Having sat with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Rwanda’s President Paul
Kagame in the same week last week, there is an immediate symmetry one sees
between both men. They have the weight of the world upon them.
not mere politicians who ran for office but fighting men who, in the case of
Netanyahu, served in Israel’s elite anti-terror unit, and in Kagame’s case
served as commander in chief of the RPF liberating force that stopped the 1994
Both leaders are consciously aware that they head nations that
recently experienced mass slaughter on an unprecedented scale. Both are fearful
that it can happen again. Both are determined, however much criticism is heaped
upon them, to prevent their nations from a repeat experience of mass
In the case of Netanyahu the words “Iran” are forever on
his lips. Netanyahu is keenly aware that six million Jews died in the Holocaust
and that there are currently six million Jews living in Israel. The creation of
the Jewish state was supposed to be a bulwark against another Holocaust. But the
fulfillment of the ancient prophecy of “the ingathering of exiles” has also made
it easier to annihilate the Jews as they now congregate in one small land. A
single nuclear flash could accomplish in seconds what it took Hitler years to
Netanyahu wants to impress this point upon each of his
visitors. The mullahs of Iran, who slaughtered their own people in the streets
in the failed freedom demonstrations of the summer of 2009, saber-rattle every
day that they will exterminate Israel, and even Iran’s new president just
referred to Israel as a scab that must be removed. And they are building the
bombs to do it.
Kagame is intent on the world knowing that the Hutu
militias who slaughtered nearly a million Rwandans in 1994 are at his doorstep
in Eastern Congo.
The FDLR, with whom he is being pushed to negotiate,
are the literal and ideological descendants of the genocidaires. A soft-spoken
and profoundly gentle man, Kagame seems frustrated that the world does not
understand his country’s unique security needs.
He has the build of
Abraham Lincoln, tall and lithe. He leans forward in his chair and says
movingly, “It makes me mad. When I think about what was done to my people and
how Rwanda is misunderstood for protecting itself. But I can’t afford to be mad.
I have too many responsibilities to my people, too many things my country
depends on me for.”
He makes reference to the anger harbored by all the
survivors who watched mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children hacked to
death before their eyes. “For their sake, I can’t afford to be angry.”
my meeting with Dr. Mehmet Oz, who was my guest in Israel recently, and Prime
Minister Netanyahu, Netanyahu employed a great deal of humor and had the doctor
and our respective families, who joined us after an hour’s conversation,
laughing out loud. But it was a different kind of humor than what I recall when
he was our guest on multiple occasions in Oxford in his 30s and 40s. Back then
he was deputy foreign minister and was responsible for being Israel’s principal
spokesman to the world. Today he has to make sure that another Holocaust does
not happen on his watch. The enormity of the responsibility is unfathomable and
I found it expressed in his every gesture.
Kagame faces a different set
of circumstances. After leading the forces that ended the genocide by capturing
the country in just three months in 1994, he inherited the most broken nation on
earth. He had to build every institution from the ground up. The country bears
his personal imprimatur in nearly every way. A personal stickler for
cleanliness, he has made Rwanda the cleanest country on earth. Litter here is
virtually nonexistent. A self-made man, he eschews foreign aid and wants Rwanda
to ultimately be weaned off foreign assistance.
He created the Rwandan
Development Board where companies can be registered in just six hours, cutting
through what would normally be a month of government regulation and red tape.
And at heart a military man considered to be one of the great military
strategists alive today, he has insisted that Rwanda have one of the strongest
armies in Africa so that no-one can slaughter his people again.
public figure, both men care about their reputations and their country’s
reputations and both men are profoundly aware of their many critics. Netanyahu,
with his looks and sparkling oratorical skills, knows what it’s like to be
adulated – and now also what it’s like to be hated. He is portrayed as
intransigent and stubborn. But he’ll risk the opprobrium of The New York Times
editorial board if that’s what it takes to keep his people alive.
only living man to have stopped a genocide Kagame also knows adulation. He has
been given countless honorary degrees and many of the world’s most prestigious
awards. But he has been pummeled in some quarters of late about refusing to let
up the fight against the FDLR genocide brigade.
The world sees them by
now as small and weak compared to Rwanda’s impressive army. But one can perhaps
best sum up Kagame’s approach with the immortal words of baseball legend Yogi
Berra: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get
Kagame and I discuss why some who understand the nightmare Rwanda
went through have now become critics, telling the president to come out of the
trenches and stop fighting a war that he has already won. I tell him it is
because our world is accustomed to excusing, rather than hating evil. They’re
humiliated, we hear. They’re displaced.
If you just talk to them – as
Israel is so often pressured to do – you can find common ground.
to the good in them. They’re still some innocence in them. We look to end the
grievances of terrorist organizations rather than accepting that some have gone
irreversibly over to the dark side.
The truth, of course, is that mass
murderers are no longer human.
They have erased the image of God from
Kagame recently met with Netanyahu in Jerusalem where
he was attending the 90th birthday celebrations for President Shimon Peres, and
Rwanda will be opening an embassy in Israel imminently. (The announcement was
made in a press conference I held with Rwanda’s outstanding foreign minister
Louise Mushikiwabo last October – one of the Kagame’s unique characteristics is
to recognize the talent of exceptional women and promote them to high positions
in his government).
The destinies of the Jewish and Rwandan people are
connected not just in their having both experienced two of the most horrible
mass crimes in human history but in their respective leaders’ commitment to
ensure that “Never Again” means never again.
The author, whom
Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” heads
This World: The
Values Network, an organization dedicated to promoting universal Jewish values
globally. He has just published
The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the
Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @Rabbismuley
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