On March 20th, CAMERA-supported group Eagles for Israel, along with the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), hosted Hen Mazzig at Boston College. As the CAMERA Fellow at BC, and as Co-President of the university’s only official pro-Israel advocacy group, I was ecstatic about the opportunity to help bring Hen in to tell his story – a narrative that stood out to me as one of the most powerful testaments of Israeli tolerance and democracy that I have ever heard.
Hen’s perspective on Israeli society is unique. The son of refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, he is a former IDF Commander in his mid-twenties, who served openly gay. Hen spent most of his time in the army working as a liaison for COGAT in the West Bank, a position that gave him control over how Israel was portrayed to the world media covering the region. When I was approached by CAMERA earlier this year to once more host Hen, I did not hesitate to say yes.
In order to promote the event, I had my club host a table outside of our school’s main library on the morning of the event, and to greet passersby with free Israeli ‘swag’ and Starbucks coffee courtesy of CAMERA. We had close to a hundred students stop by our table over the course of four hours, many of whom showed much interest in the uniqueness of Hen’s story; it also didn’t hurt that we made sure to mention that there would be free catered Israeli food at the event.
As the hour of the event approached, I expected there to be a handsome turnout of people from the Boston College community – in previous events similar in nature, we have usually had upwards of about ten non-club members show. It is always a struggle getting a turnout at a Catholic institution with a tiny Jewish student body, but that is the constraint we work with as we fight the good fight. As my phone’s clock neared 7 P.M. the time advertised as the start of the event, I began seeing entire groups of people flood the classroom. It got to the point where I thought we’d run out of seats! All in all, we had about forty people come, with thirty or so being non-club members. I realize in hindsight that the turnout was a true testament to both Hen’s charm as a speaker and his strength as an advocate for Israel.
Hen’s talk began on an emotional note, with him describing his background as a Mizrahi Jew whose parents’ families fled Tunisia and Iraq after being expelled in the oft-forgotten Jewish exodus of the 1950’s. He described how his grandmother witnessed the hanging of her father in Baghdad, and how that propelled her family to realize Jews were no longer welcome in the country. He then went on to discuss his own personal tragedy: He nearly became the victim of a suicide bombing in his native Petah Tikva during the Second Intifada in early 2002, a blast which he avoided by seconds but that took the life of a grandmother and her two-year old baby granddaughter.
“Some people will argue that these men are freedom fighters, but what’s so heroic about killing a grandmother and her baby?” Hen rhetorically asked with emotion creaking through his voice.
It was clear that these experiences formed Hen’s world outlook and his love for his country. His unique story, however, was further enhanced when he began discussing how he opened up about his homosexuality at the behest of his commander in the army, who saw no issue with Hen being gay and who thought he had potential to rise in the ranks of the IDF. Hen made sure to note how, in almost no other Middle Eastern country this would be possible, and how he has found general acceptance for his lifestyle in Israel.
He also shattered myths about the Israeli presence in Judea and Samaria (also known as the West Bank); Hen shared an anecdote of saving a child from possible death in Gaza by helping coordinate his transfer to his uncle who lived in the area. Unlike what the media likes to report, I found that Hen’s story was an honest and a more truthful account of IDF behavior.
Hen then moved on to a Q&A session, where he was asked about the incident involving him at a CAMERA event at University College London last fall, where he nearly became the victim of a pro-Palestinian mob reacting violently to him appearing on campus.
“Oh, about that,” Hen humorously remarked.
He discussed how he was labeled as a murderer by the protesting group, which he found ironic given his liberal, peaceful background. He then paused a video of the event, showing just how violent and scary things had gotten. Hen also fielded many questions about LGBTQ rights in Israel, how his family has reacted to his lifestyle, etc. All in all, Hen was asked about thirty minutes worth of questions, and would have continued to have fielded them had it not been for time constraints.
After the event, some students from BC’s LGBTQ community came up to speak with Hen, telling him how much they loved his talk. In my opinion, Hen was the perfect person to come represent Israel on a generally politically apathetic campus. He destroyed myths about Israel being an intolerant, ‘evil’ force, as is often portrayed as in the world media. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, his life is a reflection of the spirit of the Israeli people: Tough through adversity, striving for justice, and welcoming others in need of help.