Neumann is "the son of German Jewish refugees", one of them the eminent political sociologist of Nazism, Franz Leopold Neumann. He has written that "Like my parents, I have always been an atheist." He is a US citizen and resident of Canada. Neumann graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English and History from Columbia University in 1968, and in 1975 was awarded his Ph.D. in philosophy by the University of Toronto.
Neumann has taught at Trent University since 1975. He became a full professor in 2003. His interests at Trent University include ethics, political philosophy, formal logic, philosophy of logic, and metaphysics. He has published papers on utilitarianism and rationality. He is a faculty member of the university's Centre for the Study of Global Power and Politics.
Neumann is the author of What's Left? Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche (1988) and The Rule of Law: Politicizing Ethics (2002). He is a frequent contributor to the CounterPunch newsletter edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, and contributed to their 2003 edited collection The Politics of Anti-Semitism. In 2005 he published The Case Against Israel, a response to Alan Dershowitz's The Case for Israel.
Neumann has written on antisemitism and the Israel-Palestine conflict in several essays published by the CounterPunch website/newsletter.
Neumann warns against the dangers of abusing the charge of antisemitism to deflect any criticism of Israeli government policies. Strategies that attempt to conflate a political and humanistic critique of Israel's policies towards the Palestinian people with the vice of antisemitic prejudice devalue a potent term that should be reserved for those who show real animosity against Jews, as a group and as individuals, wherever they live:
Inflating the meaning of 'antisemitism' to include anything politically damaging to Israel is a double-edged sword. It may be handy for smiting your enemies, but the problem is that definitional inflation, like any inflation, cheapens the currency. The more things get to count as antisemitic, the less awful antisemitism is going to sound. This happens because, while no one can stop you from inflating definitions, you still don't control the facts. In particular, no definition of 'antisemitism' is going to eradicate the substantially pro-Palestinian version of the facts which I espouse, as do most people in Europe, a great many Israelis, and a growing number of North Americans.
In the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Neumann holds that it is dangerous to label as antisemitic the conclusion that "Jews, generally, had some responsibility for war crimes and human rights violations." He writes:
The best way to reserve anti-Semitism as a term of condemnation is to define it as hatred of Jews, not for what they do but for what they are. It is to hate them just because they belong to a certain ethnic group. Foxman is right to suggest that you can be an anti-Semite without expressing any racist sentiments: Many anti-Semites confine themselves to expounding false claims about Jewish control. But you can also, without harboring anti-Semitic hate, criticize Israel and even the Jewish community for its failures.'
In his essay 'What is antisemitism?' he argues that, given the earlier distinction he made, one should treat lightly accusations of antisemitism in the specific context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
'We should almost never take antisemitism seriously, and maybe we should have some fun with it. I think it is particularly unimportant to the Israel-Palestine conflict, except perhaps as a diversion from the real issues."
He then states that Israel's goal is the extinction of the Palestinian people, adding:
'True, Israel has enough PR-savvy to eliminate them with an American rather than a Hitlerian level of violence. This is a kinder, gentler genocide that portrays its perpetrators as victims.'
Thus Neumann discounts Arab antisemitism as a significant issue in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict:
"Undoubtedly there is genuine antisemitism in the Arab world: the distribution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the myths about stealing the blood of gentile babies. This is utterly inexcusable. So was your failure to answer Aunt Bee's last letter.'
'In short, the real scandal today is not antisemitism but the importance it is given. Israel has committed war crimes. It has implicated Jews generally in these crimes, and Jews generally have hastened to implicate themselves. This has provoked hatred against Jews. Why not? Some of this hatred is racist, some isn't, but who cares?"
Neumann takes the position, not substantially different from that of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, that support of Israel in the Israel-Palestinian conflict is against US interests. He also considers it a primary cause of violence against the US:
'Just imagine if the US stopped backing Israel and gave even moderate support to the Palestinians. Suddenly Islam and America would be on the same side. The war on terror would become a cakewalk. The credibility of American democracy would skyrocket in the Middle East.'
‘America does not at all want what Israel wants, and it never did. America never had the slightest desire to kill Palestinians, take their land and homes, drive them to despair. America tolerated these outrages as a mob boss might tolerated the sadistic, deviant sexual tastes of an underling. But, also like the mob boss, it did not share these tastes.’
Neumann favors an eventual one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, preceded for practical reasons by a two-state solution. In 2011, however, Neumann said that he no longer found the one-state option viable at all; while he had still thought it was the best idea for the future of Palestine, he bluntly said that there would never be circumstances where it would either be accepted by Israel or forced into reality by Palestinians and their allies.
Neumann's position has been attacked both by spokesmen for Jewish communities and by antisemites, from diametrically opposed positions.
Responding in part to some of these essays, the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) wrote a letter of complaint to the president of Trent University.
