Friends in Strange Places

By Izak Epstein


Sitting around a dimly lit cafe in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, my friends and I were joined by the owner, a middle aged Rwandan named Dou Dou. As were many of the Rwandans we socialized with, Dou Dou is the physical embodiment of the “new Rwanda,” exuding ambition, pride, and resilience. Dressed in denim jeans, a black leather jacket, and opaque lensed sunglasses, he was US educated and had returned to Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, determined to pick up the pieces of a broken country. Our conversation, fueled by Mutizing, a local beer, and a plate of fried plantains, started off with the same question expats usually face. What were we doing here?

The question wasn’t unique and neither was our answer. As our capstone project for the Yale seminar “Social Enterprise in Developing Economies” taught by Bo Hopkins, we were spending the summer working in the aid and development sector. What followed was a typical conversation discussing the changing landscape of aid, the role of foreigners, Rwandan history, and current politics. I had expected most questions that Dou Dou threw at us. “Is this your first time in Africa? What are you researching? How did you end up in Rwanda?” As the night began to wind down, he abruptly posed a question that caught me off guard. “Is anyone here Jewish?” As I raised my hand, he looked at me and smiled as he passed me his business card.


Rwanda and Israel–A Budding Relationship


Over the last few decades, Rwanda and Israel have built a close relationship. Having spent a portion of last summer traveling around Israel, and this summer having spent two months in Rwanda, I had noticed numerous similarities. Educated Rwandans I spoke to loved Israel and the Jewish people. Aid workers, on the other hand, received mixed receptions. In the middle of east Africa, I found my acceptance as an aid worker questioned, but my identity as a Jew embraced. In a world that is polarized on the question of Israeli statehood and Jewish acceptance, I was intrigued to understand why Israel, and the Jewish people, found a friend in the middle of east Africa.

To take a step back, Israel and Rwanda are superficially alike. In terms of population Rwanda boasts 12 million to Israel’s 8 million. Both nations are tiny with Rwanda inhabiting 10,000 square miles to Israel’s 8,000 square miles. Faced with conflict ridden neighbors that threaten their survival, both nations must compensate for their small size and populations with firm security and well trained militaries. But what is perhaps the most crucial similarity between the two countries, is their shared tragic origin: genocide.

Both events, the Holocaust and the 1994 Rwandan genocide, cost the lives of over 6 million Jews, and possibly a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu Rwandans respectively. These tragedies led to the birth of Israel and a new constitution for Rwanda.  In 2016, during a visit to the Rwandan Genocide Memorial, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the genocide “a unique bond that neither one of our peoples would prefer to have.” With Rwandan President, Paul Kagame by his side, Netanyahu continued “…[Rwanda] hasn’t always gotten the attention it deserves, at least not from Israel. But it does now.” While these parallel histories might have sparked the close modern day relations, this friendship doesn’t seem to be so much about the past, as it is about the present and the future.

In speaking with Professor Joseph Nsengimana in Kigali, I was afforded the opportunity to learn much more about the Israel-Rwanda friendship. Professor Nsengimana served as Ambassador to Israel from 2009 to 2014. He was also Rwanda’s permanent representative to the UN and the African Union.

During Mr. Nsengimana’s tenure, he worked to increase cooperation with respect to security, science and technology, agricultural research, and energy. His efforts seem to have been successful as earlier this year, President Kagame became the first African leader to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, meeting with over 18,000 participants. Furthermore, in March, Kagame received an Israeli delegation of over 20 CEOs, and during a state visit to Israel this past July, Kagame declared Rwanda “open for business” to Israeli companies and investors.

In exchange for Israel’s assistance, Rwanda has become an advocate for Israel. Professor Nsengimana explained that “because of the shared experience, Rwanda has been for Israel, a sort of ambassador in the region, and even out of the region.” This has proven beneficial to Israel. In 2015, Rwanda, serving as a rotating member of the UN Security Council, abstained during a close vote on Palestinian statehood, contributing to the resolution’s failure.

While both Israel and Rwanda have experienced rapid development and gains in security, both countries don’t shy away from something that is constantly on their mind: survival. Both Rwanda and Israel’s peace and stability are threatened. Israel constantly faces threats from both its neighbors and Islamic radicals operating domestically. Israel continues to face threats from neighboring nations as tensions over land rights, religion, and violence on both sides, perpetuate conflict. Some leaders refuse to recognize Israel as a state. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in 2016 that Israel will “not be in existence in 25 years.” Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood have both called for the murder of Jews and the obliteration of Israel in its current form.

Rwanda too, faces threats from regional actors, internal strife, and Europe. Genocide perpetrators living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and elsewhere, actively speak out against the current government.  Occasionally, they have launched offensives from their border positions. In both 2013 and 2014, grenade attacks occurred in the border district, Musanze, and the capital, Kigali. Professor Nsengimana emphasized that a European threat exists as well. “To see Rwanda strong and developing, creating a new sort of ideology for its people, that was not the will of the colonial powers,” explained Nsengimana. “The real threat isn’t necessarily the opposition forces that committed genocide, but the government forces that support these people, like France. France has been very active in supporting the old government.” Some scholars accuse Rwanda of exaggerating these threats to justify military offensives in the region. Kagame has rejected this claim.

