TWO VOICES: Is there a specific Jewish view on human rights legislation?

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TWO VOICES: Is there a specific Jewish view on human rights legislation?

Two Voices
Two Voices

This week’s Two Voices asks: is there a specific Jewish view on human rights legislation?

Simone Abel says…

Simone Abel
Simone Abel

I would reframe this question to: ‘Should there be a Jewish position on whether the UK retains the Human Rights Act?’ The answer is a resounding yes.

Recognition of the need to protect human rights, and the framework of international agreements to protect them, sprang directly from the Shoah. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights emerged after the Second World War as practical expressions of the determination to prevent such horrors recurring.

The rights guaranteed in the Convention and, more recently, the HRA, speak directly to the Jewish experience. At their root is the notion that all humans are vested with a dignity that states have a duty to protect and fulfil. If our own historical experiences do not illustrate why such protections are needed, then I don’t know what does.

Yet our government is committed to HRA’s repeal, and to the erosion of the cornerstones of access to justice, such as legal aid. This should alarm us given how hard won our human rights protections are. A ‘British Bill of Rights’ is a regressive step if the rights in the HRA or the mechanisms for enforcing those rights are watered down.

René Cassin, the French-Jewish co-drafter of the UDHR, said: “Human rights are an integral part of the faith and tradition of Judaism.” But he knew faith and tradition were not enough – rights could only be guaranteed by being enshrined in international and domestic law.

Simone Abel is a trustee of René Cassin

Robyn Ashworth-Steen says…

Robyn Ashworth-Steen
Robyn Ashworth-Steen

The underlying principle of human rights legislation is that we are all equal before the law, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation and so on. These universal rights are then qualified if one’s actions warrant it. Human rights legislation ensures these rights are enshrined and that we can hold the state to account if they are unlawfully infringed.

Any discussion of human rights in a Jewish context would, of course, start with Genesis 1:27 – “and God created the human being in God’s own image”. Here is the Jewish principle of equality – we are all made in the image of God – we are all equal. As Arthur Green states in Radical Judaism: “Every creature and every life form is a garbing of divine presence. The way in which we treat them and relate to them is the ultimate testing ground of our own religious consciousness.”

The universal nature of human rights, and the underlying principle of equality, must be fiercely guarded. The main concern about the proposed ‘British Bill of Rights’ is that it infringes upon the principle of equality by asserting that rights are just for ‘us Brits’. What about the stranger, the vulnerable? We are enjoined in the Torah, a remarkable 36 times, to love the stranger and commanded to protect the vulnerable in our society. These principles must be defended at all costs when it comes to our human rights legislation.

Robyn Ashworth-Steen is a student rabbi at Leo Baeck College, ex-human rights solicitor and co-founder of Tzelem

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