Comparisons of Rwanda’s agony in 1994 to the Holocaust were ubiquitous in the American press long before I ever went there. The association was immediate—front-page stuff already in April ’94—and it was everywhere, and it was not controversial. I didn’t see the need for such an analogy to convey the Rwandan ordeal: the stories of Rwandans were sufficient. By contrast, toward the end of 1995, just before my first report from Rwanda appeared, the first major book on the genocide was published in America: The Rwanda Crisis by Gerard Prunier, a Frenchman. Prunier’s book, which was immediately devoured by everyone who needed to know about Rwanda (Clinton policy makers, for sure), remains the history of the genocide you most often see cited in others’ bibliographies. And Prunier repeatedly draws analogy between the Tutsis and the Jews. He even compares the Tutsi exiles—who fled earlier massacres in the 1950s and 1960s, and formed the RPF rebel movement in the 1980s to fight for a right to return to Rwanda—to Zionists.
Prunier sees post-genocide Rwanda and Israel as having much in common, and he doesn’t say this disapprovingly, either. If French has a problem with that, he should take it to Prunier, whose work he has praised lavishly in The New York Review of Books (after all, Prunier has now turned from a Kagame sympathizer to someone who, as he admits in an endnote that French does not mention, assisted an attempt at armed insurgency against Kagame in the late 1990s).
In his book, French fantasizes about how I manipulate American policy by tugging on Holocaust heartstrings in a passage that lambastes Clinton officials for enabling Laurent Kabila’s Rwandan-backed campaign against Mobutu in 1996-97, even as reports emerged that the forces behind Kabila were massacring Hutus. French proclaims that the “most powerful factor at work” behind America’s policy is the association of the Rwandan genocide with the Holocaust—and he blames me for this. Why? Because I wrote the sentence that McConnell also quotes, where I describe how Rwanda’s ferocious post-genocide militarization, and its long-war survivalist attitude, had made it, despite its tiny size on the map, the dominant force in Central Africa. I stated this as a matter of grim fact, without a word of approval, and added in parentheses the line that sent French haywire, and that McConnell also cites as evidence of my Israel-centricity: “The analogy that’s sometimes made between Rwanda’s aggressive defense policy and that of Israel is inexact but not unfounded.”
I wasn’t making the analogy; I was noting that it was part of the discussion of Rwanda. But here’s the thing: that line appeared in a New Yorker article of mine in September 2000, three and a half years after the moment when French bogusly inserts it into his history and complains about its terrible influence—not to mention fully two years after my book was published, a book in which the word Israel appears exactly zero times.
In reviews of French’s book, both Neal Ascherson, in The New York Review of Books, and Deborah Scroggins, in The Nation, seized on my line about Israel and accepted French’s fabrication about its influence. Of course, it has been a long time since invoking Israel’s militarization was a way of winning the political sympathies of readers of The Nation or The New York Review of Books. On the contrary, French was doing to me exactly what he was falsely accusing me of doing—exploiting political passions about Israel to harness American sympathies to an unrelated African conflict.
Although French is outraged to hear dead Jews and dead Tutsis mentioned in the same breath, he has no problem likening the killing of Hutus in Congo in 1997 to the Holocaust. On a trip to Kisangani that year, he writes of staring down a road “that reportedly led to the killing fields” where Hutus were believed to be being put to death, and he declares that what lies at the end of that road is “a crude little Auschwitz.”
With overseers like French, is it too much to ask that CJR also hire some fact-checkers? There is a great deal more to object to in McConnell’s piece, but what matters for now is that by publishing it, and then proliferating it online after admitting that it is the product of journalistic malpractice, CJR has betrayed its own mission as the sort of honest broker of journalistic standards that we all need it to be.
[Update: The first two sentences of Gourevitch’s remarks were changed after a negotiation with the author over an edit for accuracy.]
Tristan McConnell responds: