The Jewish Brother of Rwanda

Since 2008, I have been blessed by the ability to travel to a country which has become my homeland. Most people who know me think that homeland is either my birthplace of New Jersey or perhaps Israel. However, I have to admit my homeland is in Central Africa, specifically Rwanda.

In the summer of 2006, I was privileged to participate at a Holocaust and genocide conference at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. I was assisting in the presentation of a conference paper on Native American Genocide and Japanese-American internment during World War Two. While at the conference, I met several Rwandan survivors of the 1994 genocide committed against the Tutsi or more commonly known as the Rwandan Genocide. My entire knowledge of Rwanda consisted of (what I later discovered was a rather inaccurate film) Hotel Rwanda.

For those not aware, Rwanda suffered a horrific genocide in 1994 which claimed the lives of over 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. (The genocide was aimed at the Rwandan Tutsi population.) It was at this conference that these survivors invited me and my Mother to their homeland. Within two years, my Mother and I were off to Rwanda to perform genocide research.

The trip brought us to the four corners of Rwanda examining the horrific genocide through the remains of massacre sites and the stories of survivors. Two things surprised me the most during the trip. The first was the level of development, which was a huge contradiction from most post-genocide and African societies. Unlike those countries, Rwanda was saturated with a belief of a better tomorrow. You saw this in the eyes of perpetrators, survivors and the new (post-genocide) generation. Right before we traveled to Rwanda, we stopped in Ethiopia to learn about the society and religion. (At the time, I was studying religiosity at my undergraduate university.) The level of poverty and desperation of so many Ethiopians was seen not through their terrible living conditions, but through their eyes. The eyes told a story of sadness and the acknowledgment that the future held no promise. In Rwanda, I saw hope for a better tomorrow. The strive to hard work, gain an education and reconcile with those who had harmed you and your family, were the key to these people’s hope for a better tomorrow. This unexpected surprised led to me shifting my academic focus away from religiosity and towards political economy and development.

The second surprise, which has more relevance to this blog, is the way Rwandans saw me as a Jew. Most of the countries I travel to in the developing world only know Jews as the people from the Bible who Jesus was trying to convert. To be honest, most have no idea what Judaism is at all. In Rwanda, nearly everyone knew what Judaism was in the context of the people. Jews were seen as a brother population to Rwandans. The Jewish people experienced centuries of brutality, hardship and genocide. And throughout all of these horrors, the Jewish people have never stopped trying to improve themselves through education or fought for respect from their peers.

Rwandan genocide survivors saw me as a long lost brother who could understand their hardships of pogroms (Rwandan Tutsis suffered horrible programs since 1959 until the genocide), genocide (I had family who perished in the Holocaust) and the current desire by some to eliminate the remaining Jews (which I mention later in this piece). Rwandan government officials saw me as part of a society (world-wide Jewish community and to a lesser extent Israel) that can be a model for Rwanda. In particular, I learned (and continue to research) how the current Rwandan government led by President Paul Kagame (who led the Rwanda Patriotic Front during the Rwandan Civil War -1990-1994- and ended the 1994 genocide) view Israel.

Officially, Singapore is the case-example state for Rwandan development. It is hard to argue against using Singapore as a model for economic development. The country has greatly transformed itself with the other Asian Tigers (Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong). However the comparison has many limitations with physical geography being the greatest difference which is a cause for concern as Rwanda is a landlocked state unlike Singapore. Even though Singapore is the official case study, Israel is quietly spoken in the corridors of many Rwandan government ministries as the real example-state.

Yes, Israel is the country that many within the Rwandan government wish to become. They view the country’s economic development as one of wonder. They are attracted to how Israel was able to turning its desert into a flush green agricultural paradise and become a technological powerhouse. Rwandan development is aimed at replicating these Israeli achievements and so much more.

Perhaps more importantly, Rwanda looks at Israel for its military. The Rwandan Defense Force is one of the most organized military force in all of Africa with a history of ending the Rwandan Genocide and militarily intervening in neighboring countries to protect Rwanda. The bloody Congo Wars (1996-7; 1998-2003) were (arguably) a response by Rwanda’s military to security threats by forces that committed the 1994 genocide. Similar to Israel, with its security concern with various terrorist groups such has Hamas and Hezbollah, Rwanda faces similar threats from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) who wish to destroy the current Rwandan government and establish a genocidal government in Rwanda in order to finish off the genocide against the Tutsi population. The Rwandan military views this threat as similar to Israel’s own security concern. Very quietly, the Rwandan military has formed a military relationship with Israel in the context of military training to fight terrorist forces that lie right beyond Rwanda’s border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The title of this blog post stems from an experience of when I was introduced as “the Jewish Brother of Rwanda” to a party function filled with Rwandans. Some were from the government, private sector, religious (Catholic) institutions and some were just friends of friends. All were Rwandans and it interested me how I was introduced to them not as a researcher, but as a Rwandan brother, because of my faith. I am hoping that this blog will continue to explore the relationship and beliefs that Rwandans have with me as a researcher, but more importantly as a Jew.

About the Author
Jonathan Beloff is a current PhD student at the School of Oriental and African Studies and is performing his research on Rwandan foreign policy titled, "The Evolution of Rwandan Foreign Policy from Genocide to Globalisation”. His academic focus is on economic development and international relations in the African Great Lakes Region. He previously worked for the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide (Kigali, Rwanda), the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Vad Vashem.