NEW YORK — Rabbi Shmuley Boteach called Rwandans “the Jews of Africa” during a panel on genocide in New York on Sunday.
Both Israel and Rwanda are small countries with terrorist enemies on their borders, Boteach said — Israel with Iran-funded Hezbollah and Rwanda with the FDLR in Eastern Congo. Both are criticized unfairly by the UN; both have overcome a horrific genocide.
In the wake of the recent developments in Syria and the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan massacres, Boteach organized a panel “Genocide: Do the Strong Have a Responsibility to Protect the Weak?” in Manhattan with Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel and Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
Timed to coincide with the United Nations General Assembly, the panel was held in the Cooper Union’s Great Hall and sponsored by right-wing pro-Israel Jewish billionaires Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, and Judy and Michael Steinhardt, major funders of the Israel experience program Birthright-Taglit.
Rwanda’s three-month genocide 20 years ago, in which at least a million Tutsi and moderate Hutus were killed by the Hutu-led government, was used as an example by Boteach of a missed opportunity for world governments to work together in preventing atrocities.
Despite the severity of the situation, the international community hesitated and the US government refused to intervene. President Bill Clinton later confessed this inaction to be one of his gravest regrets.
“The international community, together with nations in Africa, must bear its share of the responsibility for this tragedy,” he told the Tutsi survivors in 1998. “We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide.”
Now Boteach fears Syria might become President Barack Obama’s Rwanda. “Despite the eight genocides perpetrated in the twentieth century and the universal cries of ‘Never Again,’ it seems that the world can still not summon the resolve to bring massive retaliation against those who gas innocent civilians,” he wrote in the Huffington Post.
Boteach, 46, the flamboyant Orthodox leader nicknamed “America’s Rabbi,” is famous for aggressively promoting Judaism and Jewish values through mainstream American media. He has published two dozen books (among them the controversial bestsellers “Kosher Sex” and “Kosher Jesus“), appears in numerous radio and TV shows, and hosted his own TV program, Shalom in the Home, on TLC. He is also famed for being Michael Jackson’s spiritual adviser.
The rabbi’s ties to Rwanda were formed a year ago, when during an unsuccessful run for Congress as a New Jersey Republican, he visited Rwanda to highlight the 1994 atrocities and promote anti-genocide legislation. He urged Kagame to strengthen Rwanda’s ties with Israel, and the president listened: later that year Rwanda announced it would open an embassy in Tel Aviv.
The panel discussion revolved around several main topics, including the Jewish values of respecting human life and caring for others, as expressed in Leviticus 19:16, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” In light of the biblical verse, the panelists discussed whether punitive action should have been taken against Syria.
Participants also discussed the biases and hypocrisy they perceive in the UN’s treatment of both Israel and Rwanda, and the countries’ right and need to “do whatever it takes to protect their people,” said Boteach.
In the spirit of national camaraderie, Boteach suggested the new Rwandan embassy be located in Jerusalem, rather than Tel Aviv. Kagame demurely declined, saying, “I prefer to move step by step… I’d rather not make it a hot topic right now.”
Other hot topics were avoided as well, including the controversies surrounding Kagame himself: While widely credited for putting an end to the racial killings in his own country and leading it to new-found prosperity, he is also accused of violating human rights and committing war crimes against the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Last year, United Nations investigators revealed some of Kagame’s troops had crossed into Congo to fight alongside a notorious rebel group, the M23, which has murdered civilians, gang-raped women, and forced some 800,000 people to flee their homes. Following the report, the US reduced military aid to the country.
“M23 is just a red herring,” Kagame said. He noted that Congo, a much larger country and richer in resources, has the same problems with the entire region, and that Rwanda shouldn’t be singled out for the blame. “Does anybody think Congo has no problems? Pillaging, murder and rape happen all across the country, and we are blamed… This is the hypocrisy we were talking about.”
Perhaps you should take it as a compliment, suggested Boteach: perhaps it means that like Israel, Rwanda is held to higher standards than its neighbors?
The Rwanda president considered this for a moment, then nodded. “I will take this as a compliment,” he said.
Human rights protesters picketed outside the New York building throughout the evening and at one point, a student invited to the discussion stood up and began shouting at Kagame, “You are the killer!” (The student was half-escorted, half-dragged out of the hall by the president’s bodyguards.)
Boteach remained firm in his support. “I traveled to Rwanda twice, just recently again with my family, and shared with President Kagame my strong belief in his joining Professor Wiesel in a public forum to motivate the world’s nations to prevent genocide,” he wrote in the event’s press release. “It is our hope that the world can learn from both these men in order to prevent the future mass slaughter of innocents.”
Throughout the discussion the temperaments of the three speakers seemed to complement each other. Together, the cautious and analytical Kagame, the soulful Wiesel, and the fiery rabbi Boteach managed to avoid difficult issues and present an unequivocal, self-assured view of the world. They generally agreed on all questions, except one: Is it right to hate people who do evil?
“When a woman is raped and her baby’s head smashed against the wall… what am I supposed to feel towards perpetrators of evil, if not hatred? Why shouldn’t I hate them? How can I fight them if I don’t hate them?” Boteach wondered.
“If that’s who you are, go ahead,” Wiesel answered wryly, “but it’s not my life, not my way. Anger, I believe in. But hatred has a certain dynamic… It spreads.”