On May 21 our organization, The World Values Network, will present President Paul Kagame of Rwanda with the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Prize for Outstanding Friendship with the Jewish People. The award comes at our Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala in New York City, which in previous years has honored luminaries like Elie Wiesel, Ambassador Ron Dermer, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Dr. Mehmet Oz, Newt Gingrich, Sean Penn, Anne Frank’s closest childhood friend, Jacqueline van Maarsen, and Sir Ben Kingsley.
As a head of state, few friends of the Jewish people and Israel deserve it more than President Kagame.
Of chief importance, of course, is Kagame’s unmatched humanitarian achievement in being the one man living today to have ever stopped a genocide.
In 1994, as Hutu militants and civilians hacked to death over a million innocent men, women and children, the entire world watched and remained silent — a tragic trend with which we Jews are all too familiar. Kagame, however, rebuilt his army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, in Burundi and launched a startling, brilliant campaign that saw him reconquer Rwanda and restore calm all within three months. In doing so he saved millions of lives, even as the United Nations Peacekeepers under Kofi Annan largely withdrew, leaving Rwanda to its grisly fate.
Since then, Kagame has helped the nation of Rwanda rise from the ashes of genocide to become one of the most promising countries on the African continent. He inherited one of the most broken nations on earth. Yet, in the past years he’s overseen the rebuilding of the country’s institutions from the ground up, with Rwanda becoming a budding tech powerhouse.
A personal stickler for cleanliness, he has made Rwanda one of the cleanest countries on earth. Litter there is virtually nonexistent. A self-made man, his purpose is to grant Rwanda the dignity of self-sufficiency by developing industry and reducing foreign aid, a goal toward which he has made considerable progress. He created the Rwandan Development Board where companies can be registered in just six hours, cutting through what would normally be months of government regulation and red tape. And, as a great military strategist, he has insisted, like Israel, on the strength of Rwanda’s defense forces so that no one can slaughter his people again.
Few personalities alive have brought healing and harmony to such a devastated people. I have personally witnessed the monthly meetings in towns across Rwanda where all citizens now meet as brothers and friends.
But our organization honors President Kagame not just for what he’s done for his people but for what he continues to do for the Jewish nation.
In recent years, Paul Kagame has risen to the fore of the international arena as one of the strongest allies of Israel and Jewry.
Across the world, hostility toward Israel is becoming the norm, proving the sad historical trend that anti-Semitism is the world’s oldest hatred. I am a great lover of Africa. But the African Union has at times been dominated by harsh and unfair critics of Israel like Egypt, Libya and, most surprising of all, the great South Africa.
The African Union has already denied Israel observer status three times — a privilege it has offered such countries as Turkey, Haiti, Serbia, Ukraine, and the Palestinians. This, despite Israel’s offers of assistance to the continent in agriculture, chemical engineering, mining, irrigation and hydro-electricity — industries that are critical to many African countries and within which Israel is an international leader. In fact, Israel has diplomatic relations with only 11 out of the 54 African Union member-states.
When my daughter Chana served as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, she met the Rwandan chief of staff who was visiting Israel and mentioned to him that her father had for years been deeply attached to Rwanda because of the experiences it shared with the Jewish people. Through that introduction I ended up visiting Rwanda and meeting its eloquent foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, who announced at a press conference we organized in New York City in October 2012 that Rwanda planned to open an embassy in Israel.
In 2013 I brought together the world’s two most important names in anti-genocide activism, Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel and Paul Kagame of Rwanda, for a public conversation I moderated on how we can prevent mass slaughter in the modern era. In 2014 I was invited by President Kagame to offer a keynote address at the 20th Anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide at Amahoro National Stadium in Kigali.
Since then, President Kagame has solidified his stalwart support of the Jewish State and his friendship with the Jewish people. Last July he joined the leaders of Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya in inviting the prime minister of Israel to visit his country. Before that, the president had visited Israel himself on a few occasions, most famously for Shimon Peres’s 90th birthday, where the two presidents sat immediately beside one another.
Kagame’s actions of friendship toward the Jewish people and Israel have had a global impact. In 2014, Rwanda used its position as a rotating-member of the U.N. Security Council to stop an anti-Israel resolution that called on Israel to withdraw to the suicidal pre-June 1967 lines by late 2017, and the establishment of a Palestinian state, which all polls show would be quickly overtaken by genocidal Hamas, with east Jerusalem as its capital. Rwanda abstained on the vote, depriving the Palestinians of the nine votes they needed to pass the biased motion. Banjamin Netanyahu thanked Kagame personally for this act.
Rwanda likewise abstained from the 2011 UNESCO vote to admit Palestine as a state, along with the General Assembly vote in 2012 that sought to grant the Palestinians non-member observer state status. Such actions would have prejudged final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, would have inflamed the region and undermined efforts at peace.
Just last September, at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rwanda was one of four African countries that voted against an Egyptian resolution calling for international monitoring of Israel’s nuclear facilities.
It was therefore fitting that last week, after our organization announced we’d be presenting President Kagame with the Adelson Prize, AIPAC also announced that President Kagame would be addressing its policy conference this month in Washington. It will mark the first time ever that an African leader will address the pro-Israel lobbying group in person.
In all, President Kagame’s kinship with the Jewish people is natural. After all, Rwanda is a brother-nation to the people of Israel. We are among the few peoples on earth healing from the torturous trials of genocide. We are bound, however, not by the horrors of our history or the pain of the past but by our shared commitment to building a more harmonious, promising and blessed future, bringing together people of different ethnicities as one people under God.
It is in this shared mission of renewal that Kagame has found true friendship with the Jewish people and Israel. It’s a friendship that, unlike many others that occur between nations, is rooted not in expediency but in values; not in opportunity but in hope.
Shmuley Boteach is an American Orthodox rabbi, an international author of over 30 books, a TV host, activist and speaker. He was rabbi to Michael Jackson, Cory Booker and other public figures and has been recognized as one of the nation’s most influential rabbis by Newsweek and The Washington Post. Reach him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.