During the spring of 2017, CAMERA sponsored ex-IDF soldier Hen Mazzig to speak on 17 college campuses. On one of his last stops was the University of Central Florida where Knights for Israel hosted Hen to speak about his life, his family, and his service. He began the night speaking about his family background and their journey from Tunisia and Iraq to Israel. His family belonged to the Amazigh tribe in Tunisia and he shared his grandparents’ accounts of the tiny Jewish community within the tribe. He spoke about how his grandmother fled Iraq during the expulsion and murder of the Jewish community in 1941.
We learned about his childhood and his firsthand accounts of terrorism during the Second Intifada. When he was 12, Mazzig walked to an ice cream shop two blocks from his home. As he stood outside the shop, just steps away, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up the café, killing a grandmother and her 2-year-old granddaughter and injuring many others.
Hen describes this as “the most significant event of [his] life” and the event that later inspired him to join the COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories) unit of the IDF. He says that working together and understanding one another is the way to achieve peace. Working as a COGAT soldier, he was directly able to work towards peace. (The video below shows some of the work COGAT does.)
Lastly, Mazzig spoke about his experience as an openly gay commander. He came out during his service to his fellow soldiers and commanding officers. Being an openly gay IDF soldier never got in the way of his work or his experience, and he received nothing but support from his unit.
He finished the night fielding questions from the students and answered with care and skill. He answered every question, even the tough; he was candid as he addressed the students. I asked him what the biggest thing he learned from his speaking tour this semester. He answered saying how he was shocked by how polarizing politics, and Israel specifically, is on campus and how he has to deal with students that don’t want to listen. He was asked about his well-documented experience at University College London and showed the video and gave a comical play-by-play of what went on that night when anti-Israel protesters barricaded the students and Hen in the classroom and subsequently broke into the space that was guarded by police.
Mazzig really connected with the students. He was down to earth, raw, and painted a new and refreshing picture of what it means to be gay, Arab, and a proud Jew in the nation state of the Jewish people. He showed us that everyone has a story and that soldiers are people too with real hardships that we all face.
Originally published in the Heritage Florida Jewish News