When Hen Mazzig came to speak at the UCLA Hillel in late October, I had no expectation of seeing him again ten days later at the Jewish National Fund’s National Conference in Boston, some 2,500 miles away from Westwood.
While I had actually never heard of Mazzig before then, it didn’t take long for me to realize that he would make a lasting impact on me.
Perhaps the context of his address made his words resound differently and his perspectives uniquely relatable and impactful. This was especially true in Boston, where local protesters surrounded our hotel, holding up signs equating Zionists to European colonizers and white supremacists.
But the real elephant in the room was the barrage of recent antisemitic activity, including several incidents involving high-profile celebrities and athletes, that has beset Jewish communities and the American people at large. Such a backdrop made Mazzig’s remarks especially timely and meaningful.
It was a refreshing sight to see Mazzig—an Israeli author, activist, and social media influencer—engage his audiences with his calm demeanor, refined self-confidence, and tactful eloquence. At just 27 years old, he could relate to young Jews and Zionists, encouraging them to express their beliefs proudly and fight misinformation and hatred.
Listening to Mazzig speak, it was quickly apparent that many of his insights and beliefs are a product of his upbringing and personal identity. Mazzig proudly expresses his affiliation with the LGBT community. And, as a grandchild of Tunisian and Iranian Jewish refugees who fled to the nascent State of Israel in the 1950s, Mazzig is strongly rooted in his Mizrahi-Jewish ancestry.
His ideas reflected a rare mastery of nuance; Mazzig’s speeches blended unabashed self-expression with an equally-held commitment to sensitivity toward others. He shares his truth while ensuring it can also be received.
But what fascinated me most about Mazzig was his keen ability to utilize his own story to help repudiate increasingly common anti-Zionist talking points.
Hen Mazzig is certainly a Jew, an Israeli, and a Zionist. Yet, as a descendant of an oppressed Middle-Eastern familial lineage, Mazzig cannot also be a perpetrator of European white-supremacy. These socio-political identities are entirely mutually exclusive.
Thus, highlighting his non-white ancestry and family’s history of persecution, Mazzig astutely confronted the ever-pertinent accusations assailing the Jewish state in the modern age: unilateral European-style racism and colonization of the Palestinian territories.
Mazzig’s story has powerfully impacted me and molded my own perspective. I believe that his approach utilizes a critical resource that can be used in the fight against rising anti-Zionist and antisemitic rhetoric.
According to psychologists, a central component of affective prejudice toward disliked populations is called “outgroup homogeneity bias.” In essence, people tend to consider individuals in the negatively viewed “other” as being more similar to one another than they actually are.
Outgroup homogeneity bias is the backbone of much modern-day anti-Semitism. Such positions refuse to see the multifaceted and heterogeneous nature of the Jewish people and the Jewish state and instead simply subvert it into a much larger historical narrative: the strong against the weak, the wealthy against the poor, and the “haves” against the “have-nots.”
Further, these arguments claim that Israel exemplifies just how the hegemonic West has unjustly mistreated the “other” throughout modern history. It’s an attempt to group the Jewish people — and by extension, the State of Israel — into one homogenous sociological structure.
These polemics are the essence of a dominant, yet mutated strain of anti-Semitism in our day and age, one that is quite distinct from other waves of hatred that Jews have experienced in the past.
According to former British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, in contrast to the religious anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages (blood libels and pogroms) or the scientific anti-Semitism of the 19th century (eugenics and social Darwinism), anti-Semitism in the 21st century revolves around the delegitimization of the Jewish state.
“Antisemitism means denying the right of Jews to exist collectively as Jews with the same rights as everyone else,” Rabbi Sacks said in a Keynote Address to the European Parliament in 2016. “It takes different forms in different ages, but it remains the same thing: the view that Jews have no right to exist as free and equal human beings.”
Accordingly, anti-Zionism becomes inextricably linked with antisemitism, as it deprives the Jewish people of the same rights that are granted to other religious and ethnic groups.
By virtue of there being a Jewish state and the Palestinians not having one of their own, the Jews are now perceived as the oppressors within the dichotomy between the “oppressed” and the “oppressors.” Thus, in addition to the psychological and sociological elements, modern-day antisemitism may also have this political catalyst.
