Israeli soldiers discuss experiences amid protest
Two Israeli soldiers spoke in Seigle Hall on Sunday about their lives as Israelis and the Arab-Israeli conflicts as a part of the StandWithUs tour, hosted by Washington University’s Students for Israel.
StandWithUs, an international Zionist education organization that focuses on Israel’s side of issues, is sponsoring the soldiers’ tour around several college campuses, high schools, synagogues and churches.
The two soldiers, Hen Mazzig and Matan (who declined to share his last name), spoke to the 20 students and faculty members who attended. Protestors briefly interrupted their speech to express concerns about the discussion, but the panel continued when protestors left the event.
Freshman Paul Felder, a member of the Students for Israel group and the organizer of the event, spoke about its importance in representing the Israeli viewpoint.
“We wanted to show a side of Israel not portrayed by the media and really give a human side of the conflict,” Felder said.
Matan began his story by speaking about his grandfather who fought in the British army as a Jewish Palestinian—before Israel became a state—alongside Arabs, fighting a common enemy: The Nazis.
Matan started at the Naval Academy and later became an infantry officer. He told of a mission in which he and his soldiers found ammunition stocked all over the residential home of a Hamas leader.
As Matan continued, protesters interrupted with questions about the legitimacy of the pro-Israel discussion. Six protesters showed up to the event.
“What about the Palestinians in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead for 22 days in onslaught?” one protester said. “I’m an American Jew and I don’t stand by you and the Israelis and the Israeli Defense Force does not represent me.”
Matan responded by saying he was open to dialogue but hoped to be able to continue the event without further interruption.
More protesters also joined in, asking the soldiers questions about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“I’m also challenging the legitimacy of inviting Israeli soldiers here on campus when this campus also makes the case for not having Palestinian voices, having Israeli soldiers here when Palestinian voices are being silenced here in St. Louis,” a second protester said.
The facilitator of the event, Liz Brough of the StandWithUs group, tried to make a public statement against this disturbance. The second protester asserted that his intention was to be a disturbance, and Brough called security.
“The most important thing is to have a conversation. We will have a respectful conversation.” Brough said.
Protestor and junior Stephanie Aria noted that of the six protestors, not all got involved in the discussion, but they felt it was important to be present to represent a viewpoint which they felt was often not unheard.
“We decided that today we needed to show up and show that there was another conversation. There [were] a couple people protesting with me whose families or family members have been killed or imprisoned by the Israeli Defense Force, so we are showing solidarity for them,” Aria said.
Aria also noted that she felt that the event was hostile to her and her fellow protesters.
“I was very appalled by the way the police were immediately called when we were spotted, and the police were very hostile toward us,” Aria said. “They took the side of the event organizers for the sheer fact that they deemed us as disrupting their event…As I was walking to my car, a police officer as well as two adult attendees followed me to their car and proceeded to intimidatingly stare at me and write down my license plate number.”
After the brief interruption, Mazzig, the second soldier, then began recounting his first experience with the Arab-Israeli conflict, which was a suicide bombing on his way to the ice cream store. He joined the Humanitarian unit of the Israel Defense Forces, the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories Unit, in response to this experience.
“I got to work for the development of West Bank and take care of Palestinian civilians. My unit allowed me to do this work, building infrastructure and building roads and hospitals and helping with humanitarian aid for the people that were not involved,” Mazzig said.
Mazzig noted the importance of reaching peace.
“We all want peace. If there is any hope for peace in the Middle East, I think it will come from Israel,” Mazzig said.
Senior Daniel Nassim, an attendee, felt that the protesters were disrespectful to the event’s purpose and did not spark dialogue.
“I know people frame things differently. Jews and Israelis have a completely biased way of framing things, as do Palestinians, but there are programs that are really good at hosting dialogue and this was not one of them,” Nassim said
Freshman Ruben Schuckit, another attendee, admired with the soldiers’ demeanor throughout the disruption.
“I was particularly impressed with the soldiers’ ability to maintain decorum with the dramatic grandstanding, and I was equally impressed that they were willing to have a full dialogue with the dissenters,” Schuckit said.
Felder, the event’s organizer, felt that the protesters were damaging to his group’s ability to hold future events, making the event feel unsafe.
“What’s happening, these protesters are making it unsafe to talk about Israel on campus and share in factual dialogue. I would just say that the people who came, students felt threatened,” Felder said. “[One protester] said he was arrested multiple times for justice, where really he was just disrupting our event and trying to cancel our event and not allowing us to speak and denying us freedom of speech.”
He noted that the takeaway from the event should focus on dialogue and not on silencing voices on campus.
“I hope that what people take away are the positive aspects, that soldiers are working towards a better future for both parties…Our organization is not trying to silence any voices on campus, we just want a civil discussion that recognizes the rights of Israelis and Palestinians to live at home in Israel, and we hope that that comes in a peaceful manner,” Felder said.