Israel at the UN: Because Words Matter

By Hillel Neuer

July 18, 2007

Hillel Neuer is executive director of UN Watch in Geneva, an organization that monitors the UN according to the principles of its charter and stands at the forefront of combating anti-semitism at the UN. Formerly with the law firm of Paul Weiss in New York, Hillel routinely testifies before the UN Human Rights Council and other UN assemblies, and he appears often on CNN, Fox News, Al Jazeera and other media outlets. He may be reached at To view his recent and powerful speech taking the UN Human Rights Council to task, click on


The new and reformed United Nations Human Rights Council last month adopted a set of working procedures that singles out Israel for permanent indictment—as a fixed agenda item at all future sessions. The decision institutionalizes the council’s record of the past year, whereby all of its 11 condemnatory resolutions were directed against the Jewish state, and the other 191 countries of the world ignored. This same body has just selected the country that will head its upcoming anti-racism conference: Libya.

Our temptation is to laugh off such perverse declarations as meaningless lies. But the title of this week’s Torah portion, and of the final Book of Moses—Devarim, or words—underscores one of Judaism’s central lessons: Words matter.

And so words of falsehood spread around the world by a major United Nations body—words that demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state, as well as words attacking the very idea of democracy and human rights—require us to fight back with words of truth.


Words matter. With words God created the world. “Let there be light,” said the Lord, and there was light.


Like God, we also are given the power of words, one of the principal faculties distinguishing humans from animals. “Death and life are in the hands of the tongue,” says the Book of Proverbs. A nasty word can crush a person’s spirit. A kind word can revive it. The sages equated evil speech, or words that embarrass a person, with murder. Even worse than a sword, says the Talmud, because words can slay many people, even at great distances. Judaism recognizes the power of words, for good and for ill.


Regrettably, too often at the United Nations, it has been for ill. International forums like the Human Rights Council are abused by dictatorships and their enablers to subvert the founding aims of the United Nations to uphold human rights and put an end to the scourge of war.


The U.N. is often dismissed as nothing but a debating society or talk shop. The reality is that many U.N. bodies do far more than talk. The Security Council, to name one, takes decisions, when the international will exists, of great import, affecting war and peace, often with immediate effect.


However, it is also true that many U.N. agencies are all about words. A classic example is the Human Rights Council. This 47-nation assembly has no power to send boots on the ground, to impose sanctions, or even to fund aid projects. It holds debates and adopts declaratory resolutions.


Some, therefore, have an easy time dismissing its pronunciations as insignificant, even meaningless.


Paradoxically, it is in Israel of all places where most people couldn’t care less about U.N. statements. The attitude is often “Oom Shmoom,” a remark attributed apocryphally to founding prime minister David Ben Gurion, which is a play on the Hebrew acronym for United Nations (Umot Meuchadot) that translates to “U.N., Shmoo-en.”


As a policy guide, the attitude does have some validity. At moments when Israel—or any other nation— is struggling for its very existence, a pompous pronouncement by an international agency, one that may know or care little about the affected country will receive little attention. For example, a demand by some U.N. agency or official seeking to prevent Israel from defending itself against deadly attack, would—of necessity—be ignored. Oom, shmoom.


To the extent that the aphorism prescribes that Israel, like every country, choose life over pleasing the whims of some arbitrary body—such as the Human Rights Council, whose agenda has been entirely dominated by the Arab and Muslim states, and which slams Israel for defending itself from Hamas and Hezbollah—it is surely valid.


However, just as often, among Israelis as among America Jews, the adage and argument is misused to convince ourselves that the words of the U.N. have no effect at all. Many Americans believe that because they know that the decisions are silly, therefore they do not matter. Yet we learned the hard way how evil words spoken in a faraway religious Madrassa of Pakistan, or in a Hamburg or London mosque, can lead to the mass murder of innocents.


In some ways, the Human Rights Council has become a global Madrassa, one of international law, subverted by radical views, and educating billions with distorted ideas about human rights. The words of the world’s highest human rights body are translated into numerous languages and published around the world. They become default thinking for diplomats, journalists, and human rights activists around the world, who cite the council’s resolutions as evidence of Israel’s unique culpability.


These words matter. Those who cannot appreciate the dangers caused by this delegitimization need only look at the current epidemic of anti-Israel boycotts emanating from England. All invoke the language of international law and human rights.


Several themes in Devarim remind us of the dangers we face, of the principles to guide us, and of the work we need to do.


Moses reminds the Jewish people of their earlier sin in doubting God and speaking evil of the Land of Israel. In our own time, there are Jews—including many who are prominent in the world of international human rights—who are tempted to prove their bona fides by publicly dissociating themselves from Israel. So long as Israel is portrayed as a criminal, many will continue to choose this easy—and dishonorable—way out. We need to begin our education with Jews, though it certainly cannot end there.


Moses also teaches the basic principles of justice, of righteousness to strangers, and of treating the small and great alike. These sound a lot like the U.N.’s founding principles, which include the guarantee of equal treatment to all nations large and small. Our job is to remind the U.N., and its member nations, of these founding principles.


Words matter. Terrible lies are being told and they will have their effect. The only way to combat them is by telling the truth—more often, in more places, and more effectively than we have ever done before