Category Archives: Genocide

Miep Gies and the Power of Human Decency

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, on last week’s Torah portion:

How moving it is…that the first recorded instance of civil disobedience – predating Thoreau by more than three millennia – is the story of Shifra and Puah, two ordinary women defying Pharaoh in the name of simple humanity. All we know about them is that they “feared G-d and did not do what the Egyptian king had commanded.” In those words, a precedent was set that eventually became the basis of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Shifra and Puah, by refusing to obey an immoral order, redefined the moral imagination of the world.

I’m thinking of these words in particular this morning as I hear the news of the death Miep Gies – an ordinary woman who defied the Nazis in the name of simple humanity.

In his dvar, Sacks’ discusses the age-old debate: were Shifra and Puah “Hebrew midwives” or “midwives to the Hebrews?”  His answer – it doesn’t matter:

The Torah’s ambiguity on this point is deliberate. We do not know to which people they belonged because their particular form of moral courage transcends nationality and race. In essence, they were being asked to commit a “crime against humanity, and they refused to do so.”

This is perhaps Gies’ most important legacy to us today. Like her Biblical forebears she reminds us that basic human decency is a universal form of resistance – and still the most powerful.

Iran: Setting the Record Straight


I’ve read and heard about some silly misinformation being spread around regarding my trip last year to Iran – and I’m thinking it might behoove me to set the record straight.

I will say at the outset that I gave a Yom Kippur sermon on this topic and I blogged extensively from Iran. If you haven’t read these posts yet, please do so. They will give you a pretty good sense of the why, what and how of my Iran experiences.

Right off the bat: I did not meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Now that I’ve gotten that straightened out, I’d like to address one particular quote of mine that’s being bandied about out of context:

While I prefer not to weigh in on the rhetorical hairsplitting debate on [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s notorious 2005 threat to wipe Israel off the map, I’ll only suggest that our attitudes and foreign policy must be based on real intelligence and understanding, and not fear-based, knee-jerk assumptions.

I still think this quote should pretty well speak for itself, but apparently I need to explain further.  I know of at least two instances in which this quote was used to somehow imply traitorous intentions on my part – i.e., that I prefer not to “weigh in” on the serious threats posed by Iran toward the Jewish state.

To those who doubt where my ultimate loyalties lay, I was actually referring with this quote to the rhetorical debate over the actual Farsi meaning of Ahmadinejad’s words from this oft-quoted speech. There has been an important ongoing debate as to whether these words were intended as a threat of genocide against the Jewish state or a predication of the eventual dissolution of the “Zionist regime” from within.

A recent blog post by Juan Cole represents this point of view well:

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did quote Ayatollah Khomeini to the effect that “this Occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time” (in rezhim-e eshghalgar-i Qods bayad as safheh-e ruzgar mahv shavad). This was not a pledge to roll tanks and invade or to launch missiles, however. It is the expression of a hope tha the regime will collapse, just as the Soviet Union did. It is not a threat to kill anyone at all.

As I myself am not a scholar of Farsi, I don’t consider myself qualified to weigh in on this debate, but I do believe that “our attitudes and foreign policy must be based on real intelligence and understanding, and not fear-based, knee-jerk assumptions.” I continue to stand by this assertion – I’m simply not a fan of fear-based foreign policy.  I am well aware that there are those who will say, “maybe Iran does intend to destroy Israel or maybe it doesn’t, but can we really take that chance?” I’m more inclined to say it this way: “when we jump to conclusions and base our reactions on fear rather than true understanding, we may ultimately cause our deepest fears to actually come true.”

By the way,  I encourage you to read Cole’s entire post, entitled “Top Things You Think You Know About Iran That Are Not True.” Whether or not you agree with his analysis, I believe his perspective provides a thought-provoking corrective to so many of the fear-based assumptions currently being bandied about regarding Iran.

Here are a few excerpts:

Belief: Iran is a militarized society bristling with dangerous weapons and a growing threat to world peace.

Reality: Iran’s military budget is a little over $6 billion annually. Sweden, Singapore and Greece all have larger military budgets. Moreover, Iran is a country of 70 million, so that its per capita spending on defense is tiny compared to these others, since they are much smaller countries with regard to population. Iran spends less per capita on its military than any other country in the Persian Gulf region with the exception of the United Arab Emirates.

Belief: Isn’t the Iranian regime irrational and crazed, so that a doctrine of mutually assured destruction just would not work with them?

