A Retreat from Harvard in the Holy Land

Avi Loeb
5 min readDec 24, 2023


Tel Aviv at night

During winter break, I opted to take a retreat from antisemitism on the Harvard campus by visiting Israel.

We arrived at Ben-Gurion airport with El Al Airlines, the only transporter available from Boston to Israel after October 7, 2023. On the flight, the passenger behind me kept kicking my seat, and so I turned my head back and politely noted: “keep in mind that there is a human on the other side.” It then occurred to me that this perspective is often forgotten in conflicts.

The Israeli airport was much quieter than in previous visits. Upon arrival, the long corridor leading to the baggage claim displayed hundreds of posters, each showing an image of a hostage currently held by Hamas. The hostages were ripped violently from their daily life; some young and ambitious and others old and experienced. I wondered how they are doing in captivity. My feelings changed direction as I saw my family members waiting in the arrival hall.

After joining family in Tel Aviv, I went out for a jog because the time difference implied morning time in Boston. Along the way, Israeli flags appeared at a distance with the slogan: “Together, we will win.” A rocket hit the Tel Aviv area just before our arrival and I was advised to get into a “safe room” within 90 seconds from the sound of an alarm in order to avoid shrapnel. But not all risks are identified. Shortly after my jog, I attended an interview with The Hill Rising, triggered by an Unidentified Anomalous Phenomenon near President Biden’s airplane.

As the night settled in, I could see the stars above. The theme of stars threads my career. It started by me leading the theoretical work on the first international project supported by the Star Wars Initiative of President Ronald Reagan. Little did I know that forty years later, I will search for extraterrestrial technological signatures from distant stars. Also, the star of David is at the center of the Israeli flag.

After dinner, I arrived at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel’s premier research center in Rehovot. The perimeter of the Institute measures 3 miles, providing a perfect fit to my jog at sunrise the following morning. Along the path, I passed orange trees, the same as in my childhood farm. Instead of pursuing tenure at Harvard, I could have worked at the farm. There is internal beauty to the simple life of working sincerely with nature in contrast to the attempt to gain likes by virtue signaling in the culture of academia.

Half way through my run, I passed the historic home of the scientist Dr. Haim Weizmann, who served as Israel’s first president. Many of Weizmann’s quotes were on display, but one in particular captured my attention: “science will bring to this land both peace and a renewal of its youth, creating here the springs of a new spiritual and material life. […] I speak of both science for its own sake and science as a means to an end.”

Later in the day, I met a high-school friend who as a psychologist is helping the recovery of October 7th survivors. He mentioned a young American-born girl who survived the brutal rapes and murders of three hundred people out of thousands who assembled for a music festival near Gaza in the early morning of October 7th. She was saved by her boyfriend who happened to be trained in the Israeli delta force and was able to defeat with his bare hands two Hamas militants who approached them with crowbars. Witnessing the horrors of dead friends all around, she suffers now from traumatic detachment symptoms. The entire discomfort of Jewish students in the face of anti-Semitic sentiments on Harvard’s campus pales in comparison to the suffering of this one girl on October 7th.

The following day, I met with Professor Dan Blumberg, Chairman of the Israel Space Agency, and separately with Dr. Yuval Steinitz, who started his career as a philosopher, continued by having several ministerial posts in the Israeli government, and is currently the Chairman of Rafael. Both Dan and Yuval were interested in speaking with me after reading my writings about the scientific search for extraterrestrial technological objects near Earth. As it turns out, Yuval wrote recently a science fiction novel about humanity facing an existential risk from a particle accelerator that is capable of creating black holes. The storyline serves as a metaphor for similar risks from artificial intelligence, climate change, a global nuclear war or artificially-manufactured viruses.

When the conversations spilled over to the unexpected attack on October 7th, both Dan and Yuval argued independently that the biggest omissions in national intelligence are caused by lack of imagination. In generalizing this wisdom to astrophysics, I argued that “the biggest omissions in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence are caused by lack of imagination.

My hectic day ended with an interview to Israeli television. Most of the interview centered on antisemitism at Harvard, but finally the reporter asked: “What would be the implications of finding extraterrestrials?” I suggested that the Messianic message of world peace might be delivered from an interstellar postal address. The vast amount of real estate in outer space will convince us that fighting over territories on this small rock we call Earth is meaningless in the big scheme of the cosmos.


Credit: Chris Michel (October 2023)

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, was published in August 2023.



Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Baird Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial” and "Interstellar".