29 March 2007 – More in anger than sorrow
Hillel Neuer, executive director of United Nations Watch, a Geneva-based organization that acts against anti-Israel bias at the UN, recently let rip in a speech at the UN Human Rights Council, pointing out that the organization has spent little energy dealing with human rights and a great deal of energy attacking Israel:
Neuer’s speech was well-written and well-delivered, and the conditions in which he gave it must have been trying. Certainly it was unfair of the chair to suggest that Neuer’ statement was “inadmissible.” But I have to wonder whether he struck the right tone. What did he aim to achieve? Did he go there to make a statement, and to (rightfully) embarrass the Council? Or did he hope to win support for his position?
When I was working as an opposition speechwriter in the South African Parliament, we called this type of speech a “Fight Back” speech—not just because our party had once run a campaign with that slogan, but because of the defensive posture it strikes. We were often tempted to write “Fight Back” speeches, but we tried to avoid them: they may rally your existing voters, they don’t win new ones.
I thought of other speeches given in similar settings. There was Chaim Herzog’s response to the “Zionism is Racism” resolution in 1975, which also invoked the Holocaust in the opening and sounded a defiant tone throughout. But Israel is not in the same position today. And Neuer represents an NGO, not an member state; referring to “the dictators who run this council” may have been a bit too much.
I was deeply impressed by then-Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior’s speech to the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001. There, the circumstances were much more difficult. Israel really was in danger of being totally isolated by the international community. It was an appropriate time and place for defiance. Yet the genius of the speech was its sober tone and universal appeal.
Melchior’s statement (which was delivered in his absence) began by referring to what all human beings had in common, and only later moved on to specifically Jewish and Israeli concerns. It left the “sting” in the “tail” of the speech—for only in the last few lines, having built up considerable rhetorical momentum, did he unleash his righteous condemnation of the conference and what it had wrought.
The speech worked because it did not simply condemn: it expressed real empathy for the goals of the conference, and hinted at ways in which those goals could be achieved. Neuer could perhaps have improved his speech if he had couched it in more universal terms and suggested ways in which the Council could have a positive influence on the Middle East. More in sorrow than in anger, we used to say in Parliament.