Actuality: Iranian politicians are rational actors. If they were madmen, why haven’t they invaded any of their neighbors? Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded both Iran and Kuwait. Israel invaded its neighbors more than once. In contrast, Iran has not started any wars. Demonizing people by calling them unbalanced is an old propaganda trick. The US elite was once unalterably opposed to China having nuclear science because they believed the Chinese are intrinsically irrational. This kind of talk is a form of racism.

PS: By the way, did I mention I didn’t meet with Ahmadinejad?

Guest Posts from Rwanda

There have been several instances on this trip in which smaller groups have opted for side trips separate from our main itinerary. I’ve asked two participants to share their experiences with you – our first report comes from JRC member Rich Katz, who visited a Rwandan organic farm with fellow JRC’ers Ray Grossman and Jonathan Nachsin (above). Here’s Rich’s report:

“It’s Milk – Not Meat”

One of the best examples of a grass-roots effort to improve the lives of poor and low-income families and individuals in Ruanda the work of Richard Munyerango, the Managing Director of the GAKO Organic Farming Training Center just outside of Kigali. We first met Richard when he participated in the Earth Box training session we conducted at the Remera Center earlier in the week. At that time, he invited us to his farm and training center to see what he is doing to promote more nutritious diets for the people who cannot afford them.

The Center was started to help the widows of genocide and children who are heads of households, and it has expanded since. By working with local associations who suggest the names of participants, he invites eighty people at a time to his training center for a month to learn organic farming techniques.

It is his opinion that people will be able to reduce the expense of their medications if they eat better food, which they can grow locally without the use of expensive chemical fertilizers. In addition, he sends trainers to each province of Rwanda to work through the local health agencies to promote organic farming practices. Since its inception, the Center has trained over a thousand people all over the country.

Richard’s farm consists of two small plots of land, gently sloping down a verdant hillside. At the upper end, he has built a modern classroom building and two dormitories for men and women. We were most impressed, however, with the number of small demonstration/experimental earthen mounds that he developed, each of which is devoted to growing a particular fruit or vegetable. We saw mounds that were growing cabbages, leeks, strawberries, spinach, kale, peppers and so much more. There were also small areas devoted to growing corn and bananas.

At the lower end of the property, Richard has a demonstration project for training people how to use cow manure and other animal products to produce compost, which he uses to amend the clay soil that is so prevalent here in this part of Rwanda. It is this composed material that makes the mounds so productive. He derives the compost from cow manure (hence the title of my post).

We learned so much from Richard about his method of organic farming, and at the same time we were pleased to be able to help him better understand the process we use in the States (using earthworms to create compost). He appeared to be very interested and excited about the possibility of adding this practice to his already considerable the curriculum. We also mentioned the nascent practice in the US of developing farming co-ops to connect growers and buyers, so that the farmer has a reliable source of capital and owners/consumers have a reliable source of organic produce. All in all, this was a very valuable and mutually beneficial experience.

Our second report comes from Kelsey Waxman, who attended a yoga group (above) run by WE-ACTz at the Remera center while the rest of the group went to the Nyamata genocide site. She was joined by two other JRC members: her mother (and inspired trip organizer) Elaine along with Beth Lange.

Here’s an excerpt from Kelsey’s travel journal:

We were then dropped off a Remera again: me, Mom and Beth for the afternoon yoga class. We went out on the cement porch with ten women, all chatting giddily in Kinyarwanda. They all had on African print fabric yoga pants and there was much disputation about when to start.

Two women led the class through a basic primary Ashtanga set, and the women laughed, chatted and helped each other through the entire thing. It was apparent that some of them had done this before. Some were more flexible than anyone I’d ever practiced with.

After quite a few laughs, they asked us to teach them some poses. My mom, being an experienced yogi, led them through some crazy poses like pigeon, headstand and the boat. The faces of agony and hilarity some of the women made during the boat pose were so funny and the faces of the other women made those imitating them sent us all into giggle fits. More and more people came around and either watched or participated, laughing along with us,

It was the end of the class, during Shavasna, corpse pose. You’re supposed to be completely quiet…like a corpse, but everyone chatted like little girls through the entire ten minutes. It was so funny, everyone pouring through the doors, sharing laughs and yoga mats. After, Beth pulled out the camera and we took many, many pictures with our new yogi friends.

Kaddish at Nyamata

In my previous post I mentioned an emotional visit to Kigali’s public hospital – that actually doesn’t even begin to do justice to the intensity of our experience. Mardge Cohen arranged the visit for us, to give us a better sense of the Rwandan health care system. Until this visit, we had only seen privately funded clinics, not actual hospitals used by large numbers of Rwandans.

