I already had a plane ticket to Israel when Hamas launched its horrendous attack and the region was at war. The idea of canceling my trip embarrassed me. I had already told friends I was coming. Show some solidarity, right? But when Delta canceled my flight, I had the perfect excuse not to go. Unfortunately, El Al was still flying.


Uber drivers have opinions, too. “Everyone is leaving Israel and you’re going?” he says. At J.F.K. Airport, I found out he was wrong. The El Al check-in desk is under assault by a mob that is practically all Israeli. Israelis abroad have in fact been returning home by the thousands.

The El Al security officer is intrigued to see an American. She questions me at length. Why am I going? Where do I live? Whom do I plan to see? She tests me on details. She even asks what synagogue I belong to, but she doesn’t recognize the name I give her. “It’s the biggest Reform shul in Brooklyn,” I brag pathetically. “Chuck Schumer is a member!” She shrugs and asks if my suitcase contains any gifts that I didn’t wrap myself. Now I feel bad. “I’m not bringing any gifts for friends.” She smiles finally. “Don’t worry—Israelis just need hugs.”


I drop my bag at the hotel. The lobby is empty, and the room rates have hit rock bottom. I text a local that the tourism board could start a new ad campaign: “War means bargains.” Then I feel bad again. It’s still too soon for jokes. “This is Israel,” she answers back. “The jokes started 48 hours later.”

My first stop is the apartment of Noah and Susan, who’ve invited me to Shabbat dinner. I don’t have a gift, but I try out the security officer’s theory about hugs. I think they were hoping for a bottle of wine.

It’s nearly two weeks since the terror attack, and everyone’s assumption is that the ground operation will start within a day or two, now that Biden’s left. Everyone is grateful for his visit this week, grateful that Israel finally has an inspiring and empathetic leader they can trust. Netanyahu has been largely invisible. There’s talk of funerals, and impromptu weddings before deployment. Some 360,000 reservists have been called up. They’ve left their families, their classrooms, and their jobs. Someone at dinner has a son who is already at the Gaza border, waiting for the order to go in. I cannot even begin to imagine the stress he’s feeling.


I love Tel Aviv. On a normal Saturday, the whole city is out walking and biking, eating and talking in cafés, or heading to the beach in shorts and sandals. It feels like pre–W.W. I Vienna forcibly fused with pre–W.W. II Santa Monica. Today, looking for a place to have brunch, everything still seems normal. Sunny and warm—check. The outdoor café near Habima Square is crowded and noisy. Strollers stacked on the sidewalk. Tattooed waiters delivering chopped salad, iced coffee, beer, and schnitzel sandwiches to the usual mix of young couples, mothers in sundresses, children in tow, retirees. Check, check, and double check. But out of the blue, a loud thump rattles my silverware, and conversation stops for a split second, then instantly resumes at full volume. These people know the harmless boom of a distant Iron Dome interception and ignore it. It’s an experience I will have a few times—hear the boom, heart skips a beat, but no one budges.

It’s still too soon for jokes. “This is Israel,” she answers back. “The jokes started 48 hours later.”

As I discover, the city may seem like its usual self, but it isn’t. Some restaurants are open, but many are closed. Hotels are half empty. Some are shut, or catering only to refugees from the north and south. Two hundred thousand Israelis have been displaced by the threat from Hamas and Hezbollah. Traffic is lighter than usual. Schools are closed. There are few people at the beach.

Protesters in Tel Aviv hold up posters identifying Israeli hostages taken by Hamas militants in the October 7 attack.

People are acting normal, but the pictures of the kidnapped posted everywhere tell a different story. No college students tear these down. On Rothschild Boulevard, I did see a young woman tug at the corner of one taped to a bench. The tape had come loose, and she was trying to fix it.

That afternoon, while I’m napping at the hotel, the local siren starts keening. Not a drill. I’m unsure of the dress code or even where the shelter is, so I pull on my shoes, put on a clean shirt. I even grab a water bottle. The lobby is empty, so I step into an empty street. O.K., maybe this trip was a big mistake. Just then the siren stops, and employees and guests emerge from the bank building across the street. At least now I know where the shelter is.

I’m told there will be a protest tonight in front of Israel’s Pentagon, which is known as the Kirya and is in the middle of downtown Tel Aviv. Originally, I had hoped to witness one of the giant protests against Netanyahu’s judicial reform on this trip, so maybe this will be like that. The demonstration is to demand that the I.D.F. prioritize the hostages. But there are only a few hundred people there, chanting and waving signs and flags.


Two American hostages have been released, and it’s starting to feel like the invasion will be delayed. There are hints of divisions in the war cabinet. Is Biden holding them back? Is Bibi getting cold feet? Is this a Hamas strategy to throw Israel and its allies off-balance?

People are acting normal, but the pictures of the kidnapped posted everywhere tell a different story. No college students tear these down.

Schools are all closed, and the younger friends I know in Tel Aviv, the ones with small children, are going stir-crazy. I dutifully visit them, ignoring the chaos. One has his mother-in-law sleeping on a mattress in a living room littered with art projects, blankets, toys, and children’s clothes. Another friend, my former neighbor in Brooklyn, lives in an apartment on a high floor of an old building whose dank little bomb shelter is on the ground floor, and carrying three sleeping children down several flights of stairs just isn’t viable. He’s rented a temporary Airbnb with a reinforced safe room.


