28 March 2007

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.


At 12:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the days of Jews needing to "couch" the truth in "universal" tones has come to an end--if you have confidence in your beliefs then you don't need to pander to those who willfully seek to destroy the Jewish nation.

At 12:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you realize Neuer's speech was in response to anti-Israel condemnations from the U.N?

At 1:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The debate was over UN expert John Dugard accusing Israel of seeking Jewish racial domination, the "Judaization" of Jerusalem, and comparing Israel to Apartheid. Now that's not very universal, is it?

At 1:04 PM, Anonymous Tammy said...

I wouldn't worry too much about trying to be ultra diplomatic with this clown council. Sucking up will not achieve anything. Let truth ring without sugarcoating.

At 4:23 PM, Anonymous Suri said...

No speech will change the minds and hearts of the people on the Council- but those who view the speech and are unsure of their positions- those are the people who can be enlightened and influenced.

At 2:51 PM, Blogger Thermblog said...

The link below is a repeat of the speech but includes comments that the UN HRC found acceptable. It indicates clearly that politeness has been failing and Hillel Neuer's approach should be tested.

I think it's time to stop being reasonable and polite. The anti-Israel forces now have the logic of a witch-burning crowd.

The Speeches NOT Banned at UN Human Rights Council

At 6:03 PM, Blogger Joel said...

I appreciate the comments above, and I find it hard to disagree with them. Let me reiterate that I was deeply impressed by Neuer's speech, and I am familiar with the context in which it was delivered. But I think something more is needed.

It is not enough, in my view, to point out the hypocrisy of the UN or the HRC. South African foreign minister Eric Louw used to do the same at the UN. He was eventually censured (and Israel joined the vote to censure him).

I believe that Israel's cause has to be tied to the greater cause of human rights and peacemaking in order to prevail. That doesn't mean "sucking up," and it doesn't mean backing off from a hard-hitting approach that embarrasses Israel's critics.

To his credit, Neuer addresses the issue of Palestinian rights and talks about how the HRC is ignoring other human rights issues. I think he could have carried this line further by connecting the case for Israel with the case for human rights.

Perhaps a paragraph such as the following:

"The HRC could help stop this conflict by embracing the human rights of both sides equally. Sadly, the HRC has lost an opportunity to promote peace and the cause of human rights by unjustly singling out Israel. A new approach is needed--one that honors the ideals and potential of this new council."

I'm not sure that works. It is extremely hard to find the right balance--and I agree that an all-out attack is sometimes the best and most appropriate way. I do think, however, that it is important to provide a positive vision of a way forward--even at the UN.

At 7:33 PM, Blogger Joel said...

I should add, giving credit where it is due, that Neuer's speech has been viewed nearly 100,000 times after 3 days on YouTube. By slamming the HRC, he built a far wider audience.

That, in itself, might provide the answer to my argument.

At 9:29 PM, Blogger Thermblog said...

Joel, your added paragraph makes sense. I assume you'll tell Hillel; you do after all, have an "in".

At 6:10 AM, Anonymous theo s said...

the Chairman's response to Neuer's speech only drives home the point that Neuer was spot on with his critique and the Chairman could not face the fact that his organisation fails in its primary task: to apply human right values in a universal manner. Too much of a "narcissistic injury" when the truth is spoken? It is the HRC that lacks universal empathy and not Neuer.


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