Making the Jewish Case for Human Rights – Jewish Human Rights Heroes

Post-War Jewish Heroes

Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959)

Raphael Lemkin was a lawyer of Polish-Jewish descent who is best known for coining the word genocide and for leading the United Nation’s adoption of the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948.

Forty-nine members of his family, and almost the entirety of the Jewish community in his birth place of Polish Galicia, were murdered in the Holocaust.

Lemkin spent the Second World War first in Sweden, then from 1941 in the United States. Whilst in neutral Sweden, he worked with Swedish businesses and consulates across Europe to create a library of Nazi decrees, proclamations and ordinances relating to the deliberate policy of entire nations and peoples, including the Jews.

Following the war, Lemkin was the strongest advocate of the view that the way to prevent future mass killings of individuals was to protect the group to which the individuals belonged.

Despite intense lobbying, he was unable to convince the victorious Allied powers to include genocide amongst the indictments at the Nuremburg trials.

He switched his attention to lobbying governments at the new United Nations, and after two years of intense work, he saw the UN General Assembly adopt the Genocide Convention on December 9, 1948.

“We cannot keep telling the world in endless sentences: Do not murder members of national, racial and religious groups; do not sterilize them; do not impose abortions on them; do not steal children from them; do not compel their women to bear children for your country; and so on. But we must tell the world now, at this unique occasion, do not practise genocide.”

Raphael Lemkin

Hersch Lauterpacht (1897-1960)

Hersch Lauterpacht was a British-Jewish lawyer of Polish birth who coined the concept of ‘crimes against humanity’. Lauterpacht was part of the British prosecution team at the Nuremberg trials, and played a vital role in defining the crimes with which the perpetrators of the Holocaust would be charged.

His key contribution was developing the legal concept of ‘crimes against humanity’ and ensuring the Nazi leaders were found guilty of these newly-defined crimes. Lauterpacht’s new legal argument demolished the Nazi defendants’ attempted defence that because ‘states couldn’t commit crimes under international law, it followed that the individuals who served them also could not be guilty of crime’.

Between 1955 and 1960, Lauterpacht was the British judge on the International Court of Justice (the judicial arm of the United Nations). This involved resolving disputes between states and giving advisory opinions on international law.

“The state is not an abstract entity…its rights and duties are the rights and duties of men, its actions those of the politicians who should ‘not be able to seek immunity behind the intangible personality of the state.”

Sir Humphrey Shawcross, British prosecutor at Nuremberg, presenting the legal argument written by Lauterpacht.

Clemens Nathan (1933-2015)

Born in Hamburg, Clemens Nathan came to England in 1936, aged three, as a refugee with his family. On the outbreak of war, Nathan’s father, Kurt, was taken from the family home and interned in a camp for ‘aliens’ from hostile nations. The war was to devastate his wider family who had remained in continental Europe. Germany’s anti-Semitism and intolerance would have a lifelong impact on Nathan.

Clemens Nathan

As a young man, Nathan gave a speech at the Consultative Council of Jewish Organisations (CCJO) about the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union. After speaking, René Cassin, who had founded the CCJO in 1946, approached Clemens saying, “Young man, I want you to accompany me to meetings at the United Nations. I liked your speech very much.” Shortly thereafter, Nathan became Joint Chair of the CCJO, representing Jewish interests at the United Nations, the Council of Europe and UNESCO.

For over a decade, Nathan’s focus was on the issue of reparations for victims of the Nazi Holocaust. As Board Member for the Claims Conference, he was involved in negotiations with Austria for compensation, particularly for the Kindertransport children, and for old people living in Germany and Austria, ensuring that they had decent accommodation. Nathan tirelessly involved himself in all manner of activities, many of which were concerned with promoting human rights, achieving greater understanding and promoting freedom.

Professor Sir Nigel Rodley (1941-2017)

Born in Yorkshire, Sir Nigel Rodley was one of the founding fathers of the human rights movement. Sir Nigel’s father had arrived in the UK in 1938 as a refugee from Germany, leaving behind many family members who would perish in Nazi concentration camps.

Sir Nigel’s lifelong determination was to preserve and protect the legacy of the Nuremberg trials of 1945-46 by combating human rights violation and abuse of state power.

Sir Nigel was appointed as Amnesty International’s first legal officer, starting in the early 1970s, during which time he helped draft the UN Convention Against Torture. From 1993-2001, he served as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture. As his work was mainly behind the scenes and did not involve courtroom battles or outspoken advocacy, he has been described as a human rights diplomat.

In 1998 he was knighted for services to human rights and international law.

Notwithstanding his commitments as an academic and a jurist, Nigel supported many human rights organisations. He served on the council of the NGO JUSTICE, and was president of the International Commission of Jurists. He showed a particular interest in Freedom from Torture, an organisation whose policy committee he chaired and through which he met many who had survived torture, some of whom had been liberated as a direct result of his own work.

Sir Nigel was also a member of the René Cassin Advisory Council.

Jewish Heroes (Civil Rights and Apartheid)

Rabbi Abraham Heschel (1907-1972)

Rabbi Heschel was born in Warsaw to a Chassidic family. After a traditional yeshiva education, Heschel took the unexpected decision to study in Germany, in both the University of Berlin and at the progressive Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, where he was ordained.

In 1938, Heschel was expelled to Poland by the Nazi Government, and then left Poland six weeks before the Germans invaded. By 1940, he had arrived in New York.

