The satire could have written itself: the president of Rwanda, accused of fueling a bloody conflict in next-door Congo, joins with billionaire pro-Israel philanthropists to speak about the “strong protecting the weak.”
But this was no gag. All of the participants were deadly serious. And they claimed to be promoting “Jewish values.” It was a bizarre display of hawks and fomenters of violence portraying themselves as peaceniks.
Hundreds of people packed into Cooper Union’s historic Great Hall to hear President Paul Kagame, leader of Rwanda, speak on the topic of genocide and Syria with Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and celebrity Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Introducing the speakers was none other than Sheldon Adelson, the right-wing, union-busting billionaire whose life work is shaping Israeli and American politics to be as belligerent as possible towards the Arab world. Closing out the evening: Michael Steinhardt, another wealthy man whose claim to fame in the Jewish world is co-founding Birthright Israel. The event was sponsored by Boteach’s This World: The Jewish Values Network, an organization funded by Steinhardt that has served Boteach and his family well–as a payment machine for themselves.
The glaring irony of the event was lost on the audience. They clapped and feted the event speakers, snapping photos at the end as Boteach and Steinhardt gave Wiesel and Adelson birthday gifts. The atmosphere of praise was only punctured once near the beginning of the event, when a protester interrupted to shout about the crimes Kagame is accused of in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was roughed up and manhandled by Kagame’s Rwandan security team before being thrown out of the event, and the protester then implored the crowd outside who had been turned away because of overbooking to speak up about Kagame’s crimes. “Jews should speak out” about Kagame, he said. The outside crowd largely ignored him, save for a few other demonstrators holding up signs blasting Kagame as a war criminal. (I arrived five minutes late, only to be turned away at the door. I got into the event 45 minutes after it started, and missed Adelson’s opening address.)
The news hook of the night was the chemical weapons attack perpetrated by the Syrian government in Ghouta in August. Boteach, who moderated the conversation, asked Kagame whether Assad should be punished for carrying out the attack. Kagame replied affirmatively, as did Wiesel. Boteach’s sharing of the stage with the Rwandan president was no surprise, considering that Boteach traveled to the country and met with Kagame over the summer. Boteach also praised Kagame for strengthening his country’s ties with Israel and said, “your solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people is important.” The rabbi went on to lob softball after softball question at the two speakers, and his suggestion that Rwanda open an embassy in Jerusalem was greeted with applause from the crowd.
Kagame defended himself from charges that he was a human rights abuser by saying that he was protecting “his people” and that the conflict in the Congo “doesn’t have much to do with the problem of genocide. It has more to do with the failed state that the Congo is.” Boteach went on to compare the criticism Israel receives to the criticism of the Rwandan government, surmising that perhaps the two countries are held to a “higher standard” because of their history with genocide. Lost on Boteach, Kagame, Wiesel and the crowd was that a much more damning comparison between Rwanda and Israel could easily be made: that of “shared values” in war.
Kagame has been accused of cracking down on journalist and dissenters. A UN report leaked in 2010 accused Kagame’s Tutsi-dominated armed forces of possibility committing genocide against Congolese Hutus. Kagame’s government backs the M23 rebel group in Congo, which has also been accused of war crimes.
There was no opportunity for free-ranging audience questions, so after the event closed out, Max Blumenthal and Jaisal Noor of the Real News Network joined me in staking out the speakers. The unasked question of the night was who would protect the Palestinians from the strong Israeli army. I caught Elie Wiesel on his way out and asked him whether the people of Gaza should be protected from Israel. He told me that “all human beings should be protected everywhere.” I pressed him on the 300 children slaughtered during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09. “I don’t know anything about it,” Wiesel said.
Adelson was asked a similar question, and he first ignored me. After I pestered him on whether Israel or the U.S. should still attack Iran—a military strike he favors—he told me “duct tape” should be put on my mouth.
The exchange ended with Boteach criticizing me for not showing “respect” to a man who couldn’t walk by himself. They walked out of the Great Hall to an elevator, ignoring our questions. It was a fitting bookend to a night where no tough questions were asked or answered of a group of people supporting obscene violence.