A local doctor gave us a tour of different wards, including the pediatric care unit. For privileged Westerners socialized who take a certain standard of medical care for granted, it was a sobering experience to say the least: beds crowded together, patients and family members thrown together in a jumble in decrepit room after room. Most of us like to talk about the ways our own American medical system is broken, but the brokenness of public health system in Rwanda is truly difficult to fathom. The public hospital doesn’t supply patients with food or bedding; these items must be provided by individual families. We also learned that when hospital stays are completed, patients are expected to pay in full. Unbelievably, those who cannot pay must stay in the hospital until they are able to pay their hospital bills.

Private medical insurance is available in Rwanda, but it is obviously beyond the means of most Rwandans. There is also a national system known as “Mutuelle,” which is less expensive, but the social safety net system here overall is close to non-existent. It’s just so overwhelming to see the sheer number of people holding on for dear life or simply falling through the cracks.

On Friday our group split up into groups. One visited a WE-ACTx supported maternity clinic in rural Nyacyonga and the rest of us accompanied WE-ACTx social workers on their home visits to families. Our group visited the home of Beatrice and her 14 year old daughter, Leontine, both of whom are infected with HIV. We visited with them for close to two hours, sharing our stories and learning as much as we were able about one another.

Beatrice was infected by her husband, who later died – and she passed the HIV on to Leontine when she was pregnant. With disarming frankness, Beatrice told about how angry and depressed Leontine became when she first learned how she contracted her illness. She was near suicidal when they discovered the children’s program at WE-ACTx. Today Beatrice is a happy and confident teenager and a leader in the program. (We’ll get to see her perform with the children’s dance troupe this Sunday).

Our final visit of the day was an excursion to Nyamata – a rural village which is home to an infamous genocide site. In April 1994, a mass of Tutsis attempted to find sanctuary inside the church. 2,000 were eventually slaughtered inside and 10,000 were killed in the surrounding area.

The inside of the church remains much as it was during the actual genocide – the sanctuary itself is filled with the bloodied and torn clothing of the victims. The basement of the church and an underground crypt outside essentially serve as mass graves, filled with row upon row of human skulls and bones.

Incongruously enough, as we emerged from the crypt, the air was filled with the joyous sounds of Afro-Pop filling the air. A local church was celebrating a “Festival of Hope” just down the road. For many of us, the paradox of the moment was just right: in a sense we were experiencing both the horror of recent Rwandan history as well as the hope of the Rwandan present.

Even so, the visit shook our group to the core. Before leaving for Kigali, we gathered together for Kaddish (above). During the drive back, the sun set over the green hilly countryside. Rwanda is just such a beautiful country in so many ways. Looking out at this gorgeous, tranquil landscape, it is impossible to comprehend the sheer hell that was unleashed just fourteen short years ago.

PS: Our visit to the Kigali Genocide Museum was featured on the Rwandan news yesterday…

A Legacy of Pain and Hope

Day 2 in Rwanda:

Our first two destinations were two local community associations that are supported by WE-ACTx. Icyuzuzo is an association of Rwandan widows located in the Nyamirambo district. Icyuzuzo (Kinyarwanda for “compliment” or “complete”) serves 5000 clients in the surrounding districts, sponsoring clincs, vocational training, HIV prevention education, palliative care and capacity building projects.

Upon our arrival, the doctors/nurses in our group (above, with Mardge Cohen, third from the right, Executive Director Eugene Twagirimana, right) and President Constance Kubwimana , sixth from the right). separated off to help provide care in the clinics while the children worked sorting medications. The rest of us met with Eugene and Constance (with me below) to learn more about their work with Icyuzuzo.

Among other things, we were sobered to learn about the growing income disparity in Rwanda. While the country outwardly appears to be economically rebounding since the 1994 genocide (Kigali is a clean, well-run and orderly city, and new construction abounds) most of the new growth comes from foreign investors – and very little of it is tricking down to the local population. NGOs such as Icyuzuzo are for the most part the only safety net available to the Rwandan poor. As is the case throughout much of the developing world, these grassroots institutions are stretched beyond the limit.

Our next stop was a capacity-building center in the Ramera neighborhood, to an association that produces beautiful fabric crafts. In addition to learning about the various services provided by the center, we had the opportunity to demonstrate a new and potentially exciting income-generation project. Before leaving Evanston, we purchased and packed thirty EarthBoxes – a relatively new growing process developed by commercial farmers, designed to grow a large number of crops in a relatively small space. (It was quite an adventure getting huge quantities of soil, plastic boxes and organic fertilizer through security at O’Hare!)

We brought and demonstrated the EarthBoxes at the behest of WE-ACTx; our visit was attended by several representatives from other local organizations and at least one government official (that’s JRC member Rich Katz explaing the process below). This project has real potential for local capacity building, particularly for WE-ACTx clients who do not own land. However there are clearly many variables and much will depend on the Rwandan’s ability to find local soil and substrate to replicate the process on an ongoing basis.