To undermine the notion that Israel is a homogenous and oppressive state, individuals like Hen Mazzig and those that come from similar marginalized backgrounds would do well to take public initiative and defy these misconceptions.
This would make a clear demonstration that Jews are not just an “outgroup” themselves — a people persecuted and exterminated on the basis of their beliefs, practices, and even existence — but would also illustrate that there a multitude of ways by which Jews relate to traditions, their people, and their homeland.
Just recently, I read Daniel Gordis’ biography of late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and was reminded of a poignant, yet little-known story that I believe reflects the hospitality and grace of Israel, a state that was founded upon the heels of the persecution and extermination of its pioneers.
Gordis relates that in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people fled their country, either by boat or foot. In 1977, an Israeli freighter ship, the Yuvali, en route to Asia, spotted a stranded fishing boat with 66 refugees in it. Despite not having enough life jackets for all the passengers, the ship’s captain, Meir Tadmor, brought them aboard the Yuvali.
Tadmor sailed to places like Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan; however, none of those countries agreed to admit the Vietnamese refugees, let alone administer medical care.
Subsequently, however, with his first official action as Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin granted asylum to the refugees aboard the Yuvali, committing to teach them Hebrew, provide them with jobs, and ease their transition to life in Israel.
Prime Minister Begin’s decision drew admiration from world leaders, including U.S. President Jimmy Carter. In his response to Carter, Begin formulated his act within the context of the Jewish experience:
“We have never forgotten the lot of our people, persecuted, humiliated, and ultimately destroyed,” Begin said. “Therefore, it was natural that my first act as Prime Minister was to give those people a haven in the Land of Israel.”
According to Gordis, Prime Minister Begin made his decision rather instinctively, on moral and distinctly Jewish grounds. Founded by people who experienced the trevails of persecution, the Jewish State would naturally extend its hospitality and shelter to those experiencing a similar plight. In a sense, Israel could uniquely relate to the suffering and alienation of the Vietnamese refugees.
In the current age, even when adversaries may assert otherwise, Hen Mazzig taught me that every person has their own unique story that makes them who they truly are.
Authenticity, courage, and pride are among our best tools in the fight against modern antisemitism. We must insist that the Jewish people cannot be restricted to modern-day class, gender, racial, and ethnic categories.
I personally am fortunate enough to express my Jewish identity and connection to the Land and State of Israel in several ways.
During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, I had the special opportunity to take a gap year to study at a yeshiva in Israel. In just 9 months — which included two rounds of quarantine — I was able to explore the Jewish homeland and develop an attachment to the people and culture of the State of Israel.
When I went to Jerusalem’s Western Wall, I would often think of my ancestors who could only face Jerusalem when they prayed. As Psalm 126 relates: “When the Lord returns the exiles to Zion, we shall have been considered like dreamers.” In a sense, I thought I was experiencing an ancient dream of my forebears, yet one that was finally realized in the 20th century.
While I returned home to study in university, many of my peers decided to continue their time in Israel and serve in the IDF. I regularly think of my chayalim bodedim — lone soldier — friends, who are devoting themselves to a cause that is larger than any individual.
I reflect on my teachers and Rabbis who taught me in Beit Shemesh, preserving the great ideal of Torah study and immersion in the Jewish tradition, one that has accompanied the Jewish people through very dark chapters of their history. I also think about my great uncle and aunt in Haifa, Israel, olim — immigrants — to Israel themselves who made great contributions to their communities in medicine and science.
I still recall many conversations I had with Israeli cab drivers — a garrulous bunch — and would always enjoy learning about their upbringing, families, hobbies, and quite too often, political views.
This is only my perspective. In Boston, as I analyzed my surroundings, I was truly astonished at the hundreds of people who, like me, decided to fly in and participate in the Jewish National Fund’s conference. It was a hopeful scene.
Throughout the weekend, I kept thinking about all the stories that I was immersed in, and was inspired by their collective potential. And I realized this is only a fraction — the tip of the iceberg — of the stories that define the Jewish people and weave the fabric of the State of Israel.
Let us not fear our own selves. As I learned from Mazzig, our individual stories humanize us, and collectively, they weave the fabric of the Jewish nation. Through them, we could say “Am Yisroel Chai” – the nation of Israel lives on.
“The views expressed in this post reflect the views of the author(s) and not UCLA or ASUCLA Communications Board.”