There were several important news items that emerged from the historic
discussion on genocide that our organization, This World: The Jewish Values
Network, together with NYU Hillel, staged on Sunday night, 29 September, at
Cooper Union’s Great Hall in New York City – the venue that brought Abraham
Lincoln to national prominence in 1860 – before 1,000 people.
The event –
introduced by philanthropists Sheldon Adelson and Michael Steinhardt and which I
moderated – was historic because it brought together the two biggest names in
global genocide remembrance: Prof. 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; his RPF forces
conquered Rwanda in 1994 and ended the slaughter that had taken the lives of
nearly one million Tutsis.
As to the discussion of whether president
Franklin Roosevelt did enough to stop the murder of Europe’s Jews, Elie Wiesel
came down firmly on the side of those who say he failed at this great moral
responsibility. He deserves credit for defeating Hitler, Wiesel said, but as a
someone who confronted a genocide and did not limit it, he deserves to be
I then turned the question to Kagame, adjusted to
the Rwandan genocide. Did he harbor anger toward the United States, a moral and
righteous superpower that 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, the president said. We’re way past that.
It’s not about
anger but our conclusion that we alone can protect ourselves and can never rely
on a fickle world for our defense. Rwandans can rely on Rwandans for their
I pointed out to the president 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, now that US President Barack Obama
has decided to engage the Iranian president even as the latter 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
The fact that Assad had paid no price for gassing children was a
tremendous moral failure that had to be corrected, and the Jewish community
should have been at the forefront of saying so.
President Kagame echoed
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. Even
if he did so, he still had to pay a personal price for mass murder, they
MY CLOSE friend Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo had
already announced, at a press conference we convened in October of last year,
that Rwanda would be opening an embassy in Israel. I turned to the president and
said to him 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 and both have terrorist enemies
on their borders. Israel has Iran-funded Hezbollah and Hamas and Rwanda 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 said. He was
very happy that they were increasing their bilateral relations with Rwanda
opening an embassy in Israel, which he said was an important step in an evolving
However, opening an embassy in Jerusalem would be too great
a leap for now, he added. He and I both smiled at his response, the president
knowing I had put him on the spot and I knowing he had artfully dodged the
I turned to Professor Wiesel and told him that the full-page
advertisements 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 be 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.
consider the ads, he said.
AT LAST, 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.
I have been close to Wiesel for 25
years. He is my hero and teacher. But on this one point, I remain unsure, and
continue to despise those monsters who would murder a child because of his
nationality, religion, or race. “Never again” must mean just that.The
author, “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 @RabbiShmuley.
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