When he was growing up, Hen Mazzig’s mother would often tell him she hoped she wouldn’t have to send him to the army, because Israel would have reached peace with its neighbors, rendering the military unnecessary.
“Unfortunately, this day seems to be far,” Mazzig said.
When he told that story to a group of students at a local university, the class cheered him.
“I talked about how I crave that one day there can be two states and one day we can have peace with the Palestinians,” he said.
Mazzig was a guest at the class, which featured a woman recently returned from the West Bank. This woman had worked with the International Solidarity Movement, the same group with which Rachel Corrie, who was killed under an Israeli bulldozer while protesting the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza a decade ago, was involved.
Mazzig, 23, is the shaliach, or community liaison, for Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs Northwest. StandWithUs’ five-month program brings Israelis recently released from their military service to Washington State to talk with schools and community groups about Israel.
At this particular meeting, Mazzig said, what had begun as a one-sided talk by the woman about apartheid walls and occupation became more of a dialogue.
“She changed her mind,” he said. “It got to a point that the professor started to ask me questions rather than her.”
These are the types of events where Mazzig said he feels most proud.
“It’s not when I’m getting people to love Israel, or start a group for Israel,” he said. “It’s just when people get to see the other side.”
Encounters such as these are not the norm. Most of Mazzig’s time is spent speaking before large, mostly receptive groups — he goes to synagogues and high schools throughout the state, and even some churches — to talk about Israel and its diverse identity as a country.
Much of what he discusses inevitably turns toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he sees much of his job to dispel what he believes are “misunderstandings of people about the conflict and the misinformation that is out there,” he said.
This is similar to Mazzig’s military service in the COGAT unit, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. He served as a liaison officer for international organizations that included the Red Cross, United Nations and USAID for the unit that manages humanitarian issues in the West Bank and Gaza. That work includes building schools and clinics, repairing roads, and building solid-waste sites.
“This is the unit that was basically responsible for Palestinians that are not involved in the conflict— the civilians — to ensure that they won’t get affected [by] the conflict, or at least minimize the effect from the conflict as much as we can,” he said.
While he said he received plenty of pushback from angry Palestinians, “the people that knew us and knew what COGAT is doing,” he said, “were really welcoming and really supportive to us.”
After he left the army in May 2012, but before he begins his university career in London this fall, where he is deciding between majors in law or international relations, Mazzig was trying to figure out what to do with himself. When he saw the StandWithUs shaliach opportunity arise, he jumped at it and they bit.
It’s a volunteer position — he receives home hospitality, use of a car donated by a community members, and a small stipend for expenses.
Last year’s shaliach spoke to 9,000 people in the community, said Rob Jacobs, StandWithUs Northwest’s executive director. Jacobs hopes Mazzig will be able to reach even more.
“It’s been very effective because once somebody is in the community for a long enough period of time, we’re able to get them out more broadly,” he said.
Mazzig said he has enjoyed most of his encounters thus far.
“What I like the most about StandWithUs is their purpose is education,” he said. “They want to have an open discussion.”
As Mazzig documented in an article reprinted in JTNews — along with a response piece from Jewish Voice for Peace — not everybody is interested in that open discussion. As someone who strongly supports peace, he had a rude awakening at a screening of the film “5 Broken Cameras,” by Palestinian filmmaker Emad Burnat when he and other Israelis in the room were shouted down and confronted violently.
“I was shocked by the people there. I was really shocked,” he said. “I came there thinking Jewish Voice for Peace would be a better experience.”
That he saw an American organization such as Jewish Voice for peace, which sponsored the film with a Palestinian group, as stifling others’ opinions was an experience far different from what he would expect in his home country.
“Even in Israel, there are a lot of left-wing organizations that people tend to think that [we] Israelis are opposing them,” he said. “Not at all. This organization just proved that Israel is what it is: That it’s a democracy.”