Equally, antisemites have also attacked Neumann's classical and nuanced stance precisely because of the distinction he has made between a political critique of Israel and hostility to Jews per se on racist grounds. According to this extremist view, there is no such distinction to be made:
‘Neumann's approach is . . . a double-edged sword since it reinforces the notion that Israel/Zionism -- not Jews/Judaism -- is the source of the problems facing the Mid-East.’
Jewish Tribal Review (JTR) was a website which claims to "document Jewish and Zionist influence on popular culture, economics and politics" (it is now a defunct listing). JTR became interested in Michael Neumann's writing, and in late 2002 started an email dialogue with him. JTR asked for Neumann's participation in their activities, but Neumann, who considers JTR antisemitic, refused to participate, explaining his position as follows:
"My sole concern is indeed to help the Palestinians, and I try to play for keeps. I am not interested in the truth, or justice, or understanding, or anything else, except so far as it serves that purpose. This means, among other things, that if talking about Jewish power doesn't fit my strategy, I won't talk about it."
Subsequently JTR created a page publishing their alleged email exchange  without Neumann's permission. This email got widespread attention in August 2003 when the National Post published one of Neumann's most passionate passages about Jews and Israel. In particular, Neumann was quoted as writing:
"If an effective strategy means that some truths about the Jews don't come to light, I don't care. If an effective strategy [of helping the Palestinians] means encouraging reasonable anti-Semitism, or reasonable hostility to Jews, I also don't care. If it means encouraging vicious, racist anti-Semitism, or the destruction of the state of Israel, I still don't care."
In the ensuing controversy, Neumann clarified exactly what he intended by this statement:
'I will not self-censor my writings because they may be misused by antisemites, and it is only in this very particular and limited sense that I 'don't care' about encouraging antisemitism. Antisemites misuse all sorts of materials, including the statements of committed Zionists and of Mahatma Gandhi. It would be futile and impossible for me to tailor my writings to avoid such misuse.'
Nonetheless, the publication prompted complaints from the Canadian Jewish Congress. In September, 2003, Neumann sent a letter of regret to the CJC. According to the Peterborough Examiner, "Congress chairman Ed Morgan, who accepted the letter of regret from Neumann, told The Examiner he wants the letter to close the matter." On his Israel-Palestine page , Neumann includes a detailed "reply to the Canadian Jewish Congress concerning objections to material which appeared on the Jewish Tribal Review web site".
In January 2009, Neumann expressed support for a proposed resolution by Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) to ban Israeli professors from working in Ontario Universities. Neumann stated that "If people believe these are extreme circumstances and it will do some good, then I think it's reasonable and perhaps justified." He argued that a boycott is not antisemitic, stating that "It targets Israeli, not Jewish, professors." He further stated that "People may always have bad motives underlying good motives. And it's not absolutely impossible that some of these people have anti-Semitic feelings deep down, but do I think that plays a large part? No, I certainly do not."
In February 2009, Neumann and his brother Osha Neumann asked the Israeli president to remove their grandmother’s name from the Yad Vashem because of the 2008-2009 Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip. Neumann wrote that:
I do not believe that the Jewish people, in whose name you [i.e the Israeli president] have committed so many crimes with such outrageous complacency, can ever rid itself of the shame you have brought upon us. Nazi propaganda, for all its calumnies, never disgraced and corrupted the Jews; you have succeeded in this...you blacken our names not only by your acts, but by the lies, the coy evasions, the smirking arrogance and the infantile self-righteousness with which you embroider our history... You will never pay for your crimes and you will continue to preen yourself, to bask in your illusions of moral ascendancy.
The Yad Vashem leadership has never commented on the requests, or given any indication they have considered them, and no changes have occurred in the cite's listings as of June 2017.
In April 2009, the Canada-Palestine Parliamentary Association invited Neumann to speak at a committee session on Parliament Hill, although it declined to comment as to why he was invited. The invitation immediately became a controversy. The Conservative Party announced that none of their Members of Parliament will attend the speech. A spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Minister, Jason Kenney, stated that "Mr. Neumann has the right to air his noxious views. The corollary, of course, is that we can and must criticize them. Neumann’s farrago of cant, conspiracy theory and hate are completely repugnant to our government." Bob Rae, the Liberal Party's foreign affairs critic, stated that Neumann was entitled to his opinions but that he was “surprised and disappointed” that the parliamentary group thought Mr. Neumann had something positive to contribute.
On April 21, 2009, Neumann gave an interview in which he stated that Israel is an “illegitimate state” but also stated that Israel should not be destroyed. He quoted from his book The Case Against Israel in which he wrote that “The cure of destruction is worse than the disease of illegitimate existence. In practise, wiping out a powerful state like Israel or the U.S. would cause even more suffering than letting it survive.”