Bibi and Kagame: Conversations with Leaders Whose People Faced Genocide

There is an immediate symmetry one sees between Netanyahu and Rwandan president - they have the weight of the world upon them.

Shmuley Boteach and Rowanda President  Paul Kagame 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shmuley Boteach and Rowanda President Paul Kagame 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Having sat with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda in the same week, there is an immediate symmetry one sees between both men. They have the weight of the world upon them. These are 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 genocide. Both leaders are consciously aware that they head nations who 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 extermination.
In the case of Netanyahu the words “Iran” are forever on his lips. Bibi 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 literal 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 accomplish. 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 one 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 that 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 depend 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.”
In my meeting with Dr. Oz, who was my guest in Israel, and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Israeli leader 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 thirties and forties. 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 bares 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 non-existent. 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.
Like any public figure, both men care about their reputations and their country’s reputations and both men are profoundly aware of their many critics. Bibi, with his Adonis good looks and sparkling oratorical skills, knows what it’s like to be adulated and knows now 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.
As the 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 expressed by baseball legend Yogi Berra: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
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 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 – you can find common ground. Appeal 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 their countenance.
Kagame recently met with Netanyahu in Jerusalem where he was attending the 90th birthday celebrations for Israeli 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” never happens again.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach whom The 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