McGill’s Faculty of Arts’ June 5 convocation was interrupted by protesters demonstrating against Hillel Neuer, the keynote speaker, who also received an Honorary Doctorate of Law at the ceremony. Neuer is a graduate of McGill’s Faculty of Law and the executive director of United Nations (UN) Watch, a NGO which monitors the performance of the UN according to its Charter. However, because of his organization’s alleged biases toward Israel, protesters halted Neuer a minute into his speech.
“During Neuer’s speech, the activists rose and came [forward], chanting ‘Stop justifying Israeli murder,’” Finn McCleary, a U1 Arts student who attended the ceremony, said.
The protesters were led by political activist and lawyer Dimitri Lascaris, along with fellow activists Paul Tetrault and Yves Engler.
“[Neuer has used UN Watch] to try to delegitimize and even criminalize individuals and organizations working for equal rights for Israeli Jews and Palestinians,” Lascaris wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune.
Thomas Woodley, president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), helped Lascaris design pamphlets for the protest and summarized grievances against Neuer on his organization’s website. CJPME claimed that UN Watch is partly funded by right-wing, pro-Israel, Islamophobic platforms such as Birthright Israel, Central Fund of Israel, and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. Additionally, CJPME noted that Neuer has criticised intellectuals for sharing their opinions on the crisis in the Middle East, including Professor Michael Lynk of the University of Toronto, whom Neuer condemned for being an anti-Israel advocate.
Lascaris disagrees with Neuer’s claim that the UN itself is biased against Israel.
“Through all the years that Israel has dispossessed Palestinians and subjected them to a range of other human rights abuses, including torture and collective punishment, the United Nations has done nothing but issue condemnations,” Lascaris wrote. “[The UN] has not imposed a single sanction on Israel even as it has imposed sanctions on other human rights abusers.”
Overall, Lascaris believes that Neuer fails to properly contextualize Israel’s actions in the Middle East.
“His motivation […] is to paint Israel as the victim when in fact it is the obvious aggressor,” Lascaris wrote. “For [this reason], McGill’s decision to grant Neuer an honorary doctorate is beyond the pale.”
A pro-Palestinian rights student group, the McGill Students in Solidarity of Palestinian Humans Rights (SPHR McGill), also expressed discontent with Neuer’s appointment as a keynote speaker.
“Hillel Neuer has a long history of spreading Islamophobia and skewed information,” SPHR McGill wrote in an email to the Tribune. “As McGill University claims to combat these forces, awarding an honorary degree to Neuer is deeply inappropriate and insulting to students who are affected by these issues.”
Neuer was unsurprised by the interruption, dismissing Lascaris’ legitimacy as a political activist.
“It makes sense that Dimitri Lascaris, an overt Western apologist for the fascist murderers who brutalize the people of Syria, Venezuela, and Gaza [and] someone who was expelled by the Green Party for his extremist activities, would likewise try to silence me,” Neuer wrote in an email to the Tribune.
Neuer feels that his experience working with the UN had equipped him to handle such an outburst.
“At the UN I’m interrupted all the time. Our work for human rights victims regularly has dictatorships calling to silence us,” Neuer wrote. “I’ve been interrupted countless times by [delegates from] Syria, North Korea, Libya, Cuba, China, Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela, Egypt, and other autocracies.”
Neuer sees these heated interactions as a mark of success, rather than of failure.
“In the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who received an honorary degree from McGill seven decades before me, ‘Judge me by the enemies I have made,’” Neuer wrote.
Meanwhile, Christopher Buddle, Dean of Students and platform party member at the ceremony, was primarily concerned with the students’ experience during the demonstration, seeking to avoid an escalation.
“After allowing the demonstrators sufficient time to make their views known, they were asked, out of respect for those there to celebrate the wonderful achievements of our graduates, to refrain from further interruptions and were ushered peacefully out of the tent,” Buddle wrote in an email to the Tribune.