At Kibbutz Kfar Aza on the first morning of our trip. (The Free Press)

The Free Press in Israel: A Special Limited Series

You can’t cover a country at war over Zoom. So we went. And now we’re bringing the stories back to you on Honestly.

“I don’t know if I should go,” I told my husband. It was a few days before I was supposed to fly from my home in Atlanta to Tel Aviv with Bari and a small team of Free Press producers to report on the war. I had the ticket. I am the executive producer of Honestly and I needed to be there. I just didn’t know if I could get on the plane.

There were the practical reasons holding me back: I have two small children and I had never been away from them for anything close to an entire week. There were the safety concerns that kept me up at night: I am the kind of person who does not like to shower when I am alone in my house. I bring pepper spray with me wherever I go.

But there were also intangible, existential things eating away at me. 

The last time I had been to Israel was a decade ago, when I lived in Jerusalem after college. I was young and hungry, and I devoured the country. 

I loved its motley cultures, the country’s ancient history, the way everyday people found a way to live inside one of the most contested pieces of land in the world. Israelis are often called sabras, after the thorny desert cactus: prickly, thick, harsh on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside. I remember a man yelling at me on the bus one afternoon after I mistakenly took his seat. Minutes later, as my dates and grapes and tomatoes from the market spilled out of my bags, he helped pick them up. We happened to get off at the same stop, and he carried my heavy groceries for me all the way to my apartment.

I also felt safe there, both in a practical sense (I would walk the streets alone late at night without hesitation) and also in a deeply emotional sense. I was safe in Israel as a Jew. And as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who once had no place to flee, I realized how precious and profound that feeling was.

Now, months after Hamas invaded the country, I knew that Israel was gone. What I would find in its place, I didn’t know. 

But I went. I went because I wanted to know.

There is nothing that compares to meeting people face-to-face. Here I am watching Bari interview Rachel Goldberg, the mother of one of the hostages.

The sun was just beginning to rise as we flew over the Mediterranean Sea and past the city-side beaches of Tel Aviv, but you couldn’t tell because it was an overcast and foggy morning. I looked at the in-flight map in front of me and I thought of the two redheaded boys—ages 1 and 4, the same age as my own children back home—who are being held as hostages by Hamas in Gaza. I thought: if only we could fly just a few more minutes south, we could reach them. We walked down the long hallway from the gate to customs and saw those two redheaded boys—on posters lining the walkway—along with hundreds of others, some already confirmed dead. 

The hallway at Ben-Gurion airport is lined with photographs of the hostages.

We changed in the airport bathroom and headed directly to Kfar Aza, a kibbutz just four miles from Gaza. Of the 950 residents of that community, 63 were murdered, 18 were kidnapped, and six were severely injured on October 7.

I had seen the videos and the pictures. I had even reported on the stories: within 48 hours of October 7, we had interviewed over a dozen people for Honestly.

But that is different from standing in the home of a young couple who had been slaughtered. I looked up at the ceiling and saw hundreds of bullet holes. There was nowhere in the tiny, 400-square-foot home to hide. I noticed the spices—amba, cinnamon, salt—left on a small shelf above the kitchen sink and wondered what they had been planning to make for breakfast that morning.

From there we went to the Nova music festival site where 364 civilians were murdered on October 7. We spoke to two young women who shouldn’t have survived but did.

Michal recalled hiding under a tank for hours after she’d been shot: “They threw grenades at us. I lost my hearing. And it was just: wait for death. We all knew we were going to die. We just didn’t know which way and when.”

“They came very fast,” Mazal, the other woman, told us about the moment the terrorists approached her and her two close friends. “Then, I felt a ‘boom’ in my head, and I fell to the floor. And I felt that someone put ropes on my legs. I felt his hands on me for at least a month after.” 

Mazal—her name means “luck”—made it. Her friends were murdered next to her.

While they told us their stories in the same fields where their friends once lay dead, we heard the thundering of weapons just a few miles away. Those sounds, which were the backdrop of the day alongside the wind and the birds, reminded us that what happened here months ago is far from over.

Michal and Mazal embrace after their interview.

Over breakfast at our hotel in Jaffa the next morning, we met a young woman from Sderot and her two-year-old twins. The majority of the hotel was occupied not by beachside vacationers but by Israeli refugees who cannot return to their homes. I made peek-a-boo faces with the children when the mom pulled out her phone and showed me a picture. 

“This is my brother, Kobi,” she said. “He was murdered by Hamas on October 7. He was out for his morning run. He loved to run.” 

The two-year-olds giggled at our feet. 

She told me her brother was named after their uncle—also named Kobi—who was killed in the Yom Kippur War 50 years ago: October 10, 1973. “The same day as my brother’s funeral.” 

An interview in Jaffa with Yair Golan, a retired general who grabbed his gun and rushed to save lives on October 7.

And that was just the first 24 hours.

In the week that followed, we talked to people across the country.

Everyone from former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. . .

To Arab-Israeli Muslim journalist Lucy Aharish. . . 

From people who hate the Netanyahu government but nonetheless showed up as reservists without hesitation. . . 

To people who voted for Bibi and now want him—and his entire coalition—removed from power. . . 

From family members of hostages who can barely get out of bed each morning. . . 

To the soldiers who have no choice but to do so every day. . . 

From the son of one of Hamas’s founders who escaped the terror group in the West Bank and now calls Israel his home. . . 

To Palestinians in Ramallah who told us they supported the events of October 7. . . 

Setting up for our interview with Arab-Israeli Muslim journalist Lucy Aharish.

On our final evening in Tel Aviv, just a few hours before we were headed to the airport, rocket alert sirens sounded throughout the city. I was in the shower. Frantic, I grabbed the hotel robe and ran to the stairwell, which serves as the makeshift bomb shelter. I still had shampoo in my hair. 

As I heard the booms of the Iron Dome intercepting Hamas’s rockets, I thought about the Israelis on October 7 who also sought safety in their shelters, only to soon discover they were their slaughterhouses. And I thought about the civilians and children in Gaza who have no shelters at all. Hamas’s tunnel network is longer than the London Tube. But it’s reserved for terrorists—not innocents.

If you would have told me before I left that I’d have to take cover in the hotel stairwell as a dozen rockets flew over my head, I might not have gone. I am so glad I did. For a journalist, nothing compares to reporting on the ground. There is so much to capture and discover that a phone call or a Zoom conversation simply cannot.

I got back to Atlanta with some 30 hours of tape. And I got to work putting together the story of a people in mourning, a country at war, and a nation on the frontlines of a civilizational fight.

This Thursday we are going to bring you The Free Press in Israel—a special limited series reporting on our time in the country. To make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Honestly wherever you get your podcasts.

To get a taste of what’s in store, you can listen to the trailer for that series right here:

Last but not least: the kind of journalism we do at The Free Press takes real resources. So if you believe in what we do, if you believe in independent journalism, please become a paying subscriber today. For just $80 a year, you make our work possible. Thank you.

Subscribe now