Cheap Thrills

Visitors bored with exploring their religious heritage, hiking through gorgeous areas or grappling with the complicated politics of this country can now get cheap thrills by pretending to shoot Palestinians.

An Israeli boy plays with an M-16 rifle during a traditional military weapon display to mark Israel's Independence at the West Bank settlement of Efrat.AFP

I recently stumbled across an English-language Web ad for an organization based in Gush Etzion that offers a two-hour "action-packed, hands-on" session in which tourists can learn to shoot an M16 or a handgun with "Israeli anti-terror experts." Visitors bored with exploring their religious heritage, hiking through gorgeous areas or grappling with the complicated politics of this country can now get cheap thrills by pretending to shoot Palestinians.

I shouldn't be surprised. For years, summer programs for American Jewish teens in Israel have featured a Gadna experience - i.e., a simulated boot-camp program that is advertised in the following way on one Web site catering to teens:

"Want to experience what your Israeli peers will go through when they turn 18?"

"Wonder what it is like to be in the Israeli army?"

"Want to have a cool and fun time?"

Another Israeli company invites children to celebrate their birthdays and b'nai mitzvah by playing paintball. Lest one think this is some innocuous game, the firm's English-language Web site specifies that players may choose among a number of scenarios, including "hostage rescue" and "sniper takedown." Pictures of a recent tournament show students from yeshivas that cater to Diaspora youth posing with guns at an abandoned army base. Meanwhile, tourists of all ages proudly return from Israel wearing their new Israel Defense Forces T-shirts, hats and (of course) skullcaps decorated with the IDF insignia.

Diaspora Jews have long looked to Israel for the vicarious fulfillment of our tough-guy fantasies. As the firm offering anti-terror tourism puts it: "We combine together the values of Zionism with the excitement and enjoyment of shooting." And so we drool over the sexy soldiers. They're hot! They're buff! They're armed! They're New Jews! Hearing about another death-defying mission performed by the IDF helps us to feel a bit less like impotent exiles.

In the United States, Jewish children generally do not play "Iraq war" or wear army T-shirts to school. And yet, when these same children visit Israel as teenagers or young adults, their parents and educators sometimes encourage military play.

I know that my daughter, now just a baby, will eventually ask me why soldiers in Israel carry rifles through the streets. I don't plan to describe war as "a cool and fun time." Nor will I allow her to dress up as a soldier for Purim, or to have her bat-mitzvah party at a paintball range. I will let her know that armies are sometimes necessary, and that 18-year-olds sometimes have to go to war. And I will tell her that this reality causes me great pain. Since my husband and I plan to raise her in the U.S. with dual American-Israeli citizenship, she will ultimately make her own decision about whether to serve in the IDF - or in the U.S. military, for that matter. If she does choose to serve, I hope the decision will emerge from inner struggle and a sense of duty, and not from a romantic idealization of soldiers or weapons.

Reasonable people may disagree on the specifics of the security measures Israels chooses to take, on the preferred outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and on the question of whether and when the United States or Israel should allow civilians to carry guns. But all these conversations must begin with this assumption: An ideal world is a peaceful world.

Israeli and American Jews often blame Palestinians for encouraging their own children to aspire to violence. "Their children play with guns," we say. "Their cartoon characters become suicide bombers." "Their music videos teach rock-throwing." These complaints are justified; teaching children to look up to militants only exacerbates the conflict.

But we cannot condemn the behavior of others without taking an honest look at our own actions. When we advertise shooting practice as a fun family activity, when we teach teenagers that life in the military is "cool and fun," and when we let our children wear IDF skullcaps to Shabbat services - we too educate another generation to rationalize and glorify violence. If we let ourselves become lighthearted about guns and the military, we lose the sense of revulsion that would motivate us to lessen the need for them.

There is no question that Jewish law permits war in some cases. But this does not allow for the transformation of weapons into objects of worship. The Talmud forbids bringing implements of war into a beit midrash (house of study). In a modern teshuvah (legal opinion) on the permissibility of carrying guns into a synagogue, the late Israeli Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg noted the dissonance inherent in such an action. While prayer seeks to lengthen life, he taught, weapons shorten life. As such, he ruled that one must do everything possible to avoid holding a weapon while praying (Tzitz Eliezer 10:18).

Waldenberg's warning reminds us that weapons, even when necessary, always carry the whiff of death. Those of us who need to carry guns should do so with sadness, humility and dignity. The rest of us should view weapons as a burden, not as something to be taken lightly. If we teach our children not to play with fire, maybe they will be less likely to get burned.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the author of "There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition" (Jewish Lights, 2009). She is spending the current academic year as a Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Institute in Jerusalem.