I recently spearheaded an event on March 21st called “Hen Mazzig: Untold Stories”, in collaboration with CAMERA on Campus, Duke Students Supporting Israel, Duke Friends of Israel, and the American Sephardi Federation. Not only was this conversation educational and empowering, but it highlighted the value of enriching our campus with guest speakers of varied backgrounds and viewpoints. Even after hosting and attending numerous events with different speakers in the Israel space, I realized that Hen Mazzig brought an entirely new perspective to campus by using his identity and experiences to present various sides of Israel that we do not always get to see in the media.
As a proud Jewish and Zionist student, I am so glad that Mazzig covered the history of Mizrahi Jews and their role in contributing to Israeli culture and lifestyle as we know it.
It is often overlooked that the majority of Israel’s Jewish population is not white or Ashkenazi, but Mizrahi. This is because following Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, more than 850,000 Jews, including Mazzig’s parents, were expelled from Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) lands. Many of them poured into Israel, not as a “white, European settler project” but rather as a people, long-lost brothers and sisters coming back to their homeland and contributing to a diverse Israeli population.
Mazzig is the son of refugees from Iraq and Tunisia. While his family had contributed to advancements in the MENA region for centuries because Jews held the status of dhimmi, Mazzig explained that “you’re protected until you’re not protected anymore”. In the 1940s and 1950s, his mother and her family experienced the farhud, an outbreak of mob violence that caused a turning point for the Jews of Iraq.
Around the same time, the paternal side of his family faced a similar fate in Tunisia. This story fascinated me, because when most people think about the Holocaust, they do not realize that the Third Reich’s reign of terror expanded beyond Europe. As the only Arab country under direct German occupation during World War II, Tunisia housed forced labor camps that subjected the Jews to brutal conditions like the European concentration camps. Tunisia’s vibrant Jewish population of over 100,000 prior to 1948 is now estimated to be less than 1,500.
Another common misconception about Israel is that being progressive and Israeli, or being progressive and supporting Israel, are mutually exclusive. Yet, since rebuilding their life in Israel, generations of Mizrahim, Mazzig’s family among them, have been able to live as proud Jews in a robust democracy. Mazzig identifies with the LGBTQ+ community, and shared how living in Israel allowed him to serve as an openly gay commander in the Israel Defense Forces and be candidly progressive in his Jewish and Israel-related advocacy.
Yet another myth is that Israel engages in “pinkwashing.” Pinkwashing is essentially a way of promoting LGBTQ+ rights as evidence of democracy, in order to distract from or conceal wrongdoings. Many anti-Israel voices claim that Israel engages in pinkwashing to conceal atrocities against the Palestinian people. Not only is this claim patently false since the plight of the Palestinians largely rests on the failures of their leadership to make peace, but Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East. In Israel, minority groups such as women and LGBTQ+ are given a voice politically, economically, and socially, and people are able to express their views freely. Under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Israel’s coalition government successfully included an Arab party for the first time.
Simply throwing around negative myths about Israel not only paints the country as an oppressive, undemocratic nation, but these myths can be perceived as a reality for those who may not be educated about Israel. Theories such as pinkwashing and false narratives such as Israel being an “apartheid state” must be debunked immediately, and Mazzig did an amazing job doing this.
To me, the key feature of this event was the uniqueness of Mazzig and his stories. Students and community members got to hear from a Mizrahi Jewish speaker, which is already uncommon in Jewish events on campus, but also someone who is simultaneously queer, progressive, and proudly pro-Israel. Hearing these untold stories and diverse perspectives about Israel is especially important in today’s day and age, as so many of these are hidden or distorted by misinformation and bias within the media. Just as Mazzig explained, rather than succumbing to the increasing forces of political polarization and media bias, we should use our platforms to be proud of our identities, celebrate diversity, and advocate for tolerance, unity, and peace.
Of course, this takeaway can and should be expanded beyond “Hen Mazzig: Untold Stories” and the conversation surrounding Israel. At Duke, the world is truly at our fingertips. Our community must continue to engage with guest speakers of different backgrounds and ideologies, and students should be encouraging each other to show up to events and listen open-mindedly, even if they do not agree with everything a speaker says. It is through giving ourselves a seat at the table and participating in these conversations that we will be able to develop a more nuanced stance on individual issues, as well as a more informed worldview at large.
This article was originally featured in the Times of Israel Blogs.