Jonathan R. Beloff
Researcher of the African Great Lakes

Respect and Appropriateness in Sensitive Societies

Over the last month, Jerusalem has been plunged into clashes between Palestinians and Israelis. Many have died in the recent conflict sparked by visits to the Temple Mount by Israelis who wish to be able to pray in the space that contains both the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site for Islam. The heart of this violence stems from the six-decade conflict between Israelis and Palestinians with the lack of development of any peace plan as of late. However, the recent visits by a few right-wing Israeli Jews have created the belief that Israel might take away one of the most holy sites for Muslims.

I remember in the summer of 2013, I was on a Birthright trip with one of my closest friends. I had traveled to Israel before, but it was to work at a Yad Vashem conference in 2006. For the longest period of time, I had little desire to return to Israel. (It did not stem from any political, religious or philosophical problems with Israel, but I preferred to travel to the African Great Lakes.) It was a Rwandan General, turned Ambassador to Turkey, Caesar Kayizari who persuaded me to take the opportunity to go to Israel. In his view, I had to return to my second ‘homeland’ with Rwanda being my first. While in Jerusalem, two friends and I snuck away from the supervision of the guides and walked to the Temple Mount.

The three of us went through security and arrived at the beautiful Temple Mount. Many of the Muslim worshippers were not pleased that three foreigners were casually visiting one of their holiest spots. I advised my friends earlier that day for us to dress modestly and respectfully. I was aware that none of us were going to be allowed in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, because we were not Muslim. Thankfully, we were able to see a little bit inside of it. Internally I was upset and angry that I would not be allowed to enter the Mosque. I wanted to see the beautiful architecture and artwork, which I had seen on the internet. However, I knew that I needed to respect the rules and traditions that might restrict my access, but makes the exploration so fascinating. During our walk, I talked about the history of the Mount in Jewish and Islamic history and traditions while trying not to provoke attention or disturb the services occurring around us.

As we approached the Dome of the Rock, my heart began to pulse faster with delight. The gold plated dome covers the important Foundation Stone. Islamic and Jewish tradition describe the stone as the first one that God created when formulating the Earth; it is where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac to God; the previous location of the Ark of the Covenant, which used to rest on top of it during the times of the First and Second Temple; and it is where Mohammed ascended to heaven from. The significance of the Dome filled me up with such joy and excitement. Unfortunately, my friends and I were denied entrance. Similar to the Al Aqsa Mosque, we were told by a Jordanian guardsman that only Muslims were allowed in. I argued with the guard, but he refused to relent. We continued walking the beautiful compound with my anger rising. I was so close to a place I wanted to visit, to better understand its significance to both Jews and Muslims. But I was denied because of my religion. I just kept telling myself that I have to respect the traditions and laws that govern the Temple Mount. I might disagree with it, but I must be respectful.

The respect and appropriateness that I shared at the Temple Mount is not being shared by all, especially those far-right wing Israeli Jews who believe the segregation should be fought even if it disrupts the fragile peace that Jerusalem was blessed to have. Instead of reaching some sort of peace and understanding through dialogue, which could have led to the lessening of restrictions against Jewish prayer, some decided to be bold and cause a ripple effect that has killed many people and plunged the region into a possible third intifada.

Respect and appropriateness when it comes to the Rwandan genocide (also known as the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis) is also something of a fine line that many have to be careful when navigating. Genocide forces targeted the Rwandan Tutsi community as well as moderate Hutus during their 100-day slaughter. The Rwanda Patriotic Front’s military (Rwanda Patriotic Army) was able to end the massacres through liberating the country. During this fighting there were cases of revenge killings of Hutu civilians by RPA forces. The RPA did not have a strategic military aim to massacre the Hutu population, but Hutus were still killed because of a number of factors. I have previously, in 2013, performed research on these specific cases. In my findings, I point to three main causes of the revenge killings. To keep it short for this article (if you wish learn more, I’ll post a citation of the article when it is published early next year), the most widespread cause was the psychological breakdown of many RPA troops. Recall that the early RPA troops contained the sons and daughters of Rwandan Tutsi exiled from their homeland from 1959 and onward. After hearing about the milk and honey promised land of Rwanda from their parents, their expectations were high to see a Garden of Eden and to be with their distant relatives who remained in Rwanda during all those years. Soldiers who were able to liberate their family’s home village would almost always find the remains of massacres with their families not being spared. The promised land was covered in the blood of their relatives and they took their anger out at civilians whether they participated in the massacres or not.

I mention this, a rather taboo subject in Rwanda, because of the appropriateness of discussing these revenge cases. Rwanda is still recovering from the genocide and discussion of these cases is feared by some as a possible pathway for Rwanda to continue a cycle of violence, which President Paul Kagame has been able to successfully end. When I discussed this issue during my research, I knew I had to be careful what I said and how I said it. It was not because this subject is not allowed to be discussed, but because it is still very sensitive and I needed to respect the Rwandan society, which still is trying to understand its past in terms of ethnic conflict. However, not everyone in Rwanda is respectful to the society’s uneasiness with this subject.

In 2010, Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, a Presidential candidate running against President Kagame, went to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the main memorial for the genocide in Rwanda, to pay a visit and give a speech. Not ten meters away from where she spoke was one of the many mass graves (there are over 250,000 bodies in the mass graves) of predominately Tutsi victims of the genocide. Instead of being respectful of the sanctity of the Memorial or sensitivity to the fact that nearly everyone at the Memorial was a genocide survivor, she minimized the Tutsi victims in order to discuss the revenge killings. It was not the appropriate setting to discuss (what she was hinting) that the revenge killings were worse than the genocide. I was able to speak to one of the staff members of the Memorial who was present at Victoire’s speech. What surprised and troubled him the most was that she knew this was not the appropriate place to mention those revenge killings. He then continued to ask whether her comments at the Memorial were just for political capital in order to try to have Hutus vote for her during the upcoming Presidential election. Others who witnessed the speech in person have similarly commented and questioned her intentions.

Questioning the history of the genocide for what seems to be for political purposes and attention contains the same lack of appropriateness as what some far-right wing Jews are doing at the Temple Mount. These locations that thousands (Kigali Genocide Memorial) to nearly a billion (Temple Mount) people see as special for either remembering their lost relatives or as a religious holy space are not the appropriate place to question the status quo or to gain political points. In fact, they have even damaged, hurt and killed people as we see in Israel with the recent wave of violence or in Rwanda with genocide denial and the validation of genocide ideology.

About the Author
Jonathan R. Beloff, PhD, is a researcher focusing on the regional politics and security of the African Great Lakes composing the nations of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I have published several academic journal articles, book chapters, book reviews and editorials on issues facing central Africa. Since 2008, my travels to the region have led me to work and consult with numerous Rwandan and international government officials. Within these periods of foreign residence, with particular reference to my multiple extended stays in Rwanda, I developed unique skills to engage and consult with a range of different foreign officials as well as Rwandan elites and policymakers in the understanding and formation of public policy.
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