Hillel Neuer is used to being dismissed and often reviled by his opponents, but the executive director of UN Watch was stunned when he was abruptly cut off while speaking at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in March.
Neuer is the Montreal native who has headed the pro-Israel UN Watch, a UN-accredited non-governmental organization based in Geneva, for the past 15 years.
While he is often interrupted by representatives of countries that are unfriendly to Israel or resentful of his criticism of their human rights records, Neuer said this was the first time the chair of the proceedings has summarily shut him down, disabling his microphone only seconds into his scheduled talk.
Neuer was trying to dramatize the absurdity of repressive regimes like North Korea, Syria and Venezuela essentially getting a free pass, while Israel is subjected to a full day of scrutiny at every one of the UNHRC’s three annual sessions at its Geneva headquarters, year after year, decade after decade.
The most recent session, which ended March 22, saw the adoption of five anti-Israel resolutions.
“I tried to simply read out the names of the countries that spoke (that day, March 18) in the debate against Israel,” he said. Neuer got a chance to list only a few of the 20 or more countries, when the Cuban delegate objected, saying that Neuer was off topic, and was soon joined by the Palestinian representative.
The chair, UNHCR Vice-President Nazhat Shameem Khan of Fiji, then silenced Neuer and moved to the next speaker.
Neuer describes being denied his right to speak as a “new low” for the UNHRC, which UN Watch monitors and calls out on its systemic unfairness.
Neuer describes himself on his Facebook page as “the man most hated at the UN.” Borrowing from former U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt, Neuer takes pride in “being judged by the enemies I’ve made” – enemies that include the leaders of some of the most oppressive and corrupt countries on earth.
For half a century, the UNHRC (and its predecessor) has had Item 7, the “Human Rights Situation in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories,” on its agenda at every one of its sessions.
As Neuer said, only Israel is singled out and the meetings invariably become platforms for harangues on its alleged transgressions. In contrast, the infractions of the other 192 UN members are dealt with under a single item.
After Neuer was shut down, U.S. President Donald Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, tweeted his support, writing that Neuer was “speaking truth, yet the Council chose censorship & denial over truth.”
The U.S. withdrew from the 47-member UNHRC last year, citing the body’s persistent anti-Israel bias, but a few democracies were present for the Item 7 debate last month: Sweden, Luxembourg and Slovenia, all of whom said nothing.
Neuer organized a rally that day to protest the “unprecedented assault” on Israel. Held outside the UN offices, it drew hundreds of people from Switzerland, France and elsewhere. He has also gathered more than 12,000 signatures on a petition titled, “Enough is Enough.”
Seven reports on Israel were tabled at the session, including one that accused the Jewish state of committing crimes against humanity in its dealing with the Gaza border protests.
Among those speaking at the rally were Israeli Ambassador to the UN Aviva Raz Shechter and U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell. Neuer said it was the first pro-Israel demonstration on this scale in Geneva since the one he spearheaded during the Durban II conference 10 years ago, which many denounced as a hatefest against Israel. UN Watch was created in 1993 for the World Jewish Congress (WJC) by Morris Abram, a U.S. diplomat, Jewish community leader and civil rights advocate who had been America’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva. (UN Watch is no longer affiliated with the WJC.)
An obituary in 2000 eulogized Abram for having “passionately sought to fulfill Israel’s quest for its rightful place in the family of nations.”
To achieve that, Abram believed, as do those who have succeeded him at UN Watch, that the UN must live up to the noble principles of its founding charter.
“We try to be a voice for reason,” said Neuer, who cautions against discounting the UN as irrelevant, despite its flaws.
Having standing at the UNHRC is especially significant because NGOs can take the floor at its meetings on almost an equal footing with national delegates, something not possible at UN headquarters in New York, he pointed out.
Neuer is also contending with an increasing number of NGOs that are not only sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but are apologists of Hamas, he said.
UN Watch bills itself as a defender of human rights in general, including the rights of Muslims. Neuer has advocated for the Uighur minority in China and Raif Badawi, the imprisoned pro-reform Saudi blogger, for example.
While the reaction he gets from the more than 50 Arab and Muslim countries, and those in league with them, does not surprise him, Neuer is disappointed by the callow response of Western democracies to the UNHRC and other UN agencies that seem obsessed with Israel.
Too often, they “go along to get along,” or worse, engage in “vote trading” to gain leverage on issues that have nothing to do with the Middle East, he said. Others are influenced by oil or the wealth of oil-producing states, or even fear of terrorism, in his opinion.
Neuer can appreciate pragmatism, but worries that some countries throw Israel under the bus due to latent, often unconscious, anti-Semitism.
He has mixed feelings about Canada’s recent behaviour at the UN. The Trudeau government is voting the same way as the Harper government, which was very sympathetic toward Israel, at least on the 20 annual resolutions, he acknowledged. The only difference is that the Liberals are “not talking about” that record, while the Conservatives were proud of it, Neuer said.
