Students Against Israeli Apartheid protest Hen Mazzig talk
Students Against Israeli Apartheid protested a speech by Hen Mazzig, an event sponsored by Hillel and Washington University Students for Israel Monday, Oct. 29.
Four Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) members stood up with posters from their seats and chanted “No pride in apartheid,” before linking arms and walking up the stairs and out of the lecture hall.
The protest came two days after a mass shooting in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life Synagogue, which resulted in 11 deaths and seven injuries Oct. 27. It was the deadliest attack on Jewish people in U.S. history.
Mazzig is an openly gay former Israeli Defense Force (IDF) commander. He spoke about his experiences being a gay person of color who is pro-Israel. Because of Mazzig’s affiliation with the IDF, SAIA decided to protest the talk on Oct. 25. They chose not to postpone the protest despite the proximity of Mazzig’s speech to the Pittsburgh shooting.
“We condemn Hen Mazzig’s co-optation of queerness to cater to an apartheid regime, and recognize that identifying as a person of color does not dissolve his complicity in Israel’s genocidal violence,” SAIA wrote in a statement on their Facebook page.
“We could not, because of our anti-Zionist politics, allow an event like this to happen on campus without being challenged,” junior Theaivin Gaber said on behalf of SAIA.
Hillel’s campus Rabbi Jordan Gerson believes that the audience’s reaction to the protest was one of shock because of its proximity to the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue.
“I think people were hurt,” Gerson said. “They were surprised that people would do that after this tragedy in Pittsburgh. That people would choose to protest like that. I mean, in reality, our speaker is very left-leaning and moderate in his views…his message was not controversial.”
SAIA believes that Mazzig’s message was controversial and that his definition of being Jewish is narrow.
“He [said] that in order to be Jewish, you must support Israel. As one of the Jewish members of SAIA, I found that that deeply insulting,” SAIA member Luca Rubinstein, speaking on behalf of the organization, said. “I think it’s incredibly unacceptable that a religion based around resistance of colonialism, resistance of hierarchies and welcoming of strangers and refugees would be associated with a state that incarcerates people and bans people from its borders and forcibly deports people for not looking the right way, for not being the right kind of Jewish, for being too brown, for not being religious enough, for opposing Israel in any way.”
While Gerson believes in the first amendment and freedom of expression, he feels that the protest was poorly timed.
“I absolutely advocate for everyone to have the right to voice their opinion and the right to protest,” Gerson said. “I think that’s what makes America great is that we don’t all have to agree. I think [that] really the essence of what upset people was that in this moment of communal mourning Jewish-Americans are going through right now, that there was no rest period. That we even had to be on the defense even in this moment.”
According to Gaber, regardless of Mazzig’s queer identity, his involvement with the IDF goes against SAIA’s values.
“As a group, our immediate response was that…participating in a genocidal regime…you can’t be dissolved of your complicity in that regime just because you hold a gay identity or just because you hold the identity of a person of color,” Gaber said on behalf of SAIA.
According to Washington University Students for Israel Co-president junior Ben Ushman, the reason the group invited Mazzig to campus was to provide the university community with a speaker relevant to the topics of LGBTQIA* rights in Israel.
“We just wanted to showcase one story here that was about the Israeli perspective about the Israeli LGBTQ community,” Ushman said. “I think that people were upset because we didn’t talk about other issues as well.”
Gerson believes that SAIA would have benefited from staying and listening to the entirety of Mazzig’s talk.
“There were some members of the group that stayed until the end and waited for our speaker to finish and asked really great questions,” Gerson said. “I would have liked to see [the others] actually sit and listen and hear what he had to say rather than decide to disrupt the event.”
According to Gerson, the most detrimental part of the protest was not the protest in itself but the post that followed on SAIA’s Facebook page where the group said that anyone who has ties to the IDF can never “be in line with a liberatory politic.”
“I think the most hurtful part of the whole thing was the post that followed on Students Against Israeli Apartheid’s Facebook wall, which offered condolences to the American-Jewish community…but then literally in the next paragraph said that Zionism conduces white supremacy. It was just really poor timing,” Gerson said. “We were the victims of terrorism at the hands of a white supremacist. To lump us in with that group is an absolute slap in the face.”
Editor’s Note: Members of SAIA were identified as speaking on behalf of their organization in order to reflect their wishes of speaking as a collective.