Letter from the West Bank


On Politics

A bar mitzvah outing—at a West Bank shooting range.

Photograph by Scott Pargett.

It’s not easy to get directions over the phone from someone who works at a shooting range. I was pretty sure Eran had said that Caliber-3 was accessible by public bus, but it was hard to hear him over the gunfire. So I took the bus into the West Bank, through various IDF checkpoints, down highway 60 with its anti-sniper barriers and razor wire, past the giant, snaking “Wall of Separation,” to a settler outpost, a pleasant little heavily-armed suburb.

“You are not in the right place,” Eran is now telling me on my cell. “You are in the wrong place.”

The right place, it turns out, is a forty-five minute walk to a remote hill. I embark on a cautious solo West Bank hike along a road where Hamas militants once tried to kidnap a friend of mine. Empty cans of power drinks labeled in Arabic line the road—when these turn into empty cans of power drinks labeled in Hebrew, I know I am close.

Caliber-3 is located on a dusty slope of a dusty hill, between the Jewish settlement of Migdal Oz and the Arab town of Bayt Fajar. It is part of a settler industrial park built on land that nearby Palestinian villages claim as their own. Each company housed in the industrial park seems to play a role in the Jewish settlement enterprise: contractors, a land development corporation, a real estate management agency, a shady outfit that calls itself “Google Ranking Experts,” and an even shadier outfit that calls itself “The Society for the Interpretation of the Talmud.”

I am here for a bar mitzvah outing. Since the party bus is late, I join three men sitting at a picnic table. They identify themselves as “French businessmen who live and work in China.” Why are they on the West Bank, at this shooting range? They are training for urban combat, they tell me. “We need it for work,” one of them explains.

Somehow this segues into an impassioned monologue. The lead Frenchman demands to know why the Americans get away with killing twenty-seven Iraqi civilians a day while the Israelis dispatch a few pirates and are roundly condemned. It’s an outrage! Under the table, I feel a foot cozy up to mine. I try to ignore this. The man, now pounding on the picnic table, continues to decry the hypocrisy of the international community; at the same time, he grows increasingly familiar with me under the table. He is now gently massaging the top of his foot over the top of my foot.

According to its website, Caliber-3 “works in close cooperation with the IDF in the field of counter-terrorism” and has “set up security installations in order to train both professionals and laymen in Israel as well as in Africa, Asia and Central America.” They also offer paintball to visitors who are willing to wear the required external jockstrap. Again, from its website, “[we] simulate urban combat using paintball. This is real fun for families and tourists and great entertainment for bar mitzvahs.”

At long last, the bar mitzvah bus arrives. It is a large group of men, women and children dressed for a day of golfing. Chinos, polo shirts, belted plaid shorts. Many are also wearing official bar mitzvah apparel: navy blue baseball caps and tote bags emblazoned with a giant Ralph Lauren Polo-brand logo over the words DAVID’S BAR MITZVAH. They are snacking. It is Friday. Today they shoot guns, real guns, not paintball; tonight they pray at the Western Wall, followed by a Sabbath buffet dinner; tomorrow, young David is called to the Torah.

The bar mitzvah party is organized into battle columns and instructed in the arts of marching, about-facing, and assuming sniper positions on command. A sluggish, giggling militia is taking shape: mopey teenaged girls rolling their eyes, earnest boys tripping over flip-flops, fanny-packed old timers struggling to bend their knees, tiny children who reliably march in the wrong direction. And Uncle Rick, who keeps pointing at his sizeable potbelly and shrugging his shoulders for laughs.

David’s father, the master of ceremonies, proudly surveys this rag tag band of soldiers. He explains the thinking behind this West Bank excursion. “Three reasons,” he says. “Number one: Zionism. Number Two: Zionism. Number Three: Fun. This is a celebration,” he explains, “but we didn’t fly across the world just to have fun. I want them to understand the value of being part of something bigger. Not just giving money to our brothers who are settling this land but coming here and showing our support.”

Earplugs are passed around. As people stop up their ears, the head of Caliber-3, a man named Sharon, lectures the group on safety. An older gent, who I later find out is the rabbi, turns to his wife and says, “did you catch any of that?” The rabbi’s wife points to the plugs in her ears and shouts, “WHAT DID YOU SAY?”

“The first thing you need to know,” Sharon tells me privately, as his men prepare a live ammo demonstration, “is that we are professionals here. Please keep this in mind.” I give him my word. “We give people from abroad a different view of Israel. They come here and they see a whole new side of the situation.”

Before I can ask him what new perspective he offers, I hear a drill sergeant yell “ATTACK!” Five staffers in sunglasses and black t-shirts open fire with automatic weapons. The bar mitzvah gun demo has begun. Sharon makes a hand sign indicating that we’ll pick up the discussion later.

The sudden explosion of gunfire alarms the young. A four-year old boy bursts into tears, causing his mother to burst into tears. (Later, the boy is pacified by playing with spent bullet casings). Three at a time, members of the bar mitzvah brigade approach a table piled high with weapons. After picking up a pistol, M-16, or laser-sighted Tavor Assault Rifle (TAR-21s)—which, like the M-16, holds thirty rounds in a magazine and fires at a rate of 750-900 rounds per minute—they proceed to a designated firing point. With the help of a staff person, who stands by and clutches them for dear life, these tourists blast away at images of helmeted soldiers. The soldiers, it should be noted, are also taking aim at them.

Everyone seems to be having a lovely afternoon. Especially David. As the bar mitzvah boy, he gets special privileges: more turns, more ammo. It appears, however, that all of the attention and small arms fire have gone straight to his head. But it is his special day, after all, and nobody’s going to give him a hard time if he discharges a rifle, hoists his hands triumphantly in the air and shouts, “Kill the Arabs!” Nor will anyone fault him for doing this every single time he has a turn.

It is with genuine conviction—and perhaps a slight ringing in his ear—that David will stand up tomorrow in synagogue, in front of the entire congregation, and say, “today I am a man.” Right now, however, he’ll shoot one last thirty-round magazine at nine-hundred-rounds-a-second, exchange a fist bump with Uncle Rick, have some apple juice and fall asleep on the bus as it makes its way up highway 60, through the anti-sniper barriers and razor wire. If he gets back to the Jerusalem Hilton in time, he’ll stash his shot-up targets in his room and get a swim in before praying at the Western Wall.

Meanwhile, at the next range, the French businessmen stalk around an urban obstacle course—through prop door-frames, and tight hallways—pistols poised, silently ambushing scores of invisible Chinese rivals.

Avi Steinberg is the author of Running the Books, a memoir of his adventures as a prison librarian, which will be published in October. He is currently at work on a strongly-worded letter to Uncle Milton Industries, Inc., purveyors of ant farms, ant farm accessories and ants.