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Israeli soldiers visit Mercer Island during West Coast tour
Israel wants peace, and that is the message Shai Bernstein and Hen Mazzig brought to Mercer Island last week.
The two Israeli soldiers, now reservists, spoke at the Mercer Island Community and Event Center and Northwest Yeshiva High School, Feb. 24 and 28, as part of the fifth annual StandWithUs “Israeli Soldiers’ Stories” U.S. tour. StandWithUs is an international nonprofit organization for Israeli advocacy and education. The two-week tour, which ended March 1, featured 12 soldiers who shared their stories in schools, churches and college campuses.
“It was very inspirational for our students to see two Israeli soldiers who represent the idea that their job is to protect the state of Israel and at the same time to work as hard as they could by policy to protect innocent civilian lives of the enemy,” said Rabbi Benjy Owen, the dean of Judaic studies at Northwest Yeshiva. “I would hope that the students would come away with the importance and the value of human life, and come away with the understanding that it is important to protect yourself but at the same time be open to overtures of peace … and the idea that an 18, 19, 20-year-old just out of high school can make a real impact on the world.”
When Bernstein was a boy, his mother and teachers told him that when he grew up, he wouldn’t need to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) when he turned 18 because there wouldn’t be an army — there would be peace.
“Today, at the moment, I can only hope and pray I’ll be able to tell my kids the same thing, and hopefully it will be true,” Bernstein, 28, said.
Service in the IDF is mandatory beginning at age 18 — for men, three years; and for women, two years.
“We have to protect our country,” Bernstein said. “Once I know that Israel, at the end of the day, is still fighting our war of independence, once I know that is the situation, I am very proud to serve in the IDF. I was very proud to be an officer.”
Born in Manhattan, New York, Bernstein moved with his family to Israel when he was 2 years old. It was clear to him that he would serve in the IDF, though he has dual citizenship — his home is Israel, his second home is America, he said.
“Growing up, you experience, sadly, the terror, and experience firsthand terrorist attacks, like suicide bombers,” Bernstein said. “It was very clear to me that I needed to serve in the army.”
Bernstein has lived most of his life in Jerusalem. His current job is in Tel Aviv, at a project management company, and he is pursuing a master’s in organizational consulting. On the side, he sings and plays percussion in his band, Baim Betov, at weddings and receptions. The name means “good vibes,” and band instruments include a cello, guitar, clarinet and saxophone.
Assigned to a special reconnaissance unit in the Givati Infantry Brigade, Bernstein served in the Gaza Strip during the Second Intifada. He also saw duty in the Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead, and most recently, Operation Pillar of Defense.
“The other side doesn’t want Israel to have the right to exist,” Bernstein said. “The misinformation is big — there is a lot of hatred toward Israel.” Historically, the Palestinians have rejected a two-state solution. The core issue, Bernstein said, is that they do not want Israel to exist.
Israel’s history dates back thousands of years to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the Abrahamic covenant. The name ‘Palestine’ was applied to the land by a Roman emperor, Hadrian, in reference to the Philistines, an ancient enemy of Israel.
When a missile is launched into Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, a siren goes off and you have 15 seconds to get to the nearest bomb shelter, Bernstein said. Terrorists have fired approximately 13,000 rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip since 2000.
When Bernstein was sent into the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s response to the rocket attacks, his unit came across a group of terrorists launching a missile in the southern section. They were using an ambulance as their getaway car.
“Before I hear my commander’s order in my earpiece, I know what he is going to say,” said Bernstein, who had a sniper on his left and a sharpshooter on his right. “We never fire on medical aid. Hamas does this time and again … Now at security checkpoints we have to check every single vehicle, including ambulances.”
Another time, Bernstein came across a Palestinian gunman who used a child as a human shield.
“There’s an alleyway. A gunman wants to cross the street, but at the end of the street, there are IDF soldiers. What does he do? He grabs a child,” Bernstein said. “He grabs him by the backpack, drags him on the ground, and once he crosses the alley, he chucks the kid, who is terrified. The first thing that comes to my mind is, this is pure child abuse.”
In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian children’s crayon drawings depict suicide bombers.
“This is what they grow up with,” Bernstein said. “Hamas is hatred from the get-go.”
The soldiers pointed out that Israel, as the only democracy in the Middle East, is doing as much as it can to protect human life, and America has always supported the nation.
“Life value is the most important thing,” Mazzig said. “The Torah and Bible is really teaching us moral lessons and how to treat people, the people that are not of the Israel nation, and how to respect your neighbors — the values of kindness, the values of human life. The Jewish people are always cherishing life … it’s always part of the Jewish tradition to value life, to help save lives.”
Mazzig, 23, served in the West Bank as a liaison officer with COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Unit). He was a liaison for the United Nations, non-government organizations and foreign missions in Hebron, Jerusalem and Ramallah.
“The West Bank is the best place to serve,” he said. “I like to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
His job was to aid Palestinian civilians — whether reuniting a homeless, abandoned 6-year-old boy from the streets of Gaza with an uncle, or coordinating medical aid for two youth who picked up an explosive device in the Judean Desert.
Mazzig, a resident of Tel Aviv, is now the new education emissary for StandWithUs in the Pacific Northwest.
“English is my third language,” he told the audience at the community center. He also speaks Hebrew, Arabic and Spanish.
Mazzig’s parents are native to Israel. Both sets of his grandparents were forced out of their countries, Tunisia and Iraq, and came to Israel in 1951, three years after Israel attained statehood. As a Jewish refugee, Mazzig’s grandmother walked from Baghdad all the way to the Jordanian border with her young husband and 2-year-old son after her father was hanged in Baghdad for being a Zionist. Then, they had to hide their Jewish identity in order to cross Jordan and reach Israel.
“Throughout history the Jewish people have suffered,” Bernstein said. “But we can continue hoping for peace. We are not ashamed to say that we will defend ourselves, and I am hoping for a better future.”
The two soldiers have brought their stories not only to Mercer Island, but to cities all along the West Coast — Bellingham, Portland, San Jose. On some college campuses, they have encountered anti-Israel sentiment. Students at the University of Washington and University of Oregon staged demonstrations.
“Those who shout at us are not pro-Palestinian, they are pure anti-Israel,” said Bernstein.
But other places, like Mercer Island, are supportive and open-minded.
“We don’t ask for much,” Mazzig said. “We just want peace. I hope that one day I can raise my kids in a country that has peace. We want it desperately.”
A former prime minister of Israel, Golda Meir, once said, “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.”
Read an article written by Hen Mazzig, "'Nonviolent' demonstrations and a sixth broken camera," here.
Hen Mazzig, with TIPH members, speaks with a Palestinian woman while representing COGAT in the city of Hebron, in the West Bank (contributed photo).
The soldiers speak at Northwest Yeshiva High School during the StandWithUs tour on Thursday, Feb. 28 (contributed photo).