially China on work-related trips and religious pilgrimages.
“Masada, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem’s Old City are no longer enough,” says Hani Sand, a Tel Aviv-based travel specialist. “Travelers today are on the lookout for something authentic and different, and this definitely fits the bill.”
Companies specializing in this sort of military tourism, she notes, have experienced a boom in business over the past year. “For a long time, it was popular for Jewish tourists, and especially organized missions, to visit Israeli army bases and meet with the soldiers and watch them during their military exercises,” says Sand, the founder of Travel Composer, a boutique Israeli agency that specializes in luxury tours.
“Often, donations would be handed over in exchange. But last year the army began cracking down after it emerged that these visits were becoming a major disruption. So for those who still want to experience the Israeli army, these for-profit facilities provide a great alternative.”
The shadow of Auschwitz
The first tourist group to arrive at Caliber 3 on this Friday morning includes, in addition to the dozen or so visitors from Hong Kong, several Jewish families from New York and Los Angeles. After an introduction from lead instructor Eitan Cohen (described by his boss as “the top in Israel” in krav maga), Gat makes his entrance dressed in full military gear. To the sounds of loud applause, he’s introduced as “the colonel who has commanded 10,000 soldiers in the Israeli army.”
It’s important for Gat that his clients know why he decided to open his academy to tourists. “One day, I sat there wondering whether a Jew in the death camp of Auschwitz could have ever dreamed that an academy like this would ever exist in Israel and that it would train members of the German army,” he tells them. “And then I said to myself that I am going to open this place to the public to show what a long way the Jewish people have come in 75 years.”
To whet their appetites before moving out to the field, Gat repeats to the group what he likes to tell Hollywood stars who visit his facility: “I tell them, ‘What you guys do in the movies, we do here for real.’”
Caliber 3 and its competitors make money not only from the programs they run, but also from the merchandise they sell, which includes everything from T-shirts to hard-core military equipment. But they don’t want to be seen – and this becomes clear in background conversations – as profiting from the almost constant threat of war and terror in Israel. That could explain these companies’ tendency to describe their mission in more idealistic terms; as they put it, showing the world that all the awful things said about the IDF abroad have no basis whatsoever and that this is the most wonderful and moral army that exists.
The Israeli authorities initially refused to grant Gat a license to open his academy to visitors from abroad. “But today, they understand the importance of what we do here,” he says. “People who do our programs come out with a much better understanding of this country. They become ambassadors for the State of Israel.”
As his instructors like to point out, it’s not only Israeli soldiers who operate according to the army’s “purity of arms” doctrine, which stipulates that soldiers will maintain their humanity even in combat. So do their attack dogs. At a live demonstration, the visitors watch as Zeus lunges at a “terrorist” wielding a knife, forcing him to the ground while tearing into his padded coverall. But once that knife is dropped and the threat is eliminated, Zeus backs off. “Even the dogs in the IDF value human life,” the instructor says.
Stretcher marches and combat rations
Based in Nes Tziona, Funtom launched its “army experience” program about four years ago. Ben Carmel, the company’s founder and CEO, says the seed was planted during his own army service. “I worked training special units in the army, and we’d get lots of donors from abroad coming to visit us,” he recalls. “They loved watching the soldiers and talking to them, and that’s where I got the idea of turning this into a tourism business.”
Carmel estimates that between 5,000 and 8,000 tourists visit his facility every year. The most popular package is a four-hour boot camp meant to mimic basic training in the Israeli army. Participants dress up in Israeli army fatigues, wear dog tags and even eat special IDF combat rations. They practice krav maga, rappelling on buildings and sharpshooting out in the field. Depending on the number of participants and whether other special activities are included, the price ranges from $50 to $250 per participant.
Based in Jerusalem, Zikit Extreme offers a more intensive program called “IDF special forces experience” in which tourists dress up in camouflage, participate in a “stretcher march” – a rite of passage for Israeli soldiers – and practice combat in closed spaces. “The program is really popular with families, especially those on bar mitzvah trips,” says manager and owner Ohad Nachum. The program at Zikit Extreme takes an entire day and can cost anywhere from $100 to $600 per person. If foreigners won’t come to Israel, then we’ll take our IDF experience and share it with them abroad. That’s the motto of Cherev Gidon, an Israeli military training school based in the United States with branches around the country. On its website, Cherev Gidon boasts that its specialization is Israeli tactical shooting techniques “developed over the course of several decades of counter-terrorism warfare, and uniquely designed to address the threats we face today.”
Back at Caliber 3, Matt and Susan Parker are feeling relieved an hour into the morning activity. Their 10-year-old son got frightened by the sound of gunshots when he walked in and threatened not to participate. But by now, as his father describes it, he’s eager for his next turn shooting an assault rifle.
From Westchester County, New York, the Parkers are visiting Israel to celebrate the bar mitzvah of their older son. “The kids don’t want to go to museums, and this is something totally different, unique and cool,” says the father, a wealth adviser at Morgan Stanley.
His wife, who made all the arrangements based on recommendations from friends, describes the visit to Caliber 3 as “a highlight of our trip.” It was the idea of shooting a gun for the first time that initially sold her boys, says Susan, a manufacturer of bridesmaid dresses. “But it’s been so much more than that,” she notes. “Our boys now have a better understanding of what it takes to defend Israel and to keep Israel a Jewish state.”