Last Sunday at Cooper Union’s Great Hall on Manhattan’s Lower West Side, hundreds of people–who paid between $20 and $10–gathered to watch a discussion by Elie Wiesel and the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, that was titled: “Genocide: Do the strong have an obligation to protect the weak?”
The organizers of the event were an organization called This World along with The Jewish Values Network and New York University’s branch of Hillel (the Jewish student organization). The conversation, says the flyer, is related to the upcoming twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide and the world’s focus on the Syrian gas attack.
Also sharing the stage was Sheldon Adelson, Las Vegas casino billionaire, who made some opening remarks, and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who acted as moderator.
Weisel is of course the most decorated and well-known of the speakers; a former prisoner of Nazi death camps and Holocaust survivor he also won a Nobel Peace Prize in the late 1980s. More recently, Weisel has insisted on the Jewish-only character of Jerusalem for which he has been criticized. Kagame has been in power since 2000 and was recently described as “the global elite’s favorite strongman” by The New York Times. The same paper has referred to Adelson, who bankrolled Mitt Romney’s failed US presidential candidacy, as a Zionist. But Shmuley Boteach, from New Jersey, was the most colorful of those on the stage. A former spiritual advisor to Michael Jackson, he also hosted a reality show where he gave weekly relationship advice to couples from a trailer van parked outside their homes.
After discussing at length with Weisel the question of whether former President Roosevelt did enough to stop the Nazi genocide of Jews, Boteach turned to Kagame and asked him if he was angry at the United States for not doing enough to stop the Rwandan genocide. The answer was pretty much no. Rwanda, says its president, learned to take responsibly and not to blame the international community for what happened. The audience applauded. Kagame then stressed the importance of the conclusion that Rwanda came to: that it needs to protect itself and not to rely on the world to come to rescue.
In that sense, analyzed Rabbi Boteach, Israel and Rwanda are very much alike. Later in the discussion, Boteach went further to define Rwandans as “The Jews of Africa” (that the majority of Rwandans actually belong to the Hutu group, many of whom where implicated in the genocide, couldn’t interfere with Boteach comparison, as did many other facts).
The Rabbi says Israel and Rwanda have genocides in common. He adds that they both also suffer from harsh criticism coming from the US. Given this trauma, the Rabbi continues, Israel and Rwanda decided to take their defenses into their own hands and were thus rightly immune to criticisms of their measures and methods.
What Boteach forget to tell his audience is that the state of Israel couldn’t experience the Holocaust as a state since it came into being only later.
When someone from the audience interrupts Wiesel, shouting something about Rwanda’s involvement in the war in Eastern Congo, Kagame’s guards are quick to aggressively escort him out. The rabbi is furious: “How dare you?” he says in the direction of the protester, “the man [Weisel] has his birthday tomorrow.”
Talking about Israel’s defense measures is obviously a good opportunity to bring up Iran and its nuclear plans that are, to the Rabbi, “genocide threats”. Boteach reminded Wiesel that he has responsibility in this matter because of his “close relationship” with President Obama. Unfortunately for the moderator, who is also behind the organization of the event, Wiesel actually thinks that the U.S. should negotiate with Iran.
He wants to know from Kagame why don’t you open the Rwandan embassy in Jerusalem and not in Tel Aviv? As an act of solidarity. (BTW, Boteach has a habit of asking Rwandan government officials this question.) In return, says the self-styled Israeli diplomat, you should have been the ones to sit in the front row at Shimon Peres’ birthday extravaganza.
Neither the Rabbi or any of the other participants on the stage say anything about how Israel–whether officially or through private Israeli arms dealers–actually contributed to the causes of the armed conflict in Rwanda. An article that was published by the Israeli newspaper Maariv (which Adelson has tried to buy) last year contained a number of testimonies and revealed new information about arms shipments from Israel to Rwanda during the genocide.
“We feel very strongly about relating to the Jewish people and Israel,” responds Kagame (who is also mentioned in the Maariv’s article as someone who had his fair share of using Israeli arms), “but I prefer to move step by step, we don’t want make it too much of a hot subject.”
The evening ends with Michael Steinhardt, hedge fund manager and co-founder of the Birthright project (which takes young Jews from around the world to Israel), giving the concluding remarks. He announces that we’ll celebrate Ellie Wiesel birthday now. Sheldon Adelson turned 80 years old two months ago, but he received a gift as well.