Jewish identity and human rights

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Brian Klug
A few years ago, a group of about twenty people, myself included, met together in London to form The Jewish Forum for Justice and Human Rights (JFJHR). We come from various walks of life and represent a range of political views. Some of us have a background in Orthodox Judaism, others in the Reform or Liberal denominations. Some are relatively observant, others would not call themselves Jewish in the religious sense of the word at all. All of us, however, subscribe to at least one traditional Jewish principle: whenever possible, argue.
Apart from a love of argument, what brings such a variety of Jewish people together? Antony Lerman (who is now the Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research) explained our raison d’être when he opened the public launch in October 2003. Partly with an eye to domestic issues in Britain and partly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said that the forum was intended for Jews ‘who place the need for peace, reconciliation, justice and human rights above ethnic attachment and loyalty’.i
Now, this is a point that needs clarifying. It could sound as if we were saying that our Jewish identity takes second place to the universal values we share. But this would be to misunderstand where we are coming from. The universal values that unite us certainly cut across different cultures and religions. But, for most of us, it is also because we are Jews that we are committed to human rights.
Why does our Jewish identity lead us to have this commitment? There are, broadly speaking, two reasons.
Partly, it is a matter of memory. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 10 December 1948, was not created in a void. As the Preamble makes clear, the nations of the world were recoiling from the horrors of the Second World War: ‘Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind…’. Barbarous acts were committed on all sides. But this was clearly an allusion to the Nazi Holocaust. Along with others, six million Jews – two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe – were murdered by the Nazi German state. Deprived of their liberty, robbed of their belongings, pressed into forced labour, Jews lost every right that makes life worth living before losing the right to life itself. All this took place within living memory – if not our own memory then that of our parents.
War is full of horrors. But part of what was so horrifying about the Nazi Holocaust is that it went beyond warfare. The so-called Final Solution of the so-called Jewish Question was not a move in a wider military strategy, a means to the end of victory over the Allies; it was an end in itself. At the core of the ‘barbarous acts’ committed by the Nazis against the Jews was the doctrine of lebensunwertes Leben, ‘life unworthy of living’. The same is true of the murderous Nazi campaigns against the Roma and Sinti (‘Gypsies’), disabled, homosexuals and certain other groups. The aim in each case was to wipe out people who, according to Hitler, belong to groups that are so inherently contemptible that they deserve to die. The profound repugnance felt at this idea lies at the heart of the UDHR, which opens with this reflection: ‘Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world …’. The ‘inherent dignity’ of all is the antithesis of the Nazi doctrine of the ‘inherent contemptibility’ of some. Since the idea of inherent dignity is fleshed out in the language of human rights, this language has a special resonance for those groups, such as Jews, who were targeted by the Nazi doctrine.
For centuries, Jews, especially in Europe, have been subject to exclusion, oppression and persecution. So, memory – not only of the recent calamity (shoah) of the Nazi period but also of the long historical experience of being a vulnerable minority – is one reason why Jews might feel, as we in the JFJHR do, a commitment to human rights.
The other reason, in a way, digs deeper into our Jewish identity. When the language of human rights is spoken, many of us (including those who see themselves as entirely secular) hear the voices of those Hebrew prophets, rabbis and other Jewish figures, going back to antiquity. for whom Judaism means nothing if it does not mean social justice. We think, for example, of the reiterated concern for ‘the stranger, the orphan and the widow’ in Deuteronomy, and of Amos denouncing ‘those who devour the needy, annihilating the poor of the land’.ii Or we recall the passage in the Mishnah where Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says, ‘By three things is the world sustained: truth, justice and peace’,iii words that seem to anticipate the opening clause, quoted above, of the Preamble to the UDHR.
Are we being anachronistic? Are we reading a modern concept – human rights – into the literature of another era? This is a complex question, but in the final analysis the answer, I believe, is: no, we are not. Let us look briefly at both sides of the argument.
On the one hand, it could be argued that when the Torah enjoins us, for example, to care for ‘the stranger, the orphan and the widow’, it is saying that we have a responsibility for their well-being, rather than saying that they have a right to our care, let alone a human right in the modern sense. Michael Berger and Deborah Lipstadt maintain that there is ‘a fundamental theoretical difference between Jewish law and modern notions of human rights’.iv And the Jewish political theorist Milton Konvitz observes, ‘There is no word or phrase for “human rights” in the Hebrew scriptures or in other ancient Jewish texts.’v
On the other hand, as Konvitz goes on to say, the absence of the word or phrase does not necessarily mean that ‘the ideas and values’ that we associate with human rights in the modern sense did not exist; he thinks they did Perhaps the committee of Jewish scholars who translated the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible) for the Jewish Publication Society (published 1985) agreed with him. For, if you consult their widely-respected translation, you will find that Deuteronomy says the following: ‘You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless…’; ‘Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.’ Similarly, Isaiah says, ‘Uphold the rights of the orphan’.vii I assume that the translators chose the word ‘rights’ because they wanted to find a contemporary idiom that would convey ‘the idea and values’ expressed in the Hebrew text.
Besides, what exactly are human rights in the modern sense? Berger and Lipstadt follow a well-established path when they go back to the Enlightenment for the ‘philosophical basis of modern human rights’.viii Roughly, they think that this basis lies in the view that each of us (or each adult human being) is an autonomous individual who, in seeking his or her own interest, comes into conflict with other individuals. Our human rights, on this basis, are the claims that each of us is entitled to make – against each other and the state – in order to protect our personal liberty.
This might be the basis for the concept of human rights in the American Declaration of Independence or the American Bill of Rights. But is this the basis for the UDHR (which is the source for subsequent human rights declarations, conventions and covenants)? Is this the view of human beings and the vision of human life that it contains? Recall the opening of the Preamble, which refers to ‘all members of the human family’. In the same vein, Article 1 says that all human beings ‘should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’. The sense of this is that we ought to matter to each other and not only to ourselves. The implication of Article 1 is that this is a principle that is as fundamental as the principle of equality (that no one matters less than anyone else). Similarly, Rabbi Akiva said nearly two thousand years ago: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ is a fundamental rule of the Torah.ix
In other words, the UDHR model of the universal family is strikingly different from the Enlightenment model of universal competition. The ‘spirit of brotherhood’ that it invokes is closer to the spirit of cooperation or at least of mutual concern. Kinship implies ties; ties imply that we are responsible for each other. (You could almost say that the ‘R’ in ‘UDHR’ stands for Responsibilities as well as Rights.) With this in mind, Francesca Klug (another founder member of JFJHR and one of the prime movers behind the UK Human Rights Act), has argued that the UDHR represents a ‘second wave’ of human rights, with the emphasis shifting from liberty to community.x This shift has affected the whole sense of the language of human rights. And, in the revised form that it takes after the Second World War, the modern concept evokes the oldest story in the book of books: the creation of a single – universal – human family in the opening chapter of Genesis.
Moreover, at the heart of the UDHR, as we have seen, is an insistence on the ‘inherent dignity’ of every member of the human family. This recalls the Talmudic principle of kevod ha-adam (lit., honour of humanity) or kevod ha-beriyot (lit., honour of the created) which, translated into idiomatic English, means precisely ‘human dignity’. The principle is derived from the story that Eve and Adam, our common ancestors, were created in the image of God.xi It assumes that this same quality is inherited by all their descendants, so that every member of the human family, in being created, bears the stamp of the original creation. It stipulates, in other words, that human dignity is inherent.
So, when I and my colleagues in JFJHR hear ancient voices from Hebrew scripture and rabbinic literature in the modern language of human rights, are we wrong? I do not think so. This is not to say that the old ideas and values are identical with human rights in the modern sense; for they are not. Nor is it to suggest that these are the only voices in the Jewish tradition. But these are the ones that speak to us – just as they have spoken to countless Jews, observant and non-observant, religious and secular, in past generations.
In his keynote speech at the JFJHR launch, Sir Nigel Rodley, the elected UK member of the UN Human Rights Committee, said as follows:
What excites me about the JFJHR is that it will not only be concerned with Jewish victims, but with any victims. It will be concerned not only with human rights violations and injustices suffered by Jews but also with human rights violations and injustices suffered at the hands of Jews.xii
As his subsequent remarks show, he was thinking in particular of Israeli governments and, above all, the ill-treatment of Palestinians in territories occupied after the 1967 June War. Why should he – or we – be excited at the prospect of attacking the human rights abuses committed by a state that claims to belong to the Jewish people? Is this not proof that we are ‘self-hating Jews’? The argument in this essay is that the opposite is true: we are not turning against our Jewish identity, we are turning to it. The same might be said of B’tselem, or the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, or Rabbis for Human Rights, and similar Israeli groups. They are not abandoning their Jewish heritage. On the contrary, they are heeding the verse in Deuteronomy, ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue’, which, like the blast of the shofar (the ram’s horn), reminds the people who they are.xiii

