Boteach forges close ties with Rwanda leader linked to ethnic slaughter

Rwandan President Paul Kagame, left, with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Elie Wiesel at Cooper Union last year. (Photo: Cooper.edu)

Rwandan President Paul Kagame, left, with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Elie Wiesel at Cooper Union last year. (Photo: Cooper.edu)

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.

About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an assistant editor for Mondoweiss and the World editor for AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.
Posted in American Jewish Community, Israel/Palestine, US Politics

{ 14 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. American says:

    Zionism has a lot of side show freaks….Boteach is one of them.
    Replusive guy.

    • chet says:

      Rebbe Sammy Glick

    • marc b. says:

      he is a freak. boteach to the moon? I’d help pay for that.

      Taking the Torah to the MOON: Sacred Jewish scroll could hitch ride on Google spacecraft to preserve Earth’s culture in event of an apocalypse.

      link to dailymail.co.uk

      • RoHa says:

        “Taking the Torah to the MOON: Sacred Jewish scroll could hitch ride on Google spacecraft to preserve Earth’s culture in event of an apocalypse.”

        Must…quell…sarcastic…urges….must…quell…sarcastic…urges…

      • eljay says:

        >> link to dailymail.co.uk

        Ultimately, the goal is to ensure a significant part of Earth’s culture would remain on the moon far into the future.

        Thus, if Earth were to suffer an apocalypse-type event, be it a nuclear war or an asteroid impact, part of humanity’s legacy would live on.

        What a wonderful idea! Send the useless mytho-religious scribblings to the Moon – where survivors of an apocalypse-type event wouldn’t be able to access them – and leave all the useful scientific knowledge here on Earth.

  2. Bumblebye says:

    Kagame a hero for being “the only man alive to have stopped a genocide”?
    What about the people who *prevented* the genocide of Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin? Even tho’ it was by providing refuge far from their home country.

  3. Hostage says:

    Boteach calls Rwandans the “Jews of Africa,”

    Pssst, but they haven’t annexed or occupied Burundi. On 20 June, 1962 the UN General Assembly adopted a decision to accept a UN commission’s proposal regarding the partition of Ruanda-Urundi into two independent states, Rwanda and Burundi, and to establish an Economic Union. See UN resolution 1746 (XVI) and compare with resolution 181(II):
    * link to un.org
    * link to un.org

  4. Woody Tanaka says:

    Boteach, “after my daughter, serving as a foreign military liaison in the Israel Defense Forces”

    She’s an American. Don’t ANY of these god damned Zionists fight for their own country, rather than for that alien Apartheid shit hole state???

  5. seafoid says:

    “Boteach calls Rwandans the “Jews of Africa,””

    Let’s see

    Run a neo fascist state with scant respect for human rights
    Hang around Tony Blair
    Heavy reliance on PR
    Driving war in the Great Lakes region

  6. Citizen says:

    Always instructive to know what “America’s Rabbi” is up to, eh?

    Which one is that again? link to blogs.forward.com

  7. ritzl says:

    Jeez, you can just see the sheet music for these orchestrations at this point. Money, money, influence, money, corruption, promotion, notoriety, PR benefit for Israel, dependence, threats to withhold money, more influence, more corruption, more money.

    Giving Kagame this stature and uncritical platform perpetuates the Congo genocide.

    Zionism corrupts everything it touches, and it touches everything. I wish it would give the world a break that some healing might ensue.

  8. Nevada Ned says:

    Rwanda has been compared with the Middle East, according to the Establishment.

    Yes, that’s true. But not in the way the Establishment claims.

    Middle East:
    Establishment narrative:
    Israel, which only wants to be left alone, is the nearly-helpless victim of Palestinian terrorism. Thank goodness for brave leaders like Begin and Sharon.

    What this doesn’t explain: why Palestinian casualties are much much higher than Israeli Jewish casualties.

    Nevertheless, Israel has friends in the US media, who whitewash its record. Critics of Israel are smeared and compared to Holocaust deniers.

    Rwanda:
    Establishment narrative:
    The Hutus tried to exterminate the Tutsis. Thank goodness for brave leaders like Paul Kagame.

    What this doesn’t explain: why nearly all the casualties were Hutu.

    Paul Kagame has friends in the US media. Critics of Kagame are smeared and compared with Holocaust deniers. For example, Edward Herman and David Peterson are critics of Kagame. Their 2010 book (with a forward by Noam Chomky), The Politics of Genocide, can be found here, and an article (excerpted from the book) is available online here.

    Discussions of the Rwanda genocide are like discussions of the IP conflict 30 years ago, when the Israelis and their supporters had a near-monopoly.