It was one of the worst mass slaughters since the Holocaust. And two decades later, Israel and the American Jewish community, along with much of the West, are embracing the leader who stopped it as a modern-day hero.
A series of memorial events around the world in April will mark the somber 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The anniversary will give Western countries, which were paralyzed with inaction during the slaughter, an opportunity to trumpet the new Rwanda as a contemporary success story.
The embrace is a feeling shared in full by Israel and some American Jewish leaders. Post-genocide Rwanda has become a diplomatic ally and trade partner for the Jewish state, and the African nation’s resurrection from the ashes of genocide has, for Jews, invited unavoidable comparisons to the plight the Jewish people faced just a few generations ago. It has led Jewish leaders to avidly support President Paul Kagame as the type of leader they only wish they had had during their own dark times.
“He is the only living man to stop a genocide,” said Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the Rwandan president’s key advocate among American Jews. “He is a personal friend of the Jewish people.”
But like most of the international community, these Jewish leaders have chosen to set aside an increasing drum beat of claims by human rights advocates, the United Nations and even some U.S. government officials that Kagame is tied to civilian killings and mass rapes carried out by rebel troops in the neighboring Congo that his government backs. Several allies-turned-dissidents who fled Rwanda have also been murdered abroad. They include Kagame’s former intelligence chief, who was strangled to death in Johannesburg in January. Other dissidents abroad have been attacked, but escaped injury. Kagame has also been accused of having supported war crimes by his troops against civilians in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.
Kagame has staunchly denied responsibility for any of these crimes, though after the assassination in South Africa of his former intelligence chief, Patrick Karegeya, he said: “I actually wish Rwanda did it. I really wish it.” South Africa expelled three Rwandan diplomats whom it accused of having links to the murder and to the attempted murder of other Rwandan dissidents living in South Africa.
“This creates a challenge for organizations like ours [that] want to build bridges,” admitted Eliseo Neuman, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Africa Institute, which is active in Rwanda. “But this should not completely tarnish Kagame’s image.”
On March 11, Ed Royce, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, wrote a sharply worded letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, urging the administration to “closely re-evaluate” its ties with Rwanda. “Allowing President Kagame’s violent rhetoric and the slaying of dissidents abroad to go unchecked will only embolden the regime,” Royce stated.