Rwanda and the Jewish people
In the Bible, Ruth, stating her intention to convert, says, “Wherever you go, I will go. And wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people…” I never understood the full intensity of that statement, the force of its conviction, until I travelled to Rwanda.
Why Rwanda? In a world that remains as violent as ever, fraught with suffering and injustice, I am sometimes asked what is it about Rwanda specifically that makes me feel such an intense commitment to its genocide survivors: a commitment that is grounded in reason and emotion but is viscerally felt more as an imperative than as a choice.
The closest concept I can think of as to how I relate to Rwandan genocide survivors is a mitzva: something a Jew pursues out of obligation to the divine, to the sacred and the just.
There is no more vulnerable category of person than a genocide survivor who has lost his or her entire family, friends, neighbors, house and belongings, and who has witnessed and experienced the most horrific cruelty and violence. Rwanda’s genocide survivors are the ultimate strangers. And the command that we respect the stranger, for we were once strangers in Egypt, resonates for me in Rwanda as no where else.
SOLIDARITY FOR ME does not mean leaving Judaism and the Jewish people; on the contrary, it means reaffirming the universal moral imperatives of Judaism and the Jewish people. It means learning from Ruth’s example that we too can act as she did by reaching out to peoples who have experienced persecution as we have, and who remain impoverished and marginalized. We can help them in potentially transformative ways.
It means reaching across the gap, real and imagined, to a small community of 350,000 Tutsi genocide survivors in the heart of Africa. It means assuring them that they are not alone, affirming to them that we know their anguish and their fears, their struggles and their vulnerability; it means assuring them that we hear and will heed the still, gentle voice of God urging us to extend our hand, to help them heal and transform themselves, to rebuild their lives and their communities.
Israel can contribute to the welfare of Rwandan genocide survivors by offering 500-1,000 of them refugee status. It can direct its development aid to support the empowerment of genocide survivors in Rwanda. NGOs like Latet and Israid can make the communities of Rwandan genocide survivors a priority, assisting them with meeting basic needs for shelter, health care and job training, and providing them with assistance to develop mental health services to counsel the traumatized.
Israel’s universities, although struggling with their own financial difficulties, can provide some scholarships for Rwandan genocide survivors in their 20s and 30s who are bright and talented and have a deep desire to pursue a university education but can’t afford one in Rwanda and have relatively few opportunities to study advanced medicine and science there. The Jewish National Fund can apply the funds raised by individuals to plant trees to the creation of a forest to honor the memory of the victims of Rwanda’s genocide as a tangible expression of solidarity with them. It can also assist Rwanda (one of the most densely populated countries in Africa) with environmental protection and the knowledge and skills to promote water conservation, tree planting and improved irrigation for greater agricultural output.
The needs of Rwanda’s genocide survivors are great but they can be met. The resources of the Jewish community and the State of Israel – human, political, financial and spiritual – can make an enormous difference in the quality of their lives.
Already organizations like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee have taken the lead, developing a youth village for Rwandan orphans – many of them genocide survivors – modelled on the Yemin Orde Youth Village in Haifa.
The Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village is one of the largest community development projects in Rwanda, inspiring hope and offering tangible opportunities for development to severely impoverished and marginalized children. Ethiopian Israelis who live and work at Yemin Orde have trained their Rwandan counterparts and made several visits to the village, maintaining close ties. American Jewish college students have travelled there to volunteer and to learn about the history of the Rwandan genocide and the fate of Rwanda’s Tutsi community, with its similarities to the Jewish experience.
ISRAEL AND RWANDA enjoy close relations. The president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, recently visited Israel for three days to join celebrations of its 60th anniversary. The Rwandan government has shown sympathy and support, and is an important ally of Israel and of the Jewish people in Africa.
On his visit, Kagame noted the similarities between how Tutsis and Jews were dehumanized and vilified prior to and during the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust. He acknowledged Yad Vashem’s important work in memorializing the victims, as well as in reaching out to Rwandan genocide survivors to share with them its experiences.
A Rwandan friend of mine who is also a genocide survivor wrote to me these words about a recent visit of Jewish young adults to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. At the site there is a mass grave where more than 250,000 Tutsi victims of the genocide are buried.
“We went to the graveyard to lead a Jewish prayer in order to honor genocide victims. The prayer is called the Mourner’s Kaddish. I could not pronounce the whole prayer because I don’t speak Hebrew, but I was feeling extremely happy as we were all together with the group. I was feeling as if I were Jewish too. We sang a beautiful song, and I will learn how to sing it. It’s called ‘Kol Haolam Kulo, Gesher Tzar Me’od.’”
When I stand at Rwanda’s genocide memorials that dot the countryside with terrible frequency and say the Kaddish, I feel as though I am Tutsi and Rwandan too.
As my friend finds comfort in Hebrew words and Jewish and Israeli friends, I find similar comfort in the cadences of Kinyarwanda and in the understanding and compassion of my Rwandan friends who survived the genocide. They understand and empathize with the Jewish experience with a profundity and sincerity that gives me strength and inspires me to work with them to ensure that they can lead lives of dignity and freedom where their rights are respected and the memory of the family and friends they lost in the genocide is honored.
It is a task to which I hope Israel’s government and citizens and the global Jewish community will dedicate themselves.
The writer is a former intern with the Office of the Prosecutor at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. He was a Dorot Fellow in Israel in 2006 – 2007.