Human Rights Shabbat at Mosaic Reform

Sermon given by Jeff Highfield on Human Rights Shabbat – December 7th 2019 / 9th Kislev 5780

Seventy-one years ago, on the tenth of December 1948, the then fifty-eight members of the United Nations Organisation adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Declaration remains the standard international, secular text describing the natural, equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, without distinction of any kind, and setting out the reasons why protection for human rights is essential for social harmony and progress.  The tenth of December has been marked ever since as Human Rights Day.  Why then are we marking today, the shabbat nearest the tenth of December, as Human Rights Shabbat? Or, to put the question another way, what’s so Jewish about Human Rights?

The first part of my answer is to tell you about an individual, a Jew, Monsieur René Cassin, a French lawyer who was one of the co-authors of the Universal Declaration.  Born in Bayonne in 1887, he fought for France in World War One, served as a French delegate to the League of Nations from 1924 to 1938, and was a member of the Free French government in exile during World War Two.  He was seconded to the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1946, and was a member of the small committee that produced the Declaration.  The Committee was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, and also included a Canadian law professor, an Eastern Orthodox theologian and philosophy professor from the Lebanon, and a Chinese philosopher whose specialism was Confucianism.  So, a varied group. But there are parts of the Declaration where I feel I hear Monsieur Cassin’s voice particularly, for example, to quote from the introduction:

… 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, and

… disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.

I see another part of the answer to my question, what’s so Jewish about Human Rights, in those words, the clear connection between the defence of human rights and the Jewish ideals of freedom, justice and peace; and the experience of the abuse of human rights that resulted in the Holocaust, not exclusively a Jewish tragedy of course, but there’s no doubt it inspired Monsieur Cassin’s contribution.  He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968 and died in 1976.

I have the privilege of serving as Treasurer for the UK charity which is named for Monsieur Cassin, that is, René Cassin the Jewish Voice for Human Rights.  One of its major activities is to coordinate Human Rights Shabbat, which will be marked this year in dozens of synagogues, Jewish schools and other communal institutions.  I’ve used their Resource Pack extensively to prepare this talk, and I’d encourage you, once Shabbat is out of course, to go to to look at their other events and campaigns.  And to visit the “donate” page of course.

The Universal Declaration was adopted seventy-one years ago, it was followed by national laws, international treaties, the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights, the UK Human Rights Act 1998 and so on, and so on.  Can we argue that the Human Rights battle has been won, that the Universal Declaration is an interesting piece of history, but it’s served its purpose, why bother to continue marking the anniversary?  I think we all know our experience in life is that, that’s not the way things work, that condemning an act, making an act a crime doesn’t stop people committing the act.  And our Jewish experience tells us that making a crime of an act that abuses human rights doesn’t eliminate the abuse. And that applies whether the abuse is verbal, such as stereotyping, name calling, and the use of dehumanising language; whether the act is discriminatory, impacting access to employment, education, housing and so on; or whether the act is violent, such as assault, vandalism, rape, murder and terrorism.  These are all steps on what has become known as the pyramid of hate, with genocide as the ultimate hate crime.

René Cassin’s theme for this year’s Human Rights Shabbat is Hate Crime, and I would urge you to read the resource pack on the Rene Cassin website, which details the shocking rise in recorded hate crime in the UK, from 42,000 in 2013 to 103,000 in 2019. And that’s just police recorded hate crime – there’s good evidence that hate crime against for example, gypsies, Roma and travellers is significantly under-reported, as is hate crime against LGBT+ people.  Every single category of hate crime, whether based on race, disability, religion or lifestyle, has increased, and we read nearly every day of other abuses of human rights such as modern slavery, and verbal and physical attacks on the disabled, the mentally ill, the homeless and on migrants.

What does the Jewish response to hate crime look like?  Here are two quotes to help answer that question, first of all from the Board of Deputies of British Jews:

In order to combat hate crime, we must challenge hateful discourse and the circles in which it circulates

And the Chief Rabbi, who recently, in fact this Rosh Hashanah, discussed the meaning of the word “mensch”.

A mensch passionately fights for what they believe is right without ever compromising on courtesy. A mensch debates the substance of an issue without seeking to destroy their opposition. A mensch is slow to anger and quick to learn from others – including those with whom they may profoundly disagree. And a mensch puts humility and responsibility before their own reputation.

Part of the Jewish response to hate crime has to be to be a mensch, to act as an exemplar of courtesy and respect, and to call out hate speech when we hear it. I’m sure we were all moved by the footage of the lady wearing a hijab who intervened to try and stop the verbal abuse of two Jewish children by a bible wielding young man accusing them of being Christ killers. I hope she wouldn’t mind me describing her as a mensch, and I hope I would have the courage to do likewise.

Another positive and hopeful part of the Jewish response has been to collaborate with other communities – as Matt Plen, executive director of Masorti Judaism said at a recent Rene Cassin event, there is no hierarchy in the experience of hate, the challenge is to reach out to other groups with the same experience, rather than retreat.  At the same event, Martin Gallagher, an academic from the Traveller community, pointed out how comments from parliamentarians and others in public life can set an unacceptable example to the general public and normalise hate speech, which results in increases in hate crime.  So, they have to cut it out, and we need to call it out.

Finally, today’s portion, what do we learn from this part of the story of Jacob?

Well, we learn that, just before the part we actually read today, that Jacob was homeless and a rough sleeper – “he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head and lay down to sleep” – in contravention of Article 25 of the Universal Declaration, the right to an adequate standard of living, including housing.

We learn he was tricked into working for Laban for 14 years – probably a contravention of Article 4, the right not be held in slavery or servitude.

We learn the stories of Rachel and Leah of course, and also the stories of their handmaids, Zilpah and Bilhah, who were given to Jacob. You know where I’m going with this – Article 16 of the Declaration says “Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses”.

And finally, we learn at the end of the portion that Jacob became an illegal migrant – “Jacob outwitted Laban the Aramean … so he fled with all that he had and crossed the river”, that’s the Euphrates, which was then the border.

OK, I’m stretching things a bit now, but I hope you see my point, and my final answer to the question, what’s so Jewish about Human Rights.  Jews have suffered from human rights abuses and hate crimes for millennia, Jews have contributed to the defence and strengthening of human rights in the twentieth century, and we need to play our part in responding to hate crime in our days.


December 7, 2019