Heschel is famous for his scholarship, as he wrote several important theological works. But he was also an important civil rights and anti-war activist in the United States. In 1963, he was introduced to Martin Luther King. Heschel and King would march together in the front rank of the third 1965 Selma to Montgomery march.

Of that march, Heschel would write “Our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.” King would later call Heschel ‘my Rabbi’.

Ray Harmel (née Adler) (1905-1998)

Ray Harmel was a Jewish Anti-Apartheid campaigner and trade union leader. She twice had to flee from the arms of the secret police – first in 1928 from her homeland of Lithuania to South Africa, then in 1963 from South Africa to the United Kingdom. Harmel was a lifelong communist, trade unionist and campaigner against discrimination. She brought the hatred of racist White South Africa upon herself by refusing to countenance the South African Garment Workers’ Union’s pro-segregation policy.

In 1963, following threats on her life and on that of her husband, Michael Harmel, she left South Africa for political exile in the UK. Here, she continued to fight against apartheid, until her death in 1998, after which she was remembered as ‘a fierce fighter, an untiring fighter dedicated to racial equality and the rights of working women’.

Helen Suzman (1917-2009)

Helen Suzman, the South African born daughter of Jewish Eastern European immigrants, was a feminist, human rights and anti-apartheid icon, who lived her life according to the core Jewish belief that individuals should assume responsibility for the wider community.

Suzman was one of 12 MPs who formed South Africa’s Progressive Party in 1959, an openly liberal party which believed in rights and qualifiied franchise for all. After a 1961 election in which all other Progressive MPs lost their seats, Suzman served as the sole Progressive MP and voice of the oppressed until 1974. Between 1991-3 Suzman acted as the president of the South African Institute for Race Relations, served on the commission overseeing the first democratic elections in 1994 and then became a member of the statutory Human Rights Commission.

Suzman was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and received the United Nations Human Rights Award (1978) and the Medallion of Heroism (1980).

Jewish Human Rights Heroes (Women’s Rights)

Simone Veil (1927-2017)

Simone Veil was a French-born Jew, Holocaust survivor and pioneer of Equal Rights for women. She was born into a Jewish family in Nice and in 1944 she was deported with her sister and mother to Auschwitz and later to Bergen-Belsen.

Simone Veil

After the war, she qualified as a lawyer and magistrate, and successfully campaigned to improve the conditions and fate of women prisoners. She was the first woman to be a minister in France and in 1975, as minister of Health, Veil successfully introduced a law that would legalise use of contraception and abortion.

In 1979, Veil was elected as the first President of the European Parliament. She remained a member of that Parliament until 1993, when she re-joined the French Government as Health Minister. There, she led efforts to improve conditions for disadvantaged groups including the disabled, the HIV-positive, and mothers of young children.

The Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry (‘the 35s’)

In 1971, news reached Western Europe and the United States that a Russian Jew, Raisa Palatnik of Odessa, who had applied for permission to leave the Soviet Union, had been taken into custody by the Soviet secret police, the KGB. The news triggered mass protests, predominantly led by ordinary Jewish women, mothers and housewives. The organisation they founded, the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry, known more informally as ‘the 35s’ after their founding membership, would become an international force credited by some as contributing to the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

A ’35s’ march in London

For close to three decades, the 35s campaigned to heighten public awareness of the inhuman denial of freedom of religion and movement to which millions of Jews living in the USSR were subjected.

Other Jewish communities worldwide emulated the British 35s, with the Los Angeles 35s being a particularly impactful sister organisation. The 35s exemplified how people cooperating could achieve seemingly impossible goals. In 1989, the USSR opened the borders for Jews to leave the Soviet Union. Mere months later, the Soviet Union itself collapsed.

Modern Day Jewish Human Rights Heroes

Harvey Milk (1930-1978)

Harvey Milk, the child of Jewish Lithuanian parents, was the first openly gay elected official in the history of California – and one of the first in the USA.

Milk was inaugurated as a San Francisco City-County Supervisor in January 1978. During his eleven months in office, he was responsible for passing a San Francisco ordinance that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. Milk also took part in successfully opposing a California ballot initiative to mandate the firing of gay teachers.

Milk received daily death threats, but continued undaunted in his pursuit of gay rights until his tragic assassination in November 1978. In a taped version of his will, recorded in the event of assassination, Milk declared that “if a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door”.

A bust of Harvey MIlk © Dan Schreiber/

Walter Caplan, who hosted the Seder which Milk attended every year, said Milk’s Judaism was “a cornerstone of who he was and everything that he did. Harvey fought for the underdog and he was a scrappy fighter and believed very much in social justice. Everywhere he saw something wrong, he wanted to fix it. I think he had the values that he got at Hebrew school and at the dinner table.”

Adam Wagner

Adam is a British, Jewish human rights barrister, blogger and activist. In 2010, Adam founded the UK Human Rights Blog, which provides a free, comprehensive and balanced legal view on a wide range of legal issues relating to human rights. The blog is now maintained by members of the barristers’ chambers at 1 Crown Office Row. In 2015, Adam founded the charity RightsInfo, which builds knowledge and support for human rights in the UK by producing engaging, accessible and beautifully- presented online human rights content. Every week, over one million people access the infographics, stories, videos and explainers produced by the charity.

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