JFJHR, ‘Launch Meeting’ (pamphlet), October 2003, p. 1. See the JFJHR website at

ii Deut. 14:29 and passim; Amos 8:4.

iii Tractate Avot, 1:18. In a commentary on this mishnah, Rav Muna says, ‘These things are one. Where justice is done, truth is accomplished and peace is made (Tractate Derech Eretz Zuta, Perek Hashalom, 2).

iv Michael S. Berger and Deborah E, Lipstadt, ‘Women in Judaism from the perspective of human rights’, in Michael J. Broyde and John Witte, Jr. (eds.), Human Rights in Judaism, Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1998, pp. 80-1.

v Milton R. Konvitz (ed.), Judaism and Human Rights, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2001, p. 13.

vi Ibid.

vii Deut. 24:17, 27:19; Isaiah 1:17, in JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2000.

viii Berger and Lipstadt, ‘Women in Judaism’, p. 82. They think that the origins of the Enlightenment view can be traced back to the ancient Greek Sophists.

ix Sifra to Lev. 19:18.

x She believes a ‘third wave’ is now emerging which has to do with a change in the place of human rights in society, rather than a change in the concept. See Francesca Klug, Values for A Godless Age: The Story of the United Kingdom’s New Bill of Rights, London: Penguin, 2000, Introduction, esp. pp. 9-12. She points out, ‘The drafters were able to draw from the ethical principles of all the major religions as well as from Socialist, liberal and other secular thinking’ (p. 102).

xi Gen. 1:27.

xii JFJHR, ‘Launch Meeting’, p. 13.

xiii Deut. 16:20.

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