Jonathan R. Beloff
Researcher of the African Great Lakes

Two Jews, Three Opinions: A Lesson for Rwanda

When I was very young, I used to go to Saturday morning religious services with one of my Mother’s colleagues whom I affectionately call, “Uncle Bernie.” The man was much more than just a friend of the family, to all intents and purposes he was my father figure throughout my childhood and young adult life. There were two parts of the Saturday morning semi-religious service at the Reform synagogue, the Ethical Portion and the Drash, that always sparked my attention. For each, the minyan (the attendees) presented a topic on something political, community-centered, or religious. The unwritten rule was that the Ethical Portion would discuss something that did not directly involve the Bible or Jewish law, but that still related to Jewish identity, or how Jews should live their lives. The Drash specifically focused on the week’s Torah (the Five Books of Moses in the Old Testament) portion.

During these sections in the service, the minyan would discuss and debate. I remember looking at my Uncle Bernie, a Professor of American and English Literature, and being amazed as he argued what he thought was ‘right’ against the people who believed that their view was the ‘correct’ one. None of these people were religious scholars or great rabbis. They were just regular people who came to pray and debate about the things that surrounded them in their lives and the world.

I also experienced debates and the desire for discussion in other synagogues, whether more or less religious. At a Chabad (a sect of religious Orthodoxy) temple, I used to argue with one of the Rabbi’s sons about the creation of the Torah. The son believed that the Torah is the written word of God and was given to the Jews at Mount Sinai. I believed (and still do) that it was written during the time of King Solomon’s Temple in 587 BCE. It did not matter that we held opposing views; both of us viewed the debate as a way to better understand Judaism and ourselves.

Not too long ago, I was with a person whom I am very close with, and we started discussing religion. I told her that in Judaism, Jews are commanded to never study the Bible alone, but to do so with at least two other people so a discussion can be pursued. I believe this quality of Judaism, the continual discussion of every bit of our religion, is a reason why the Jewish people have survived over time. It is also why many Nobel Prize winners and some of the greatest minds in the natural sciences, philosophy, and social sciences are Jews. The drive to learn and debate in order to explore new possibilities is a great characteristic even if it can lead to some very heated arguments.

Less than a month ago, the BBC aired a documentary, Rwanda’s Untold Story, which was saturated in controversial genocide revisionism. The following day, I wrote a response trying to disprove one of the documentary’s largest inaccuracies: specifically, that the present Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, ordered his Rwanda Patriotic Front to shoot down the presidential plane of former Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana on the eve of the genocide as we have come to know it It was the assassination of Habyarimana, which ignited the 1994 genocide that led to the murder of more than one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. My piece was the first response to the documentary with many others to follow.

Over the last few weeks, I have been able to discuss the documentary with many people in Rwanda, including government members, military personnel, genocide survivors, and people who neither work nor research the topic of genocide. Many in Rwanda, especially survivors, felt hurt and betrayed by the BBC documentary. They appreciated my response because they saw its determination to explain the real history of what occurred during the night that sparked the genocide. I pressed some in the Rwandan government to respond to the documentary by disproving its ‘facts’ through publications, videos, and debate.

Last Friday, October 24th, the Rwandan government, through the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority, decided to suspend the BBC’s Kinyarwanda radio programs because of the documentary. Under Rwandan law, it is illegal to speak against the history of the genocide. These anti-revisionism laws are similar to those found in much of Europe with respect to the Holocaust. The Rwandan Parliament under the new Senate President, Bernard Makuza, had announced earlier that week that a vote would take place in the Parliament on whether the BBC should be punished for violating the anti-revisionism law even though the documentary was not directly shown in Rwanda.

I have been asked over the last few days my opinion on the suspension of the BBC. I have never held back my disapproval of the ban; however, I respect that this is a Rwandan decision, and that the country’s Parliament has every right to do what it thinks is best for the country. My disagreement with the suspension stems from all the debates I witnessed at synagogue as a child. Uncle Bernie always would tell me, “mis-information and lies are allowed to exist when no one is ready to disprove them.” I feel that his advice applies perfectly to the case of the BBC ban in Rwanda. Instead of trying to ignore the documentary’s blatant genocide denial, Rwanda should combat it through debate. The truth of the genocide can easily disprove the documentary’s ‘facts’ and help educate those who now believe that the RPF was responsible for the genocide having watched the BBC documentary. A discussion led by the facts of the genocide is the most power weapon in the fight against genocide denial.

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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