Michael Oren is waiting to get a haircut at his girlfriend’s hair salon. He has back-to-back TV interviews lined up this afternoon, and his regular barber was called up. Oren started as a historian. His first book was the definitive history of the Six-Day War. Then he was Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. during the Obama years, about which he wrote a revealing memoir called Ally. Later he was briefly a member of the Knesset. The last time I was here we had lunch in the Knesset dining room. He pointed to an Arab member of Israel’s Communist Party, standing next to a right-wing settler, next to the Knesset’s only elected Islamist. On the Knesset floor these three savaged each other mercilessly, pounding their fists and spewing insults the way all Knesset debaters do, but here on the buffet line they smiled and jostled one another good-naturedly. Israel is a crazy place, he was suggesting. Don’t understand it too quickly.

Over coffee around the corner from the salon, he is critical of Bibi’s leadership and nervous about the potential for a widened war. We talk about the bewildering insecurity and vulnerability that Israelis are feeling. There is no precedent for what has happened, and analogies to the 1973 Yom Kippur War don’t really capture the moment at all.

I repeat what Shany Mor told me earlier that morning. Mor is an academic, a journalist, and a fierce debater. He said that no one could go back to the Western Negev now if Hamas were allowed to stay in power. A cease-fire would only mean that Israel would have to concede its own territory. “Calling for a cease-fire now is essentially saying that Israel isn’t allowed to win,” Mor said. “The world never allows Israel to win.”

Oren nods gravely. Mor and Oren both warned me that defenders of Israel are going to have to get used to the idea that the violence is going to get worse. Israel has very little room to maneuver, and people are going to have to get ready for what Gaza will look like once the I.D.F. is done with it.


A side trip to Jerusalem via the new high-speed train. It takes less time than it takes to get from Park Slope to the Upper West Side. Travel time has shrunk, but Israel’s capital city is still light-years from Tel Aviv. It’s a divided city, a more religious city, and a less cosmopolitan, less youthful, less tolerant, and less fun city. Still, it’s beautiful, and I get a chance to visit my favorite pizza place.

I haven’t seen my friend Yossi in a few years. Angst is his natural state, but the fractured political atmosphere of the last year had already dialed his anxiety about Israel’s future up to 11, even before the horrors of two weeks ago. Over tea in his office he allows that the only possible silver lining is that the country’s looming civil war seems to have been overridden by the threat from outside. Israel’s secret weapon, its unity, is back. There’s some faint, uncomfortable glimmer of hope in that.

Later, on my way back to the train station, is that thunder … or rockets? I feel raindrops and realize of course it’s a passing thunderstorm. I feel like an idiot. But back in Tel Aviv, after the cabdriver shows me pictures of his wife (“Like Marilyn Monroe, no?”) and his freeloading teenage son (“He took 700 shekels!”), he mentions a Hamas missile barrage over parts of central Israel earlier that afternoon. No injuries or damage, so not really news.


I hitch a ride south, into the Negev desert, with Shir Nosatzki, one of the leaders of the protests against Netanyahu earlier in the year. She runs her own NGO, called Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, to encourage more Arab participation in Israeli politics. Since the war started, like all the other protest leadership, she has pivoted and is now working with several other groups, Arab and Jewish, to deliver food and supplies to Bedouin and Jewish communities near the Gaza border that were hardest hit by the Hamas rampage. (Yes, Bedouin were killed and kidnapped, too, she explains.)

“Calling for a cease-fire now is essentially saying that Israel isn’t allowed to win,” Mor said. “The world never allows Israel to win.”

Nosatzki talks about the immediate aftermath of October 7. “Everything stopped,” she says, and she worries that the wounds may never heal, since every day there are more videos from the day of the attack and more horror stories popping up hourly on everyone’s phones. She tells her distraught friends not to look. “Is this what would have happened if you had TikTok during the Holocaust?” she says.

In Rahat, the largest Bedouin city in the country, a truck filled with supplies donated in Tel Aviv pulls up to the local community center. In the gym, a hundred or so young people, mostly local Bedouin Arabs, are joined by a smaller number of Jewish volunteers. They unload the heavy pallets loaded with canned vegetables, bags of flour and pasta, cooking oil, canned tuna, toilet paper, tampons, and shampoo. They pack hundreds of individual care packages, then load those into cars and smaller trucks for delivery to the families in need. This effort is part of a nationwide wave of volunteers filling in for what feels like a frozen, dysfunctional government.

P.R. is uppermost in everyone’s mind. Images of Jews and Arabs cheerfully working together is valuable counter-programming right now. Hence the appearance here of Benny Gantz the day before. Gantz, a former general, is the leading figure in the opposition, a member of the war cabinet, and the front-runner to replace Bibi after the war is over.

Back at the hotel, I have dinner at the bar. A man is with his six-year-old son, who’s eating a bowl of spaghetti. One of two bartenders, twentysomethings in black, can’t take her eyes off the kid, then suddenly lifts him over the bar and lets him shake the cocktail mixer. The other one tries to ply me with vodka shots. I demur. I have to work tonight, I tell her. “Work?” she says. “There’s a war on!”

My flight is tomorrow, and I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I’d like to stay. Reading accounts of Americans back home being threatened or beaten, seeing pictures of marches all over the country calling for the destruction of Israel, of college students and their professors threatening Jews and cheering Hamas, I find myself telling someone that I feel safer in Tel Aviv. At least they have the Iron Dome here.

Mark Horowitz is an editor and writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, and New York magazine