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Meet Hen Mazzig: the gay Israeli activist challenging bigotry from the Left and Right

Meet Hen Mazzig: the gay Israeli activist challenging bigotry from the Left and Right

Gay Israeli activist Hen Mazzig

Hen Mazzig is a 29-year-old queer Jew living in Israel. His activism mainly focuses on LGBTI rights both in Israel and abroad. His work has appeared in various publications, including The Forward and The Jerusalem Post.

Yet, due to his identity as a Mizrahi Jewish Israeli, things aren’t always so simple.

A proud gay Israeli

‘It was always challenging to be a proud queer and Israeli activist in the US, as fractions of my LGBTQAI+ community are still fighting against me,’ he tells GSN.

‘From a community that has established itself on the grounds of fighting for equality and acceptance, it baffles me as to how some members can practice the very same bigotry we are fighting against. And why? Simply because of my nationality.’

‘Being an Israeli secular Jew, half North African Berber, half Iraqi, and queer, I know oppression all too well. I’ve experienced the challenges of acceptance at every stage in my life. I always fought against LGBT-phobia, racism and all other forms of bigotry. Being who I am, I felt like I never had any other option.’

Mazzig recalls being caught off-guard the first time he found himself at odds with the LGBTI community at large. The main reason for this? His identity as an Israeli.

‘Yes, my own family of people who know first-hand how difficult it is to be who you are, are joining a campaign to persecute me because of where I was born,’ he says.

‘This group from within the LGBTQAI+ community is promoting a campaign against “pink-washing.” They describe this as Israel using its LGBT community to whitewash the conflict with our neighboring Arab and Muslim countries. Most obviously the Palestinians,’ he explains.

‘As an ex-humanitarian officer in the IDF who worked in the West Bank with Palestinians on a daily basis between 2007 and 2012, I know how challenging this conflict is. I am critical of some of my country’s policies and fully support a two-state solution.’

The BDS Movement

Even though he supports a Palestinian homeland, Mazzig gets frustrated that the Israel/Palestine conflict gets in the way of celebrating LGBTI progress.

‘But what does this conflict have to do with the progress that the Israeli LGBTQAI+ community has made, and why can’t we celebrate it? Some even go as far as attacking LGBTQAI+ activists that support Israel, as the group “Jewish Voice for Peace” has been doing for decades. Or calling on LGBTQAI+ leaders and artists who planned to attend the Israeli Pride Parade to cancel their visit – to culturally isolate my country and its LGBTQAI+ community until the conflict is over. It does not make any sense, but these calls are increasing and are somehow becoming a legitimate matter to discuss. It is twisted.’

Mazzig is referring to instances like Lorde’s cancellation of her Israel tour amid pressure from pro-Palestine activists.

American hypocrisy

‘One of my closest American liberal friends told me recently that I should accept the fact that because of the actions of our leaders, my country will not be able to celebrate its LGBT community. Given that I, too, am very critical of my country’s government actions and politics, I can fully understand their frustration with the current Israeli leadership.’

‘And yet, to use the same logic, if the leader of a country is a racist, sexist, patriarchal bigot that was quoted saying terrible things about women, is in favor of banning Muslims from entering his country and mocks the disabled, should we all boycott this country’s people? Should we urge the world to boycott its pride events because of him? Or should we back them, celebrate them and promote this community within a country that deserves our support?’

Mazzig is, of course, talking about America’s current leadership under the Trump administration.

‘Just like many Israelis think that Americans are all just like President Trump, I think many Americans judge Israelis based on the government, which is of course far from the reality. Another issue is the conflict, many Americans see the conflict in the Middle East in the narrow premise of Israel-Palestine, without realizing that there is a greater Arab-Israeli conflict and Israel is the underdog in this conflict.’

‘Last is the issue of race, some Americans view Israel as a “white” country, while 60% of Israeli Jews are Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews (Jews of African and Middle Eastern descent) and 20% of all Israelis are Muslim, so this perception is wrong and distorting the conversation about race in the Middle East.’

Intersectional identity

‘I am the embodiment of intersectionality,’ Mazzig says of his identity. ‘I’m the son of an Iraqi mother and North African Berber-Amazigh father. I grew up in an underprivileged community, a gay boy in the closet who then became an openly gay man. I identify as Jewish but secular. You’d think as a Jew of color who’s gay and from an underprivileged background, the progressive movement would be a natural fit. And yet, from the point of view of American progressives, one cardinal sin keeps me from their ranks, being Israeli.’

It’s true: many in the LGBTQ+ community worldwide are staunchly anti-Israel.

‘That is what disqualifies me from being part of the conversation about intersectionality. I do not have any other citizenship, even if I could get Iraqi or Tunisian citizenship, I wouldn’t want it. I am a proud Israeli that is very critical of some of my country’s policies, but very proud of my nationality and firmly believe my country must exist in peace and security. And this makes me intolerable to the American progressive. Despite the fact that I worked for several years promoting Palestinian human rights, that I am critical of the current right-wing government in Israel and support a two-state solution and that I stand and support any and all liberal and progressive value, I am still attacked for being Israeli that does not advocate against his country.’

Right-wing bigotry

Mazzig isn’t only facing backlash from the Left, though.

