I left Israel on Wednesday, Oct. 12, and everyone I know is relieved I am safe.
My friends and loved ones can sleep tonight, knowing I am back in Canada. They have done me proud: They have fretted and worried and fussed. They have checked in. They have asked me how I am doing and feeling and if there is anything they can do to help. They have offered sincere condolences, sympathized with the situation, and promised me that everything will be OK. I am very grateful to have people who love me so much.
I am safely ensconced in our bubble of collective ignorant bliss — but I do not feel safe.
This is Avichai Refael Sofer:
Avichai Refael Sofer, the author’s boyfriend. “Avichai took this selfie immediately after we parted ways at the airport,” the author writes.
He is a 29-year-old Jewish Israeli citizen living outside of Tel Aviv. He works a job, goes to school, hangs out with his friends, and has hopes and dreams for the future. He is one face out of millions of faces. He is no more and no less important than those millions of other faces — both Israeli and Palestinian — who have never felt (and may not ever feel) safe.
We met online in late 2020, in the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. He “woofed” at me on a gay dating site called Scruff from 10,700 miles away, reaching out across the distance because I had a “kind face.”
We began a very lighthearted yet intimate correspondence that stretched on for several years. He was bright and funny and playful, handsome as fuck, smart as a whip, and wise beyond his years. We would talk about his dream to see Canada, how he longed to experience the Northern Lights, and how much he wanted to visit Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver... and Halifax... and Quebec City... and Calgary... Once he fully comprehended the vastness of Canada as compared to Israel (which is similar in size to the state of New Jersey), we decided he would have to visit more than once if he was going to see everything his heart desired
It was easy. He lived there — I lived here. It was a dream.
Over time, our correspondence turned into a relationship, and then it was not so easy. It was real — and real is harder.
We texted all the time and Facetimed for hours, and though we lived thousands of miles apart and had never met in person, we fell madly and hopelessly in love.
I bought my ticket to Israel on Sept. 6. We planned “nine days in heaven” from Oct. 6 to Oct. 15. We would be together in just one month’s time.
Avichai organized the most beautiful vacation for us in the land he calls home: visiting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, camping under the stars in the heart of the Negev, and spending time in Haifa and Zefat in the North. In what would turn out to be a cruel and ominous bit of foreshadowing, I told him that none of the details mattered — that I’d be happy to spend all nine days alone with him, locked in his room, just being together.
I landed at Ben Gurion International Airport on Friday, Oct. 6, at 8 p.m. Avichai was waiting for me with a sign that said “bumblebee” and the brightest smile I had ever seen. We hugged, cried, and looked into each other’s eyes, and it was easy again.
We drove back to his place, chatting excitedly about the nine-day adventure that awaited us, and I felt on top of the world.
Avichai had prepared me a sumptuous Shabbat dinner, which we ate with abandon. There was nothing to fear. We were together.
We awoke very late on Saturday, Oct. 7, to 38 missed calls and hundreds of unread text messages from his family and friends. Something had happened, but with my extremely limited understanding of Hebrew, I had no idea what. As Avichai began to return the missed calls, I opened my phone and read the headline: “Netanyahu says, ‘We Are at War.’”
It did not feel real until I felt Avichai’s hand on my shoulder and heard him say, “We need to talk about some things.”
He started by assuring me that everything would be all right — that we were not in any immediate danger — and then he told me to put on some pants. He explained that most of the fighting was in or near Gaza, which is 70 km to the south of where he lived. With tears welling in his eyes, he laid out the atrocities that had taken place while we slept: the rockets launched, the destruction, the terror, the hundreds of Israeli people killed or taken hostage.
He made it clear that there would be many more rockets. He calmly told me that when we heard the air raid siren, we would have 90 seconds to make our way to the bomb shelter in the basement of his building. There, we would wait out the barrage, and once a minute had passed from the end of the siren, we could return to his apartment. We would shelter in his building for the rest of the day, assessing the situation as it developed. We would not be going outside. He asked me if I understood, and I told him I did.
I did not understand a single thing that was happening. How was this even possible? Nothing in my privileged life had prepared me for this. Air raid sirens? Rockets? What about our vacation? What about our nine days in heaven?
Admittedly, I have a very narrow understanding of Middle Eastern politics. I, like many people, receive my “news” via Western media, a sanitized version of “the truth” (whatever that is at any given time) that typically follows the narrative of whichever government is currently in power. We receive just enough information to know something is terribly wrong in the region, but most of us do not grasp exactly what or why and after we put down our phones or turn off our TVs, we continue living our lives without much thought of what these people are facing.