During this visit I had an interesting conversation with the director of counseling for WE-ACTx, who asked me how Jews continue live with the legacy of of genocide. I shared with her what studies have taught the Jewish communtity about second/third generation children of survivors and I shared a bit about the challenges of living with the darker aspects of our history. We talked about the ways the Rwandan experience is both similar and markedly different than the Jewish one. Obviously the wounds here are very fresh; and unlike the Jews of Europe, the goverment is committed to bringing all aspects of Rwandan society back together in one extremely small country.

Whether this will succeed over the long term or not is an open question. One woman who joined our conversation expressed her doubts – saying that while the political reconciliation is important, much of the underlying pain and hatred continues to simmer under the surface. How many generations does it take for this kind of pain to dissipate in a community? The Jewish people have been learning this for some time – Rwanda is now struggling with the tragic question as well.

Our final visit was a heartbreaking tour of Kigali’s Public Hospital. More on this in my next post…

Recovery and Commemoration

Our JRC delegation has just finished our first full day in Kigali and it has been a full one.

We spent the morning at the WE-ACTx clinic, one of three in the country. Among other things, we learned about the important work this NGO is doing in responding to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Rwanda. WE-ACTx is the model of a community based organization, working with 27 local orgs to help women and children with AIDS treatment, care and education. WE-ACTx was founded in 2004, ten years after the genocide, when Rwandan women suffering from AIDS learned that the ones who intentionally raped and infected them were receiving ARV treatment while waiting for trials at International Tribunals. The success of WE-ACTx is due in large part to the bravery of local communities determined to work together in the wake of this unspeakable tragedy.

We also visited the Rwandan national Genocide Memorial and Museum – an almost literally breathtaking experience for our group. Although many of us are veterans of Holocaust musuems, nothing could have prepared us for the power of this place.

Outside the museum is a memorial that is a literal mass grave – the resting place for 258,000 bodies. We gathered there, learned about the significance of thes site, then said Kaddish together. (That’s JRC member Tina Escobar above, leaving a stone on the memorial). I was also interviewed on Rwandan TV, where I had the opportunity to explain why, as Jews, it was so important to us to pay homage at this particular site.

The musuem itself is unique largely for the freshness of the wounds it seeks to commemorate. Looking at the exhibits it was difficult to fathom the pain of this society, still struggling to recover from a pain so recently inflicted. Rwanda is also somewhat unprecedented in its determination to rebuild a national community in which perpetrator and victim live side by side. I cannot begin to understand how such a thing could be possible – but I believe at the heart of this determination is a sacred lesson for the entire world.

To be continued…

JRC in Africa

Tomorrow I’ll be traveling, along with 25 other JRC members, on our congregation’s second service trip to Africa. I am immensely proud of JRC for organizing this effort, which reflects our deep and growing commitment to global service work in general and to addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic in particular.

From July 7- 15 we will be in Rwanda hosted by WE-ACTx, an important Kigali-based NGO that seeks to increase women’s and children’s access to HIV testing, care, treatment, education and care at the grassroots level. In particular, WE-ACTx has done inspirational work in helping survivors of genocidal rape and violence, focusing its efforts on empowering HIV-postive women and girls to take charge of their lives and become leaders in the fight against AIDS.

Our trip was inspired in large part through our congregation’s relationship with Dr. Mardge Cohen (above), a woman’s care specialist who worked for many years at the Cook County Hospital in Chicago and is one of the primary founders of WE-ACTx. Mardge is a longtime friend of JRC and was pivotal in helping us make the connection to Rwandan efforts to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic. We have learned a great deal from Mardge over the years and are thrilled that we will now have the opportunity to bear witness to her work. (Here’s a great, extensive Chicago Tribune article about Mardge and her efforts in Rwanda).

In addition to volunteering at the clinic in a variety of capacities, we will observe the work being done in Rwanda to heal from the very deep wounds of the 1994 genocide and learn about the ways in which Rwandan society continues to work to overcome tribal differences to create a viable future for their people.

From July 15-23, we will be in Uganda, visiting old friends we made from JRC’s last service trip in 2005. Our home base will be the town of Mbale and we will be volunteering once again with the Federation for the Development of Needy Communities – an NGO devoted to the sustainable development of communities in and around the rural area of Natandome. We will also visit the Mirembe Kowamera Jewish/Muslim/Christian Fair Trade Coffee Co-op with which JRC has partnered for many years. (We are hoping to be able to participate ourselves in the upcoming coffee harvest). Our itinerary will also include a Shabbat visit to the Abayudayah Ugandan Jewish community, with whom we also had the pleasure of visiting three years ago.