On new resolutions, Neuer is not so satisfied. When Canada abstained last June on a resolution “deploring” the IDF’s actions against Palestinian civilians, Neuer tweeted: “As (columnist Charles) Krauthammer said, ‘Mourning dead Jews is easy. And, forgive me, cheap. Want to truly honour the dead? Show solidarity with the living – Israel and its 6 million Jews.”
Neuer, who grew up in Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges district and attended the modern Orthodox Hebrew Academy, cites two university professors as mentors: Frederick Krantz, who taught him when he was an undergraduate at Concordia University’s Liberal Arts College; and Irwin Cotler, a law professor of his at McGill University.
Krantz founded the pro-Israel Canadian Institute for Jewish Research (CIJR), in response to the First Intifada 30 years ago and identified Neuer as a promising student leader. Neuer was the first editor of CIJR’s student publication, Dateline: Middle East.
Cotler – who’s now the head of the Raoul Wallenberg Human Rights Centre, which he founded after leaving federal politics – is a longtime member of UN Watch’s board, which is currently chaired by Alfred Moses, an 89-year-old prominent Washington lawyer and former ambassador to Romania during the Clinton administration.
UN Watch, which has a tiny staff, is funded by private sources, largely through the American Friends of UN Watch. More recently established is UN Watch Canada, which now has charitable status.
After graduating from McGill, Neuer practised commercial and civil rights law at a New York-based firm, and counted Oprah Winfrey among his “high-profile” clients back then. His pro bono advocacy brought him before the United Nations Human Rights Committee (not to be confused with the council) in the case of five Bulgarian nurses who launched a torture complaint against Libya.
Neuer’s self-assuredness and dynamism caught the attention of UN Watch: Neuer is a prolific writer, fluent speaker and skilful user of social media. Even his detractors can’t ignore him.
What keeps him going is the support he gets from around the world, including from outside the Jewish community. The Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv named him among the “100 Most Influential Jewish People in the World” in 2014.
Last June, McGill awarded Neuer an honorary doctorate of laws, noting that he has “testified regularly before the UNHRC on behalf of victims in Darfur, China, Russia and Venezuela, and for the cause of peace in the Middle East.”
As founder and chair of the annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, he leads a coalition of 25 NGOs that, over the past decade, have “successfully placed an international spotlight on urgent human rights situations,” according to McGill.
“UN Watch has been a lone voice for truth and for justice both at the ‘Parliament of Man’ and in the international media.”
McGill principal Suzanne Fortier said at the convocation that Neuer has “put his intelligence at the service of society to nurture positive progress.”
The citation humorously characterized him “as someone who walks softly, but carries a big microphone.”
Those accolades were protested by the pro-Palestinian camp, most vocally by Dmitri Lascaris, who fell out with the Green party when leader Elizabeth May refused to back a pro-BDS resolution.
Lascaris has called Neuer “a shameless apologist for Israeli apartheid” and accused him of using UN Watch “to delegitimize and even criminalize individuals and organizations working for equal rights for Israeli Jews and Palestinians.”
He was among three non-students who disrupted Neuer’s speech at the McGill convocation.
Neuer, however, said that Lascaris is a “notorious anti-Semite,” citing the fact that he suggested Jewish Liberal MPs Michael Levitt and Anthony Housefather harboured dual loyalties.
Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Montreal’s Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation is unreserved in his praise for Neuer, whom he has known since he was a student.
“Hillel has dedicated his substantial talents and passion to advocating for human rights, the State of Israel and Jewish communal interests, and has done so with eloquence, grace and dignity. This is someone who could have had a lucrative legal career. He deserves all the praise in the world.”
Neuer said he will keep up the fight because the UN still matters, perhaps more than ever. “We can’t pretend that it does not have influence around the world among hundreds of millions of people. It is truly the repository of international legitimacy, whether we like it or not. Even skeptics recognize it is an important forum,” he said.
Indeed, surveys have found that more than half the population of western Europe thinks the UN is credible. Thus, those who support Israel have “no choice” but to be at its table, if they want to make their case, said Neuer.
The support UN Watch enjoys, as measured by the tens of thousands who rally around the organization on social media, is “very inspiring, it’s what keeps the wind in our sails,” Neuer said.
What’s it like to be a Jew living in Europe today? Neuer cautiously said that it’s “less comfortable” than in North America. The high security around Jewish institutions tells him that.
Geneva is just 15 minutes from France and the Swiss city’s 5,000 Jews feel “under the shadow” of the tensions on the other side of the border, he said.
Otherwise, the small Geneva Jewish community is well served by its institutions and enjoys a prosperous, genteel lifestyle, Neuer said.