At New York’s Cooper Union, where Abraham Lincoln launched his presidential campaign, I witnessed pro-Israel Republican billionaire Sheldon Adelson laud the “military genius” of Rwandan strongman Paul Kagame while a crowd consisting mostly of Jewish Americans cheered. Organized by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the popular TV personality and failed New Jersey congressional candidate whose hapless campaign was bankrolled by Adelson, and hosted by NYU’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, the bizarre event centered a discussion of the “strong protecting the weak” from genocide.
The evening’s guest of honor was Elie Wiesel, the 85-year-old Nobel prize winning author who Boteach compared to Nelson Mandela and hailed as “the prince of the Jewish people.” Wiesel joined Adelson in celebrating Kagame, lending his reputation as the world’s most famous Holocaust survivor to a man accused of propelling the worst genocide since World War Two and described by leading Rwanda expert Philip Reyntjens as “probably the worst war criminal in office today.”
When Wiesel urged the audience to speak up against injustice, a young human rights activist named Rob Conrad rose from the crowd, attempting to interject facts about Kagame’s role in supporting the M23 rebel militia that has fueled the genocide in the Congo, relying on child soldiers in a conflict that has left millions dead. Wiesel watched in silence as Kagame’s personal security detail ripped the protester from his seat, covered his mouth and manhandled him all the way to the exit door. The Congolese human rights activist Kambale Musavuli told me he was removed from the event by Rwandan security before it even began, raising questions about whether NYU’s Bronfman Center shared its list of attendees with Kagame’s personal detail.
After Boteach delivered a lengthy treatise on shared Israeli-Rwandan values, highlighting countless UN condemnations of both nations’ human rights violations as a positive trait, me and Alex Kane of Mondoweiss attempted to question him and his fellow panelists (no questions were allowed from the crowd during the event). Besides being the man Boteach described as “the very conscience of the six million martyred in the Holocaust,” Wiesel has been the chairman of Elad, a pro-settler organization that is orchestrating the demolition of Palestinian homes in occupied East Jerusalem to build a biblical theme park. And Adelson was perhaps the most generous patron of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career. We wanted to know what could be done to protect Palestinians from the individuals and ventures they supported. Naturally, they did not want to answer, though Adelson volunteered a dark fantasy to Kane: “You should have your mouth duct taped!”