The first siren sounded in the early evening. Avichai, very calmly, reached for my hand and said, “Grab your phone and your glasses. We’re going downstairs now.”
He led me to the basement — the “bomb shelter” — and put his arms around me.
“Everything is going to be OK,” he promised.
The author (left) and Avichai inside the bomb shelter in Avichai's apartment building.
When the dull thuds began, I thought, “This isn’t so bad.” When the rending, unearthly scream of metal meeting mortar began, the walls shook, the windows rattled, dust fell from the ceiling, and my bones moved inside my body. I told myself, “This isn’t so bad.”
I was lying — it was bad.
It was just about as bad as anything I have ever experienced.
I lied to myself, and I lied to Avichai because it was all I could do. I needed him to believe I was OK so he would be OK. I understand now — far removed from the daily onslaught of sirens and rockets — that he lied to me, too. It was all he could do. He needed me to believe he was OK so I would be OK.
As the sirens came and went, his brothers were called into service. As the trips down and up the stairs came and went, his best friend was called into service. Sometimes, there were no sirens at all, just an overbearing silence from the sky that was suddenly ruptured by explosions. The walls shook, the windows rattled, the bones moved inside my body, and we lied to each other.
This was the way of things. The pretense. I saw it in the faces of the people in the building who would join us in the shelter: The woman with the 1-year-old who never cried once, the elderly lady from the first floor with knees not meant for climbing long flights of stairs, the girl with the wet hair and a towel wrapped around her midriff; the boy from the next building over with the pottery mud drying on his hands.
These were our “instant friends,” they smiled and made me feel welcome. They promised me that “Israel is a beautiful country.” They said, “You’ll see when you come back.” And when I returned their smile and said, “I’ll see when I come back,” I did not lie.
I left Israel on Wednesday, Oct. 12, at 12:40. a.m. on a flight to Dubai after four days and four nights of war, and I do not regret my trip. I got to be with the man I loved. We held each other tight, we played Dungeons and Dragons and listened to music, we ate good food, we talked about important things and not-so-important things, we laughed and cried and felt alive. And though we were not safe, I felt safe with him.
The hardest part of my “vacation” was letting go of his hand, averting my gaze from his beautiful brown eyes, and walking away to find my gate and wait for my flight. I asked him to come with me to Canada, away from the chaos, but he refused. He said he cannot leave his family.
I equally respect and loathe his decision. There is a decidedly real probability that I will never see him again. I cannot look after him if we are not together, which is terrifying.
It is possible to be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine if you are pro-human being. Israel is not those in power who would see Gaza razed to the ground, just as Palestine is not the group that is raining rockets down on Israel. We must separate the regime from the people, just as we must separate the terrorists from the people.
I don’t want to speak for the people of Israel or Palestine and won’t pretend I could ever understand what they have been through or are going through now, but I know the average Israeli and the average Palestinian do not want war — they want to listen to music, eat good food, talk about important and unimportant things, laugh, cry, feel alive and above all else feel safe.
They want to live.
I am back in Canada, re-ensconced in my bubble, and I recognize how fortunate and privileged I am to return home to a place where I do not have to worry about my safety or the safety of my family and friends. But I can say I do not feel safe.
I will not be safe until the man that I love is safe. I will not be safe until the woman with the 1-year-old who never cried once, the elderly lady with knees not meant for long flights of stairs, the girl with the towel wrapped around her midriff, and the boy with the pottery mud drying on his hands are safe. I will not be safe until the innocent people in Palestine are safe.
The author (right) with his boyfriend Avichai in Israel in October 2023. "This photo is from the only night we went outside to eat," he writes.
Ultimately, I do not care if someone is Israeli or Palestinian. I only care that they are human beings.
I Facetimed with Avichai this morning before I finished writing this essay. He had traveled to the North to be with his parents. There have been many sirens. His sister came by with her children. His brother-in-law came by with his nephew and niece.
The sky above him was alive with the heavy hum of military aircraft.
He sent me a short video of his family outside, singing and dancing in the late afternoon sun.
More innocent people will surely die.
Avichai told me he is good, and I allowed the lie.
He said seeing me outside on a rare sunny day in mid-October in Vancouver makes him happy.
I told him I am good, and he allowed the lie, too.
Robbie Romu is a freelance writer living and working in Vancouver, Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.