Elie Wiesel and Rwandan President Discuss Genocide and Syria
There were several important news-making items that emerged from the historic discussion on genocide that our organization staged on Sunday September 29, at Cooper Union’s Great Hall in New York City – the same venue that helped bring Abraham Lincoln to national prominence in 1860.
The event, which was attended by 1,000 people, featured introductions from philanthropists Sheldon Adelson and Michael Steinhardt, and a discussion that I moderated. It was a historic night because it brought together two of the biggest names in global genocide remembrance: Professor Elie Wiesel, the living embodiment of the martyred six million of the Holocaust, and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, the only man alive who can claim to have stopped a genocide when his forces conquered Rwanda in 1994 and ended the slaughter that had taken the lives of nearly one million Tutsis.
When we discussed whether President Roosevelt did enough to stop the murder of Europe’s Jews, Elie Wiesel came down firmly on the side of those who say that the President failed at this great moral responsibility. Roosevelt deserves credit for defeating Hitler, Wiesel said, but as a someone who confronted a genocide and did not do more to stop it, he deserves to be severely criticized.
I then turned the question to Kagame, and adjusted it towards the Rwandan genocide. Did he harbor anger towards the United States, a moral and righteous superpower who blew it completely in Rwanda, doing next to nothing to stop the genocide, and, arguably, even obstructing the efforts of other nations to assist. No, President Kagame said. We’re way past that. It’s not about anger but more about our conclusion that we alone can protect ourselves and can never rely on a fickle world for our defense. Rwandans can rely only on Rwandans.
I pointed out to Kagame that Israel came to the same conclusion about its defense in general, and is now pondering whether it will apply that principle by striking Iran alone, since President Obama has decided to engage the Iranian president even as he continues to enrich uranium and fund Hezbollah and Hamas terrorists.
I asked Elie Wiesel about Syria. Given the Bible’s commandment ‘not to stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,’ did the United States have a moral obligation to punish Assad for gassing children, even if he surrenders his chemical arsenal? Wiesel was unequivocal. Both the American political, and Jewish communal, leadership had failed on Syria. Chemical gas was a trigger point for genocide and mass murder. The fact that Assad has paid no price for gassing children is a tremendous moral failure that has to be corrected, and the Jewish community should be at the forefront of saying so.
President Kagame echoed that sentiment. Those who use either chemical, or even conventional, weapons to slaughter innocent people must be held accountable or nothing will check further aggression and murder. Here were the world’s two leading voices on genocide being jointly critical of the American government’s decision to commute the military attack on Assad to simply destroying his arsenal.
My close friend, Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo, had already announced at a press conference we convened in October 2012, that Rwanda would be opening an embassy in Israel. I turned to President Kagame, and said that countries like Rwanda can understand Israel’s security situation in ways that few others could. The similarities between the two countries are striking. They are of similar size. They have terrorist enemies on their borders (Israel has Iran-funded Hezbollah and Hamas, and Rwanda has the FDLR in Eastern Congo). Both are regularly criticized unfairly by the UN. Both have had frictions with France, which has at times assumed a curiously negative posture toward both countries. And, of course, both have experienced genocides of staggering proportions.
In light of the unique relationship between the two countries, I asked the President would it not be proper for Rwanda to open its embassy not in Tel Aviv, but in Jerusalem – becoming one of the first nations to affirm the holy city as Israel’s eternal and undivided capitol? The President was surprised by the question but answered graciously. Rwanda and Israel indeed share similar histories and security challenges. He was very happy that they were increasing their bilateral relations with Rwanda opening an embassy in Israel. It was an important step in an evolving relationship – but opening an Embassy in Jerusalem would be too great a leap for now. He and I both smiled at his response, with the President knowing I had put him on the spot and with me knowing that he had artfully dodged my question.
I turned to Professor Wiesel and told him that the full page ads he took out in America’s major publications in March, 2010, mildly rebuking President Obama, with whom he is close, for his pressure on Israel to cease building in parts of Jerusalem, were widely credited with reversing the Administration’s policy. Would he consider taking out similar ads questioning the President’s decision to open diplomatic relations at the highest level of the Iranian leadership without first demanding that Iran cease funding Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists, or enriching uranium?
Wiesel said that Iran’s holocaust denial was dangerous and delusional, and that opening diplomatic relations with the Iranians before they had formally renounced their genocidal aspirations against the Jewish state was unacceptable. He said he would consider the ads.
Finally, I asked Professor Wiesel about a subject he and I had discussed many times. Why was it inappropriate to hate those who have committed genocide? Should we not despise the SS who murdered his family, or Hutu genocidaires who hacked children to death with machetes? Wiesel was adamant. Once you start hating, the emotion is internalized and you cannot control its spread and growth. It’s not long before it is directed even at those whom it is inappropriate to hate.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books and has just published “The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiShmuley.