Shmuley Boteach seems to be everywhere these days. The right-wing rabbi’s new book Kosher Lust has just been released. Last week, he played host to a gala featuring Chris Christie, giving the New Jersey governor a chance to make amends with Sheldon Adelson, the pro-Israel billionaire Christie offended when he used the words “occupied territories” in a recent speech.
Last month, Boteach’s mind was on yet another topic, one vastly different than sex or the 2016 presidential race. The consummate self-promoter was thousands of miles away from his New Jersey home, visiting Rwanda to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the genocide that took the lives of some 800,000 people, most of them members of the Tutsi ethnic group. He was tapped to deliver a prayer during a memorial service, part of a set of events to pay homage to the victims of the Hutu-perpetrated slaughter that has left an indelible mark on the country.
Boteach was not some random pick to speak at an official event in the presence of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who is seen by many as a hero who halted the genocide but has been accused of rampant human rights abuses. In recent years, Boteach has assumed the mantle of promoting Kagame in the Jewish community and to other Americans. He has urged the Rwandan government to continue to strengthen its alliance with Israel, the rabbi’s other foreign cause.
The personal relationship Boteach forged with Kagame has intensified as Rwanda has become a leading African ally to Israel, despite the fact that Israeli dealers sent arms to the military when it was slaughtering Tutsis in the 1990s. Israeli investors have poured money into Rwanda, which has cast itself as a renewed nation ready for investment after the devastating genocide. Israeli arms continue to flow into the country. Rwanda was one of 41 countries that abstained on the Palestinian Authority’s bid to obtain observer status at the UN; and Rwanda has acted as a dumping ground for a small number of African refugees who had fled to Israel, only to be rounded up in detention camps and deported. Rwanda’s alliance with Israel is part of the country’s decisive move into the Western geopolitical orbit, which includes economic ties and sending troops on UN and African Union missions.
Boteach calls Rwandans the “Jews of Africa,” and is one of many in the American Jewish community who sees a resemblance between Israel post-Holocaust and Rwanda post-genocide, though the analogy is flimsy. As journalist Bill Berkeley points out in his book The Graves Are Not Yet Full, “there had been no Jewish tyranny in Germany, as there were Tutsi feudal tyrannies in Rwanda and Burundi, and there had been no Jewish-perpetrated genocides in, say, Austria, as there were Tutsi-perpetrated genocides against Hutus no fewer than three times in a generation in Burundi.”
The romance with Rwanda began after the rabbi, a “spiritual advisor” to Michael Jackson, saw the pop icon’s nanny return to her native Rwanda. Then, he wrote in 2013, he “finally made the decision to visit [in 2012] after my daughter, serving as a foreign military liaison in the Israel Defense Forces, met General Charles Kayonga, Rwanda’s chief of staff, who invited me.” His second visit in 2013 was bankrolled by Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. Boteach did not return requests for comment on this story.
“Your solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people is important, given that you have a unique understanding of the kind of security concerns that Israel has,” Boteach told Kagame late last year, when the president spoke at Cooper Union along with Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel.
Boteach likes to bring up the similarities he sees between criticism of Rwandan human rights abuses and criticism of Israel’s violation of human rights. And Kagame has met repeatedly with the rabbi, whom The Jewish Daily Forward’s Nathan Guttman called Kagame’s “key contact in the organized Jewish world.”
So when critics of Kagame pop up, the rabbi is there to push back. Boteach sprung into action in late April, when Howard French, an author and former New York Times journalist who has reported from Rwanda, penned a Wall Street Journal column harshly criticizing Kagame. French laid out the litany of crimes Kagame is responsible for–the slaughter of some 35,000 Hutu civilians and the devastating war waged in neighboring Congo–and argued that the West’s redemption narrative of Rwanda post-genocide has led it to turn a blind eye to these abuses.
Responding to French’s well-documented record, Boteach said forget about it. The Wall Street Journal piece was an “assault” that “re-roasts old chestnuts,” Boteach wrote in the Huffington Post. He added that while there are “troubling allegations–”
“I raised these subjects with President Kagame on more than one occasion. I told him that as the only man alive to have stopped a genocide he is a hero to me and countless millions the world over.”
For good measure, Boteach called French’s assertion that Rwanda has “pursued coldblooded ethnic revenge” in Congo a “venomous” accusation reminiscent of “Roger Waters’ claim that Israel is now the Nazis,” despite the 2010 U.N. report that showed Kagame’s armed forces have killed hundreds of thousands of unarmed Hutus in Congo. (Waters did not say Israel is like the Nazis, though he did say right-wing Israeli rabbis’ statements reminded him of 1930s Germany.) Kagame’s Rwanda has repeatedly meddled in the Congo, saying that the perpetrators of the genocide had fled there. But the brunt of the attacks in Congo have fallen on unarmed civilians.
“The Kagame government has a number of people who act like trolls, basically, who police discussion of Rwanda and Rwanda-related issues online and elsewhere…I took Boteach’s online piece as an example of this,” French, an associate professor at Columbia University’s journalism school, told me in a phone interview. “Boteach can say whatever he likes, engage in semantics and try to call something an allegation or unproved. But he doesn’t really engage with the evidence, which is quite exhaustive.”
The evidence pile got more exhaustive in early May, when Canada-based newspaper The Globe and The Mail printed an investigation detailing how Rwandan exiles have been recruited by Kagame’s government to assassinate critics who are abroad. The detailed record amassed against Kagame, though, has fallen on deaf ears in Washington–and in the American Jewish community.
“I became aware at a very early stage of writing critically about Rwanda,” said French, “that this displeased a number of people in the American Jewish community who had become convinced that based on their shared experience of genocide, that there was a special bond between Rwanda and Israel.”
This article has been modified to add a quote explaining the differences between the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide.