At 12 years old, Hen Mazzig was almost blown up by a suicide bomber while on his way to an ice-cream shop.
Amid the smoke and fire, the 27-year-old Israeli said he only remembers people crying.
“I was seconds from not being here today,” Mazzig told a small crowd gathered to hear him speak Wednesday at UF.
During his one-hour talk at Little Hall, Mazzig told about 25 students about his experience growing up in Israel and serving in the Israeli Defence Force as an openly-gay commander. This Is Israel, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America and UF’s Jewish Student Union sponsored the talk.
It was part of Mazzig’s tour of 16 schools, said Eyal Abadi, the treasurer of This Is Israel. Mazzig’s appearance was organized by the committee, he added. They invited Mazzig to discuss Israel’s culture.
“We really want to highlight how the views people have about Israel are sometimes missing facts,” the 18-year-old UF computer science freshman said. “To better understand the facts, you have to understand the people.”
Mazzig joined the IDF six years after his near-death experience, in compliance with Israeli law requiring military service of all citizens.
He said he served in a division that protected Palestinian citizens.
That same year, his best friend, also serving in the IDF, came out as gay to him, Mazzig said.
“I remember telling him it was just a phase and he’d get over it,” he recalled as he hid his identity at the time.
The next day, Mazzig said he was talking to his commander who figured it out and forced him to admit it. During the rest of his time in the IDF, Mazzig said his superiors defended him from those who mocked him.
“It really means that my commanders support me,” he said.
Originally, Pride Student Union supported Mazzig’s talk but later withdrew its support in a now-deleted Facebook post from April 1.
“(PSU) will not be expressing support for the event as an entity out of respect and support for the Palestinian community,” the post read. In a new post the next day, the organization apologized for reactions received after withdrawing their support in the original post. PSU declined to comment for this story.
Abadi said he was unfazed by PSU withdrawing support.
“It was more of a misunderstanding,” he said. “They have nothing against us, and we have nothing against them.”
Mazzig has faced criticism before on college campuses. In October 2016, protesters at the University College London called Mazzig a war criminal and killer.
“I’ve never killed anyone in my life,” he said.
Although he has been protested, Mazzig said he wants to have a conversation with people who disagree with him.
“Dialogue is a way to peace,” he said.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Mazzig was not the first openly gay Israeli Defense commander.
Contact Meryl Kornfield at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @MerylKornfield