The Responsibility to Protect

Joseph T. Colonel (EE ‘15)

On Sunday, September 29 the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU hosted a talk in the Great Hall to coincide with the 68th General Assembly of the UN.  At the General Assembly, 154 states in attendance mentioned the events that transpired in Syria this past August, with several states urging the need for accountability for the use of chemical weapons[1].  Accordingly, the talk in the Great Hall focused on an easily posed yet highly contentious question: Do the strong have an obligation to protect the weak?

The full title of the talk points to the specifics of the discussion: “A Conversation with Paul Kagame and Elie Wiesel – Genocide: Do the strong have an obligation to protect the weak?”  Sheldon Adelson gave opening remarks, touching upon the importance of remembering those who died in the Holocaust during World War II, the events of the Rwandan genocide, and his ongoing work with Birthright Israel.  Upon concluding, Adelson introduced the moderator of the night’s discussion Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.

Rabbi Shmuley, “America’s Rabbi” according to his website (thisworld.us), began the talk by declaring that “combating genocide is the foremost humanitarian obligation of our time” regardless of one’s religious beliefs. Rabbi Shmuley then introduced Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel, who detailed his experiences as a prisoner of Auschwitz in his book Night, and Paul Kagame, the current president of Rwanda who led the military force that stopped the 1993 genocide in Rwanda.

The bombastic and animated Rabbi Shmuley served as a foil to the soft spoken Elie Wiesel and precise President Kagame, often delivering his questions (and tangents to those questions) in a manner evocative of President Obama’s 2008 campaign rhetoric.  While Rabbi Shmuley made no claims of impartiality (in fact he stated outright that he would not act as an unbiased moderator), remarks made suggesting that “Rwandans are the Jews of Africa” and “How can I not hate evil?” felt like an unnecessary deviation from the topic of discussion and seemed like an attempt to elicit quotes from Wiesel and Kagame to present to the UN General Assembly.

Nevertheless, Wiesel’s subdued charm and authenticity combined with Kagame’s measured and concise responses proved to level Rabbi Shmuley’s dynamism and often provided beautiful insights to the human condition and how to approach situations like those that occurred in Syria.  For example Kagame, in response to the question of what action should be taken in Syria said, “The situation is very complex.  Poison gas should not be used against anyone. But we need to deal with the world that we live in. […] There has to be accountability, but this must be clarified and based on facts.”  Responding later in the talk to a question concerning the need to bear witness to history, Wiesel suggested that the existence of Holocaust deniers stems not from malice but rather from the fact that “it is easier to believe that it didn’t happen; the event was so uniquely unique […]”

Rabbi Shmuley’s last question of the night, directed at Wiesel, asked why should we not hate evil. Wiesel responded “ I don’t believe in hatred. Hatred is too easy. […] Hatred has a dynamic. Once someone starts hating, they do not stop. […] Once you say hatred is not the answer, then, what is the answer? And then I say, ok, let’s go and study.”

The evening concluded with closing remarks from Michael Steinhardt, founder of Birthright Israel, and a brief celebration of Wiesel’s 85th birthday.

[1] http://www.globalr2p.org/media/files/2013-ga-quotes-summary-1.pdf (shortened: goo.gl/jNy276 )

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