Among the many things that will make this trip so special is the significant participation of JRC’s young people (including my son Jonah). I am especially happy that they will have dedicated time to spend with young Rwandans (focusing, inevitably enough, on computer skills). All in all, it promises to be a memorable and powerful July. I plan to blog about our experiences as they occur so please plan to drop in and visit regularly over the next few weeks…

On Tutsis, Jews and Palestinians

I’m currently reading “A Thousand Hills” by historian Stephen Kinzer – a recently published bio of Rwandan president Paul Kagame. It’s an incredibly absorbing read, offering a history of the country and region as well as a portrait of a remarkable African leader who is spearheading Rwanda’s post-genocide rebirth against all odds.

Early on, Kinzer offers this fascinating insight about the Tutsis who were exiled from Rwanda by Belgian-backed Hutus in the late 1950s:

These Tutsi exiles, scattered across Africa, Europe, North America, and even Australia, may be the only group that has been regularly compared to both Jews and Palestinians. Like Jews, they prized education and seemed to succeed wherever they landed, despite the odds against them. Like Palestinians, they were condemned to eternal exile by a regime that hated and feared them. (p. 35)

I’d love to find more on this point, which I have never encountered before.

In the meantime, I highly recommend “Hills,” as well as Kinzer’s two previous books, “Overthrow” and “All the Shah’s Men” (which has recently been reprinted with a very timely new introduction).

You Shall Not Hate Your Kinfolk…

You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but incur no guilt on their account. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against members of your people. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Eternal. — Leviticus 19:17-18

As I read these famous verses from this week’s Torah portion Parashat Kedoshim, I am still overcome by the incredible testimony of a Rwandan genocide survivor who spoke at JRC last night as part of our Yom Hashoah commemoration. Immaculee Mukantaganira, who now lives in South Bend, IN, lost more than 60 members of her family during the 1994 genocide: her husband, two of her children, her parents, as well as sisters, brothers, cousins, other relatives and close friends. Her words to us were alternately heartbreaking, courageous, and often beyond comprehension.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of her presentation was her description of how Rwandan society is attempting to heal from this impossibly tragic episode in their recent history. Unlike the Jewish community following the Holocaust, Rwanda is a society in which victim and perpetrator continue to live side by side – where Tutsi and Hutu continue to strive to live as neighbors. Could we even hope to imagine that the Tutsis would ever be able to reach a place where they “do not hate their kinfolk in their hearts?”

To this end, the Rwandan political establishment has outlawed Hutu/Tutsi tribal loyalties in order to promote one universal Rwandan identity. And for the past few years, “Gacaca courts” have been attempting help the country achieve a semblance of justice and reconciliation. The mixed success of these efforts demonstrates how Rwanda is, in so many ways, a nation struggling to understand the true meaning of the verses above.

For her part, Immaculee provided us with one example of a woman who is doing what she can to move past unimaginable pain and hatred to a place of healing and forgiveness. I encourage you to read this article in the South Bend Tribune to learn more about her story.

Dream – and Act – for Darfur

I wrote about Mia Farrow and “Dream for Darfur” almost a year ago – and since that time DFD has geared up big time to use the Beijing Summer Olympics to focus world attention on the ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

Here’s DFD’s own description of their mission:

The 2008 Olympics are fast approaching.  Between now and August there is precious little time to use the leverage of the Beijing Games to press China to bring security to Darfur.

China holds unrivaled influence with the genocidal regime in Sudan.  China must immediately use that influence to persuade the Sudanese government to allow a full and robust civilian protection force into Darfur. 

If China does not act, in its role as Olympic host and world leader, Beijing will go down in history as the host of the “Genocide Olympics”: China will be sponsoring the Olympic Games at home and the genocide in Darfur – in which it is complicit – abroad.

DFD has a formidable laundry list of actions they’ve organized including an alternative torch relay and the promotion of a pledge for folks to engage in a mass “turn-off” of commercials by the Olympic sponsors when the games are televised (during which DFD will be offer alternative programming including Farrow’s interviews with Darfurian refugees). Olympic sponsors, by the way, include such big guns as Adidas, Anheuser-Busch, Atos Origin, BHP Billiton, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Kodak, Lenovo, Manulife, McDonald’s, Microsoft, Panasonic, Samsung, Staples, Swatch, UPS, Visa and Volkswagen. (A full list of Olympic sponsors can be found here.)

Click above for a great video about their efforts. Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine also featured an excellent piece on DFD – click here to read.