Manhattan—On Sunday night, Sept. 29, at Cooper Union’s Great Hall, a panel was gathered in front of a capacity audience to hear the latest on what we have learned about killing each other since Cain killed Abel. At the time, God also began to teach Mankind how to deal with their feelings of rage and jealousy.
The evening began with a long delay before the principals could be brought in. Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the Jewish Chaplain at NYU, introduced the first speaker, Mr. Sheldon Adelson. After some delay, Mr. Adelson slowly came into the auditorium, accompanied by his wife, Miriam. Rabbi Sarna, in his introduction, noted that Mr. Adelson is “the biggest contributor to the memory of the Holocaust.” Adelson pointed out that he was speaking at the same podium, at which President Lincoln had spoken. He revealed that he didn’t know that Lincoln was as short as himself. In a line he probably has never used before, he said that he had been told by Rabbi Shmuley to “be short.” So, he was. He only took the time to present his credentials, having married as his second wife, a woman who lost much of her family in the Shoah. And he declared that his life’s work is to make sure that “the strong must protect the weak,” everywhere. As a demonstration of that, he introduced the evening’s moderator and keynote speaker, “America’s Rabbi,” Bergen County resident, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.
Adelson had contributed $1,000,000 to Rabbi Shmuley’s recent congressional run, too late to make any difference in the race, which Boteach lost badly.
Rabbi Shmuley, having just returned from his first trip to Rwanda, introduced two witnesses. His long-time close friend and mentor, Reb Eliezer (Elie Wiesel), with whom he agreed on everything but one issue which he would hold till the end of the evening. Rabbi Shmuley had carefully chosen to anoint Elie Wiesel with the title of Reb. Boteach proclaimed Wiesel to be the world’s foremost spokesman opposing all genocides.
Reb Shmuley then introduced his other witness, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who Boteach said had single-handedly stopped the horrible slaughter in Rwanda in 1994 in a record-breaking three months. Kagame realized he had to do this after the world, including Bill Clinton, showed such blatant indifference to the genocide. Boteach never mentioned that the Clinton administration was the first to stop a genocide anywhere...in this case with the Dayton Accords in Bosnia. Boteach taught that when the world ignores you, you must take matters into your own hands, despite any criticism of how you are doing that.
During one of Wiesel’s early responses to Reb Shmuley’s preambled questions, he quoted that the Bible instructs us “Do not stand by idly at your brother’s suffering.” He had earlier pointed out that, like Cain, we must all choose who to see as our brother. At that point a young man got up near the front of the audience and denounced President Kagame as a perpetrator of genocide in Rwanda and the Congo.
Reb Shmuley, outraged at this interruption, called for the “heckler” to be immediately removed. Three security guards muscled the “heckler” out of the hall. The young man was protesting about an ongoing genocide, but the subject was about opposing old ones.
The Reb shouted to the young man, who would have been about 10 years old at the time, “Where were you during the genocide in Rwanda?” (There is nothing on the Internet to show Rabbi Boteach talking about the genocide in Rwanda prior to 2012.)
Reb Shmuley took a couple of turns to point out that liberals such as the young “heckler” were silent about previous genocides, including FDR having failed to stop the slaughter of the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust. “If only those liberals had listened to the strong advocacy to immediately put an end to genocide presented by others.” Getting no signal from the stage as to how to respond to all this, the very sensitive audience maintained its almost total silence. [Dr. Yehuda Bauer has written extensively that to blame American Jews and FDR of doing nothing during the Holocaust is a fallacious and historically incorrect point of view.] As Wiesel noted from the stage, FDR was the leader who made the defeat of Hitler possible.
Boteach then turned our attention to the more critical problems facing Israel, namely, Obama not stopping the slaughter in Syria at the first smell of gas. He also decried the President’s willingness to talk to the Iranians for they have never formally denounced their former president’s rantings denying the Holocaust and declaring Iran’s intention to eliminate Israel from the Earth. Boteach insisted that the first order of business concerning Syria should be holding Assad accountable, that is to punish him for what he has done to his own people.
He went on to equate the genocidal experience of Rwandans with that of the Jewish people during the Holocaust and in Israel now. There are those who deny one or the other of our genocides, and there are those who claim both Kagame and Israel are both committing genocide now. If the accusers are hatefully wrong about one, they are obviously also hatefully wrong about the other. This led to his announcement that Rwanda very recently decided to put an embassy in Israel and improve relations with the Jewish state.
Reb Shmuley thought he had Kagame in a corner when he asked him why he couldn’t put that embassy in Jerusalem. After several minutes of vocalization, Kagame said that he wanted to build that relationship step-by-step, and it was just too early to consider Reb Shmuley’s urgings. The audience loudly applauded the answer.
Boteach also asked Kagame, for his closing remarks, to comment on the accusations that his forces were committing genocide and other crimes against humanity, such as widespread rape and plunder. Kagame vocalized at greater length about this issue and kept coming back to the question of why the world and the UN don’t hold Congolese officials accountable for the horrors in their own country, which are entirely of their own making and not at all due to the thousands of Rwandan forces occupying portions of the Congo.
Boteach then asked what lessons the Rwandans can teach the world from their experience. Kagame answered that it is not enough to place blame on particular individuals or groups. And sometimes that effort is very complex. Rather we should concentrate on finding solutions to the current situation.
Wiesel said nothing when the accusations of Kagame committing genocide in the past and now were mentioned, nothing about the treatment of the “heckler” who was trying “to speak truth to power” and who tried to “sound an alarm” about a genocide that he claims is happening right now under the direction of one of the panelists.
Reb Shmuley then asked Reb Eliezer what is wrong with hating those who hate you? The Nobel Peace Prize winner said, “Hate just leads to hatred,” and added that anger is more appropriate if it leads to positive action, like trying to understand what happened among the children of Adam and Eve. He concluded with the advice: “Let’s go and study.”
Rabbi Sarna having reminded Reb Shmuley several times that the program was running very late, finally approached the podium to announce that he had gathered many questions from the college students he serves, but there was only enough time to ask one of each honored guest. There was no time for any questions from the audience. Finally, he requested that the entire audience remain seated through final remarks by sponsor #2, Michael Steinhardt, and that we allow the presenters to leave the auditorium first.
There were a handful of protestors outside, two of whom held a banner, three feet high and ten feet long, listing the many atrocities of which they were accusing Kagame. One protestor disseminated information on where to find documentation that supported the accusations. Another protestor said that the author of Hotel Rwanda had written Wiesel a letter warning him about sitting on a panel with Kagame. Wiesel admitted he has never addressed genocide in either Rwanda or the Congo, but did say he had gone to the former Yugoslavia during the massacres there to find out why friends, neighbors and relatives were madly slaughtering each other. They could not give him any answers.
By Stephen Tencer