Last week I went to Israel as a tourist. Yes, as a tourist.
I try to visit Israel at least once a year. My favorite time to be there is at the end of October, when the weather is warm and the Mediterranean feels like a bath. But during the Israeli Defense Forces's military operation in Gaza, I knew I needed to make an unplanned trip.
Why? Partly to support my people. But also because I wanted to help show that Israel is still a completely viable and enjoyable travel destination, even during conflict. Everyday life there goes on, even now. I was in Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War. It was safe. I knew I would also be safe there last week, and I was.
I flew to Tel Aviv from New York on Thursday. The plane was about 80% full, mostly with Americans going on vacation or visiting relatives. Security on El Al was the same as it has always been. Israel can never let down its guard; it has gotten used to that.
With Israeli soldiers fighting and dying in Gaza, and Hamas rockets aimed at cities throughout the country, the atmosphere was more solemn than usual. Coverage of the war was all you could find on Israeli television, and regular programming and commercials were suspended. Israel is a small country, so everyone knows someone in the army. People spend hours reading and listening to the news every day.
Three times during my visit, I heard sirens warning that missiles might be approaching. The Iron Dome defense system has been very successful at intercepting Hamas rockets, but people run for cover because of the risk of falling debris.
Yet the coffee shops and restaurants were full, and people were even friendlier than usual. (Tourism is important to Israel's economy, and Israelis are grateful to those who choose to be there in times of trouble.) On the night I arrived, I went with nine friends to a restaurant with a mix of gay and straight customers. Music played as people ate, laughed and danced around the tables. We stayed until 2 a.m. The gay dance clubs were packed with young people; I stayed out until past 5 a.m. at one of the biggest ones, and some people stayed for hours later.
Is it wrong to go on living while others are dying? The Israelis know that the IDF's efforts in Gaza have come at a high cost to Palestinians. But they also know, as many people abroad do not, that Israel has done its best to keep casualties as low as possible. They blame Hamas for leading Gaza into destruction, and for cynically using civilians to shield its weapons.
Most young Israelis also live, as most people abroad do not, with the knowledge that at any moment they might be asked to defend their country. My friend Yaron is a reservist; we went out for a night on the town knowing that the next day he could have been awakened by a phone call summoning him to duty. It is surreal to think that you can be dancing in a nightclub one night and be in the war zone the next. This is on the mind of all young men in Israel. I think it makes them party harder, and I don't blame them.
On the night I went out to the club with Israeli soldiers, other Israeli soldiers were killed in the war. They died to protect the ones who were dancing, and those of us who were dancing with them. I got home at 6 a.m., and I was just getting out of the shower and preparing for bed when a siren went off. There were explosions in the air, rockets being destroyed in the sky. I went up to the roof to watch.
The world has terror and pain, but it also has the ordinary pleasures that come from living in safety. That safety is what Israel has always been fighting for. If you support Israel and its values, go there and see for yourself.
First Night in Tel Aviv at restaurant The Salon
Gay Beach in Tel Aviv with friends Nathan and Elad
Giving an interview to Ynet
At my friend Yoav and Etai's with their daughters
With my friend Rephael Vazana his family and boyfriend Andrey at Shabbat Dinner