‘Of course, on the right, I am not accepted either. As a progressive, my values don’t align with theirs. Right-wing activists criticize me for being critical of Israel, for being critical of the Trump administration, for being vocal for Trans rights and against misogyny. And of course, there’s the being Queer part.’

‘I am someone who no one wants in existence. Being queer, a person of color, liberal, progressive, and a proud Israeli means being politically homeless. It’s amazing that American leaders of the left participate in smearing me, while on the other side, they are extolling the virtues of intersectionality. Many American Jewish liberals would like me to criticize Israel more because that is what a “good progressive” does: bash Israel. But going through the challenges life has thrown my way, from growing up in a family living paycheck to paycheck, to having grandparents who barely spoke Hebrew, to being part of a society in which my background was not celebrated (to put it mildly) gave me a certain perspective on life.’

Controversy

Some online have criticized Mazzig’s alleged support of The Canary Mission. Canary Mission is a website that publishes the names of people on college campuses who espouse anti-Israel rhetoric. The site’s publication of such information has apparently led to the harassment of American Jews who are critical of Israel. This includes people of color and members of the LGBTI community. According to The Intercept, this website has left many activists feeling unsafe.

When asked about his support of such a website, Mazzig explains that this ‘support’ is not unequivocal.

‘I don’t fully support them, but I do think exposing some of the anti-Semites on campuses is important,’ Mazzig says. ‘Jewish students that I meet all the time tell me how they feel defenseless and that [Canary Mission] at least places some accountability on the anti-Semites.’

‘Students that are so brave to publicly attack Jews and the Jewish state should be as brave to deal with their statements published on this website. However, if anyone has changed his mind or was just critical of Israel’s policies (like I am) and not an anti-Semite, I don’t think he should appear there. That’s why I never voiced full support of Canary Mission, just the idea of accountability.’

‘Just like accountability for Islamophobes, homophobes and racist activists. I wish there was one platform to expose them all.’

How Israel can do better

Despite his love for his country, Mazzing recognizes Israel is far from perfect.

‘Israel, as MP Michael Oren once said, is not a “work of progress” but a “work in progress.” While LGBTQAI+ rights are respected and the society is the most tolerant in the Middle East, we still encounter some discrimination and prejudice.’

For instance, some conservative groups in the country have denounced the LGBTI community for ‘destroying family values.’ In another example, a gay Israeli had to sue a pizza place for refusing to serve him due to his sexuality.

Israeli-LGBTI solidarity

‘My country has made notable progress since its establishment 70+ years ago,’ Mazzing says. ‘Same-sex sexual activity was legalized in 1988. The former law against sodomy had not been enforced since a court decision in 1963.’

‘Israel became the first country in Asia and the Middle East to recognize unregistered cohabitation between same-sex couples. Although same-sex marriages are not performed in the country, Israel recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. Discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was prohibited in 1992.’

‘Following a court decision in 2008, same-sex couples are able to jointly adopt. LGBT people are also able to serve openly in the military, as I did for five years as commander. Moreover, soldiers who identify as transgender are supported in the military both financially and psychologically during their transition.’

Trans in Israel

According to Mazzig, Israel is a safe haven for transgender individuals.

‘In the words of Talleen Abu Hanna, Miss Trans Israel 2016: “I wouldn’t be alive if I grew up in Palestine. Not as a gay man, and definitely not as a transgender woman… I’m lucky to be an Israeli. Being an Israeli means being truly free.” The Israeli transgender community is protected by law, gender reassignment operations are state-funded and transgender individuals can serve openly in the Israeli army and police and they are visible.’

More to do

But we have a long way to go,’ Mazzig states, ‘as the Israeli transgender community still faces many challenges.’

‘From my time volunteering at the National LGBTQAI+ center to combat hate crimes, I witnessed first-hand some of the challenges. This includes discrimination by public service officials, and even members of the police. The beauty of this society, however, is that there are so many organizations and individuals that are working to improve this reality, that the majority embraces diversity and opposes any form of hatred and discrimination.’

‘In July of 2018, tens of thousands of Israeli protesters rallied in Tel Aviv against a law denying surrogacy to gay couples and single fathers. I was part of them, demonstrating and blocking the roads in Tel Aviv, following Israel’s parliament decision to allow surrogacy for single women and women unable to bear children, but not for gays.’

‘Same-sex marriage is still not legalized and the Israeli LGBTQAI+ community is working to change that. But couples can register in “civil partnership” if the wedding was performed abroad.’

Zionism

‘I do identify as a Zionist,’ Mazzig states. ‘This word was abused and used by so many people negatively and has lost its true meaning.’

‘Being a Zionist means supporting the Jewish liberation movement in the Jewish people’s indigenous homeland. It was and still is a movement for civil rights and equality. Ninety-three percent of the world’s Jewry are Zionists and I believe everyone needs to be a Zionist. It literally means supporting the Jewish people’s right for self-determination in our small homeland (Israel size is 0.3% of the Middle East). It is not against any other people or countries, it does not mean a country “only for” Jews. But just the only Jewish country with a Jewish identity. Like America or any European country are Christian countries, and 57 Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East are with a Muslim majority, but with freedom for all.’

‘I’ll continue writing and speaking up for my people, my country and my community. I hope that people will realize we must not discriminate based on nationality, religion, ethnicity, sexuality or gender. Using any platform that promotes equality and social justice to attack other peoples is something that we must all oppose.’