By Jonathan R. Beloff and Samantha Lakin
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently finished a four-day trip visiting Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. His visit marks a historic moment in relations between Israel and the African continent. Though relations were strong during the years directly following the end of colonization, African attitudes toward Israel began to shift after Israel’s capture of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in 1967, with disapproval of Israeli occupation of African territory and treatment of Palestinians. These sentiments were solidified after the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Although Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in 1979, it took until the 1990s to begin the slow process of restoring relations.
Since the 1990s, Israel’s presence in Africa has been steadily growing, specifically with regard to military strategy and security. The social and political history of atrocities and genocide both faced during the 20th century have also created common ground. Some have viewed Israel’s re-engagement in Africa with the cynical and simple conclusion of pure pursuit of state interests. However, the relationship between African countries and the Jewish state is much more complex and can be best illustrated by a deeper explanation of current Israel-Rwanda relations.
Rwanda’s relationship with Israel has recently been simplified by Jeffrey Gettleman as mutual opportunism for both nations. While Israel and Rwanda are indeed negotiating financial and military deals to benefit national needs, this is not the entire story of the relationship. Many Africans, such as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, believe that because Israel is the biblical homeland of Christianity, Rwandans want closer engagement. Yet this is not a major reason for the close ties either. It instead revolves around the shared history and mentality of Rwandans and Israelis.
For many Rwandans, Jews and Israel are considered as role models for peace, development, and defying hatred. This mentality has been shown through the respect for documentation, testimonies, psychosocial healing, and ensuring state security and economic growth in the aftermath of two of the world’s worst genocides. One former Rwandan general summarized this admiration best: “Israel was nothing but a desert when the Jews started building their homeland in the 1940s after their genocide. But they turned it into a beautiful garden… Here, we need to learn their [Israel’s] ways.”
It is well known that the international community abandoned Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. However, Rwandans view abandonment as a much earlier phenomenon, when the world seemingly ignored and minimized the ethnic divisions, persecution, and outright violence, which faced the country’s minority Tutsi population since independence from Belgium in 1962. Just like the historic pogroms against Jews dating back to the Middle Ages, Tutsis were victims of local violence and forced migration whether internally or as refugees. Many Tutsi genocide survivors identify with the experiences of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe until after the Holocaust with the establishment of Israel. The abandonment of the Jews for centuries and especially during the Holocaust led to the core belief that the only people who would protect Jews are Jews themselves, and this idea is embodied in the creation of the State of Israel, a Jewish state. Netanyahu spoke of this concept during his recent visit to Uganda: “For centuries…we were stateless and powerless to defend ourselves. No one came to our rescue. We were murdered by the millions. The rise of Israel changed all that.”
After the genocide, Rwanda faced a major security dilemma misunderstood by most Western states. Many genocidal perpetrators were not so much defeated as forced into neighboring countries. Rwandan political and military leaders faced the dilemma of being surrounded by armed groups, with the most pressing being eastern Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) containing over 20,000 former military and armed genocide perpetrators. Despite the decrease in armed genocide groups and improved ties with regional neighbors, many within Rwanda still maintain the mindset that they are an island surrounded by hostile groups wishing to return to Rwanda to finish off the genocide.
Today, many in the Rwandan military have connected its security dilemma with Israel, seeing it as a case model. Critics would argue that neither nation has any genuine security threat, as both have strong militaries and have exploited what they identify as threats. During the Second Congo War (1998–2003), Rwanda stole large amounts of conflict minerals from Eastern Congo and Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and maintains a crippling blockade of the Gaza Strip. Nonetheless, defending against genocidal groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas is still a necessity, even with peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt.
Perhaps the greatest reason for why Rwanda looks toward Israel, though, is because of how the Jewish community that immigrated to Israel defied notions of weakness and victimhood in order to unite and succeed in security, agriculture, technology, health care, education, and more. In 2014, Rwanda Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo met with Rwandan students in Israel and instructed them to “take advantage of the skills you have acquired to develop agriculture and agri-business back home.” Since 2012, Rwanda has sent over 120 students to the AgroStudies International Center for Agricultural Interns in Israel for training in farm production methods such as drip irrigation.
Some scholars and activists are hesitant to compare the Holocaust and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda as there are important differences between the two. However, the treatment of the Holocaust in academia, advocacy, human rights, education, and victim-centered healing and justice has paved the way for similar efforts to aid recovery and reconciliation in Rwanda. Even after 22 years, Rwandan survivors still struggle with the consequences of genocide: children born of rape, loss of family and livelihoods, HIV/AIDS, physical and emotional illness. Research on the Holocaust and management of survivor populations has been key in informing parallel policies and programs in Rwanda. This connection is strongly acknowledged in Rwanda, and has played a key role in the mentality toward reconciliation and healing in the country today.
Inter-state relations will always contain elements of promoting national security and interests. However, only focusing on the policy outcomes provides an incomplete picture of why some nations interact with others. Netanyahu did not need to travel to Rwanda. He could have traveled to other countries that would be more beneficial for Israel’s economy. However, he stopped in Rwanda to help connect Rwandans and Israelis, as they are two people with a shared history and desired future. During his day spent in Kigali, Netanyahu once again realized that Rwandans see Jews and Israelis as their brothers and sisters, who they look up to with great respect.
Jonathan R. Beloff, M.S., is a Ph.D. student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, focusing on Rwandan foreign affairs.
Samantha Lakin, M.A., is a Ph.D. student at The Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Clark University. She has been working in Rwanda, Northern Uganda, and Burundi for the past four years researching issues of post-genocide memory and justice.
[Photo courtesy of Adam Jones]