IDF soldier shares stories of Israel, Midwest tour – in peace – Northbrook Star
The night of Thursday, April 23, was a relatively easy one for 25-year-old Hen Mazzig. There was no heckling, no screaming and no one was calling him a murderer.
Mazzig was at the end of a two-week “StandWithUs” tour of the Midwest, where he is sharing stories about his service with the Israeli Defense Force. As part of the Humanitarian Unit, his job was to help Palestinian civilians avoid becoming victims of war. His specific role, he said, involved building infrastructure like roads, clinics, hospitals and schools for Palestinians.
“I wanted to do it from the beginning,” said Mazzig, who served in the IDF for five years and was honorably discharged in 2012 at the rank of lieutenant. “I wanted to help save lives, and the idea for the army, it gave me a possibility to bring peace close. And I truly believe that, in this role, I was able to promote peace.”
An intimate crowd of 25 adults at the Jewish Community Center in Northbrook proudly applauded his presentation, as well as his answers during a brief question-and-answer period.
Unfortunately, Mazzig said, that wasn’t always the reception he received during his Midwest tour, particularly on college campuses.
“Well, at the beginning [of the tour], I was always surprised. Then later on, I kind of got used to it,” he said. “When you’re an IDF soldier working the West Bank, you get used to nasty stuff being said to you, but I never expected it from American students.”
When asked for an example, Mazzig said a biology professor at the University of Missouri was heckling him from the audience with hostile questions and accusations.
“[He said,] ‘Why do you kill Palestinians? How many U.N. schools have you attacked?'” Mazzig recalled. “And at the end, he came to me and said, ‘How can you come here and defend Ashkenazi Jews — white Eastern European Jews — when you are an Arab Jew?'”
Mazzig is Israeli, but his family is from Iraq.
As he prepared to go home on April 26, he reflected on his naivete. He said he expected anti-Israel and anti-Semitic opinions on the liberal West Coast, but he said he didn’t think he “would have to convince” Midwesterners to support Israel.
“I saw on many college campuses, we had so many hecklers and protests and awful things being said to us — yeah, it was surprising, very surprising,” he said. “But in other places, you know, we inspired people. We inspired students to stand up for Israel. … I have so many thank you emails that I’m getting from students; they felt so unsafe in their school, and now they feel better to support Israel after they heard our talk.”
There were also moments of great joy on the tour, he said, recalling being welcomed by the World Outreach and Bible Training Center in Milwaukee, where 400 African-American Gospel church members came to hear him speak. A fellow Israeli soldier from Ethiopia was with him to tell her story as well.
“They were, like, loving her. They kept saying, ‘Hallelujah, hallelujah!’ It was amazing; it was really, really amazing,” he said. “And in the end, the pastors are coming to Israel this summer, and they want to meet us at the [StandWithUs] office.”
Other venues where Mazzig spoke these past two weeks include the University of Nebraska,Drake University,University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin, Oakton Community College, Moody Bible Institute,Northwestern University and University of Chicago.
StandWithUs had six teams of two participating in the Israeli Soldiers’ Stories tour across the United States, said Midwest Director Peggy Shapiro, of Deerfield. In its sixth year of operation, she said, the goal of the tour is to share stories that aren’t told in the mainstream media, to show Americans that Israeli soldiers are just like U.S. college students, and to bridge the gap of misunderstanding about the Middle Eastern conflict.
“The responses [during the tour] go from people screaming at them, ‘You murderer!’ to the response we got at the African-American church, where people were standing up and saying, ‘Praise the lord, hallelujah, thank you for coming!'” Shapiro said. “But they are amazing. … They say, rather than calling names, why don’t we sit down and talk about it? They’re willing to have the hardest, most challenging conversations — they’re up for it. And if the opponents are, then at some point we reach some kind of detente.”
After serving as campus coordinator for StandWithUs’ Pacific Northwest chapter in Seattle for one and a half years, Mazzig said he is used to the questions and confrontations. But his goal, he said, is to focus on the 90 percent of people in the room who haven’t made up their mind about Israel and want information. If he can relate to those people, he said, he feels like he’s done his job.
“I don’t like [sharing my story] actually; it’s tough and it’s hard exposing myself all the time,” he said. “But because my story is unique and I have things to share that aren’t usually heard, I have to do it. And not just for Israel … for the Jewish people.
“What am I? It’s thousands of years of history that our people survived and went through so much. I have to do it, you know? It’s the least I can do.”