Despite threats of varying intensity, and geographic locations surrounded by conflict and upheaval, Israel and Rwanda are oases of peace and stability. Strong security forces and well trained militaries are largely responsible. The two governments actively work together on security. Rwanda’s Special Forces and Presidential Guard are partly trained in Israel, and many of the Rwandan Defense Force’s arms are supplied by Israel. While the borders are heavily secured, internal security forces are active as well.

Whether you are roaming the streets of Kigali or Tel Aviv, soldiers with heavy arms are a common sight. In Israel, this security measure has been in place for decades. Terrorist attacks in Israel are well documented. Heavily armed Israeli soldiers and police often thwart attacks or intervene within moments.

In Rwanda, the domestic military presence has been a more recent development. In the decade directly following the genocide, security forces were mainly positioned at the border. City streets were absent of a significant police force. Professor Nsengimana explained that in 2003, “[Rwanda] had a development of destabilization in the cities, mainly by the presidential opponent who began to organize attacks. It became necessary to show people that security was present.” Today, according to OSAC (Overseas Security Advisory Council), violence in Rwanda is virtually non-existent.


Rwanda and Israel–International Scrutiny


Rwanda and Israel’s development and effective security infrastructure did not come without a price. Both countries experience intense international scrutiny and criticism. Human Rights Watch has charged Israel with institutionalized discrimination, abuse of power, and the occupation of stolen land, among other things. Amnesty International reported that Rwanda suppresses freedom of speech and engages in violent suppression of political opposition. The UN often condemns Israel for their west bank settlements and has referred to Israel as an Apartheid state. Following the recent Rwandan presidential election, the United States among other nations have expressed frustration with the process.

These allegations are rooted in some truth. Israel racially profiles during security screenings resulting in detainment and inconveniences for predominantly Muslim visitors and residents. Rwanda actively wages military operations in neighboring Congo and Burundi, resulting in thousands of casualties and widespread violence. Israel’s right wing leadership continues to promote the construction of settlements in the West Bank, exacerbating century old land right conflicts. Rwandans, I spoke to, would often watch their words and were hesitant to speak ill of the president or the ruling party for fear of retribution.  Some opposition leaders have been exiled, jailed, and murdered.

Rwanda and Israel are far from perfect and have governments that pursue harmful policies. However, international condemnations often lack the context imperative to informed criticism.  While state survival, peace, and stability continue to be principal concerns, Israel and Rwanda have decided to use a variety of methods to achieve security.

Government abuses should not be ignored and the international community has a duty to raise concerns. However, Rwanda and Israel face challenges unique to their people. As long as widespread terrorism, and violent anti-Israel rhetoric continues to spillover from Israel’s neighbors, both defensive and offensive military and social policies remain important for Israel’s safety. Israel’s criticized practice of racial profiling at its airport likely played a role in maintaining security. Since 1972, there have been no successful attacks on planes entering or leaving Israel.

In Rwanda, establishing a vibrant democracy with legitimate opposition parties vying for leadership, is an admirable goal. Freedom of speech serves as an important step towards such a democracy. However, just two decades after government sponsored genocide, it is not be difficult to understand why President Kagame remains wary of political opposition. Similarly, freedom of speech, used historically to inspire thousands of Rwandans to murder their neighbors and co-workers, can be a dangerous right when abused. Kagame would likely argue that in the short term, suppressing freedom of speech and political dissent seems like an appropriate tradeoff to establish a foundation of state peace and security.

Israel and Rwanda are often quick to push back against criticism. Their frustration with the international community was palpable during my time in both countries. Professor Nsengimana spent much of his time as representative to the UN addressing such concerns. “The criticism comes from a wanted global understanding of human rights. When they criticize Rwanda and Israel, they ignore completely the context of these two countries. Talking about Rwanda, after the genocide, we had to put our people back together first. It takes time to develop rights.” Nsengimana expressed his annoyance that Rwandan history was ignored by those who continue to criticize.

An interesting angle to this debate arise from the sense of moral authority Rwandans and Israelis have developed. Both the Jews during the holocaust, and many Rwandans during the genocide, were abandoned by the international community. This has led to their self determination in security strategies and development initiatives. The result is a perpetual tension between the moral authority claimed by Rwandans and Israelis, and an international obligation to promote human rights. Until the international community recognizes the contextual parameters Israel and Rwanda contend with, and the Rwandan and Israeli governments make a firm commitment to promoting domestic human rights, it appears the standoff will continue.

I cannot pretend that I know where these two countries are heading. But how far Rwanda and Israel have come from their origins, is remarkable. When I commented to Professor Nsengimana how impressive it is to see these countries developing despite their histories, he quickly corrected me. “Israel and Rwanda didn’t succeed despite their histories, they succeeded because of their histories.”

History has shown both the Jewish people and Rwandans that they have to build themselves. The international community can come advise, support, assist, and criticize, but the reality is, the building of these countries must come from the people themselves. Mr. Nsengimana has many wishes for the future, but when it comes to Israel and Rwanda, he has one message. “Both our peoples need to be better understood. From such suffering, we understand life and international cooperation in a different manner. I hope that the relationship between Israel and Rwanda can help develop this new understanding among all people.”


Izak Epstein is a Political Science major in Davenport College. You can contact him at .