Jewish Journal

By Aaron Bandler

Hen Mazzig, a progressive, gay Israeli activist came to California to talk to locals about his family history and his identity. 

About 20 people came to hear Mazzig speak at a private residence in Long Beach earlier this month, at an event hosted by the Jewish National Fund of Orange County.

Mazzig told attendees his father’s family and his mother’s family fled Tunisia and Iraq, respectively, in 1951 to seek refuge in Israel. He said his father’s family was forced to work in Nazi labor camps during Germany’s occupation of Tunisia from 1942-43. “The long arm of the Nazis didn’t just stop in Europe,” he said.

Mazzig said his maternal grandmother told him how, in 1941, the Iraqi government initiated the Farhud, or pogrom against Jews from June 1-2 during Shavuot. On the second day, Mazzig’s grandmother, then a teenager, witnessed her disabled friend Dalia being raped by an Iraqi policeman.

“When she told me this story, she was in tears,” Mazzig said, adding that it was at that point his grandmother knew her family had to leave Iraq. But before they fled, Mazzig’s great grandfather was executed by the Iraqi government in Baghdad for being a Zionist.

“The reason I start with those stories is because it’s so important that we continue speaking about it,” Mazzig said. 

Mazzig, 27, then spoke about his own war experiences as a 12-year-old. In 2002, during the Second Intifada, he was about to enter an ice cream shop in Petach Tikvah when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up. 

As a result of that incident, when Mazzig undertook his compulsory Israel Defense Forces (IDF) training at 18, he chose to join the IDF’s humanitarian Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories unit. Mazzig was stationed in the West Bank Palestinian town
of Ramallah from 2008-13. 


Mazzig recounted how in 2009, his best friend, Ilan, came out to him as gay. Concerned Ilan might just be going through a phase, Mazzig spoke with an officer, Adam, to which Adam replied that he believed Mazzig was also gay and had a crush on Ilan.

“Go back home, confess your love to Ilan, come back and tell me you have a boyfriend,” Adam told him. Mazzig eventually confessed his love for Ilan but Ilan turned down Mazzig, saying Mazzig was too fat.

When Mazzig relayed to Adam what had happened, Mazzig called Ilan the love of his life. Adam responded, “Ilan is not the love of your life because the love of your life wouldn’t treat you this way,” a line that Mazzig said stuck with him. 

Mazzig eventually went on to become an openly gay commander in his unit in 2010. “I knew I had the backing of my commanders,” Mazzig said, citing an instance in 2011, when “one of my commanders imprisoned a soldier for a week for using homophobic words toward me. As a gay person, I feel the most safe in Israel than I do anywhere else,” he said.

Addressing anti-Zionist slurs of “pink washing” (that Israel offers its LGBTQ community rights to cover up its policies against the Palestinians), Mazzig called the accusations “ridiculous” and “shameful,” noting that LGBTQ activists fought for the Israeli government to grant them rights.

Nonetheless, Mazzig acknowledged that Israel still has “a long way to go” when it comes to LGBTQ rights, especially in legalizing same-sex marriage. “It’s a struggle and it’s a process,” he said.

Mazzig went on to state that as a progressive, he has noticed that a lot of progressive circles that claim to support social justice “are the ones that are attacking Israel. Criticism of Israel is OK but there’s a fine line between criticism … and denying the country its right to exist,” he said.

Mazzig concluded his speech by stating he hopes that one day when he has children, he can promise them that they won’t have to serve in the IDF because there will be peace in the region, and that the promise will be fulfilled.