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Hen Mazzig on ‘The Wrong Kind of Jew’

As a social media influencer, Mizrahi activist, pro-Israel educator, and member of the LGBTQ community, Hen Mazzig carries around many different identities.
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January 20, 2023

As a social media influencer, Mizrahi activist, pro-Israel educator, and member of the LGBTQ community, Hen Mazzig carries around many different identities. Because of that, he is in constant “teacher” mode as he tries to dispel many preconceived ideas about who he is to Jews and non-Jews alike. That cultural kaleidoscope forms the basis of his recent book, “The Wrong Kind of Jew: A Mizrahi Manifesto,” published by Wicked Son Books. 

It all came to a head back in October 2016, when Mazzig was a guest speaker at University College London (UCL). He was greeted by protesters who shouted anti-Israel slogans to drown out his speech. The event was so raucous, the police were called to escort the pro-Palestinian demonstrators away from the event. 

The incident had such an impact on Mazzig, it made him rethink everything he was doing in his pro-Israel outreach work. The protesters called him all kinds of names. It didn’t seem to matter that Mazzig’s time in the army was spent working with Palestinians to help bring humanitarian aid and infrastructure like roads and hospitals to Palestinian civilians as part of the Oslo Accords.

“In the beginning, when I was attacked, I was very worried,” Mazzig told the Journal. “And I started looking inward. And I said, ‘Okay, what am I doing wrong? What am I speaking about that they don’t like to hear? How can I fix it?’ And I realized that it’s not about what I say. It’s about who I am.”

The worst part for Mazzig was that he felt outnumbered and defenseless. Then, he figured, he cannot be the only Jew who feels this way when faced with not only antisemitism on campus, but a distortion of who he is as a Jew and Israeli. That was when the germ of an idea started to develop that would eventually become the Tel Aviv Institute, which focuses on social-media-driven strategies to fight antisemitism. 

Taking a fighting stance is something that Mazzig is used to since he has had to struggle through many public and private battles in his 31 years. As a Mizrahi Jew, an Israeli, and a member of the LGBTQ community, Mazzig has pushed back against his status as what he calls “the wrong kind of Jew.” His book outlines his family background and struggles for acceptance and takes on preconceived notions about who he is. He said he hopes his book helps to educate Jews and non-Jews alike about the diversity within world Jewry and in Israel.

First, there is his Mizrahi identity and his fight to define it both outside the Jewish community and within it. And he has no problem airing Israeli problems in a public forum as long as its aim is to improve the country and its historical mistreatment of Mizrahi Jews.

“I do think that there is a value to showing people that Jews also struggle with several issues like other communities do, and I don’t think that I took the Jewish community to task in a way that is demeaning,” Mazzig said.

“Mizrahi Jews are now the majority of Jews in Israel. We don’t know the numbers in America because there hasn’t been a serious study in recent years on that. But if they’re saying 20 or 25 percent, we’re a significant part of the community. And I do think that it’s important that we be seen and heard and that our community see us as worthy of attention.”

His Mizrahi identity also helped Mazzig navigate through his LGBTQ identity.

“I’m ‘wrong’ because I don’t fit stereotypes of what being Jewish is, and what being Israeli is or what beings Mizrahi means,” he said. “And I felt that it really gave me a lot of tools in dealing with my identity coming out of the closet.” In his book, Mazzig talks about “coming out twice” — once as a Mizrahi Jew and again as LGBTQ. 

This brings us back to one of the reasons he helped launch the Tel Aviv Institute. If he was going to constantly correct people about who he is and what he believes, maybe there’s a more scientific, data-driven way to do it.

“What we do is empower people to strengthen their Jewish identity. The whole book is about that.“

“What we do is empower people to strengthen their Jewish identity,” he said. “The whole book is about that. It’s about how I struggled with finding my identity and how coming out as who I am — be it gay, Jewish, Mizrahi, Israeli — the more proud I was, the more people were drawn to it, and the more successful I became. And that’s what we’re doing in those laboratories. We tell them that they need to be proud of their Jewish identity.”

By “laboratories,” Mazzig means the workshops he holds for social-media influencers on how to use their microphone to craft positive, data-driven tweets, Instagram posts, TikTok videos, and other methods of responding to antisemites online. Mazzig cofounded the institute with Dr. Ron Katz, who has a Ph.D. in rhetoric and propaganda from the University of California, Berkeley. “So perfect for the work that we’re doing,” Mazzig said.

At these laboratories, they emphasize the futility of online anger or just straight-out calling people antisemitic. “It doesn’t change anyone’s mind,” Mazzig said. Instead, they work on countering antisemitism with a more positive tone.

“We have a photographer from Vogue magazine, we have actors from Hollywood, we have a chef, we have people that are from different backgrounds that are doing different sorts of work on social media, and we give them the tools to speak about their Jewish identity.” 

“We have a photographer from Vogue magazine, we have actors from Hollywood, we have a chef, we have people that are from different backgrounds that are doing different sorts of work on social media, and we give them the tools to speak about their Jewish identity,” Mazzig said, although he declined to name the influencers he’s working with.

“The tone that we’re using is leading with kindness. And we find that this sort of tone is opening up conversations between people,” Mazzig said. “We shouldn’t stop calling out antisemitism, we shouldn’t say that Jews have no right to live in Jerusalem, we can speak about all these things. But by just changing the tone and making it less aggressive and more open and kind it goes a long way. And it’s not just what we feel, it’s what we know, by the data that we’ve collected.”

Much of the data comes from Dr. Matthias J. Becker, a postdoc researcher at the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University in Berlin. In a three-year project called “Decoding Antisemitism,” he and his team of nine researchers measure responses through an AI-enabled algorithm to see what is effective. 

The influencers fall in a kind of sweet spot of between 50,000 and 100,000 social media followers. Any bigger than that, and they are less effective in convincing people to think about antisemitism. The Tel Aviv Institute has cultivated relationships with over 120 influencers from around the world and plans to conduct more laboratories in the coming year. 

Mazzig is proud that he fulfilled a promise he made to himself back in 2016, when he was surrounded by a hostile crowd at UCL — that he would never again be unprepared to fight antisemitism in a smart, effective way.

“It’s a group of Jewish Avengers,” Mazzig said of the influencers. “Each one of them has their own superpower.”

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