Making the Jewish Case for Human Rights – Introduction

A word from Mia Hasenson-Gross, our CEO

Human rights are an essential part of Jewish identity; they are born out of Jewish values and Jewish history and form an intrinsic part of our present and, ultimately, our future.

When René Cassin, the Jewish voice for human rights, was set up in 2000, the idea was to create a unique platform through which human rights could be championed in the UK by the Jewish community, both within the community and as part of wider society.

Our work contributes a distinctive and contemporary Jewish perspective to issues affecting the human rights of some of the UK’s most marginalised communities. We have been at the forefront of calls to end indefinite immigration detention; worked to counter discrimination and hate crime against minorities; highlighted the scourge of modern slavery and human trafficking; warned of threats to human rights safeguards; and built support for human rights values amongst British Jewry. Today, René Cassin enjoys the respect of both the human rights and Jewish communities, influences policy effectively in its core areas, offers high quality events and provides opportunities for learning and activism.

Today, as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), we are living through volatile and uncertain times, where the central values that human rights stand for are overlooked and in places weakened. Therefore, the need to build a community of support, and a Jewish voice for human rights, is increasingly important.

In this resource, we have tried to share the interwoven stories of Jewish values, Jewish experience and Jewish human rights heroes, illustrating the profound impact they have had in shaping and forming the modern human rights framework, and the importance of human rights for Jewish people today.

Our work will continue to mark and celebrate 70 years of legacy but will also ensure the sustainability of this legacy by empowering and inspiring tomorrow’s human rights activists.

A word from Danny Silverstone, our Chair of Trustees

“Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”. These stark words come from the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For a world torn apart by war and struggling to come to terms with the atrocities committed by the Nazis, the Declaration marked a turning point – a determination that never again would the community of nations stand by and allow such horrors to happen.

Known as ‘the Father of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, it was a French Jewish lawyer who, having lost 29 members of his family in the Holocaust, set about drafting a document which would establish human rights for all humanity. This man was named René Cassin.

When, in 2000, a group of young British Jewish social activists set up a charity to promote and protect universal rights, drawing on Jewish experiences and values, Cassin’s example was so powerful they decided to name the charity in his honour. And so, René Cassin – ‘the Jewish voice for Human Rights’ – was born.

As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there has never been a greater need for strong Jewish advocates, actors and partners making the case for the contemporary importance of human rights values and protection. There has never been a more important time to get involved in our work.

In the beginning … a founder’s story, from Daniel Kingsley, co-founder, René Cassin

We began René Cassin in the late 1990s to be a Jewish group using the experience of Jewish people to promote the human rights of all people. We realised that our experiences as Jews, and our insights into human rights as Jews, gave us weight in the wider community on these issues. When we spoke on behalf of vulnerable groups, we were able to say with authority “the world should not let this happen to anyone else”.

Today, I’m still proud that there is a Jewish organisation that is committed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which tells the Jewish community that human rights matter… and that human rights are a part of what we, as Jews, are.

In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), Hillel asks: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”. But Hillel also asks, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” We as Jews have never been, and cannot ever be, just for ourselves.

Human rights may be a modern concept, but the moral imperative behind them is as old as Judaism itself. It’s our duty to look out for justice for everybody. It’s part of our DNA as a people. René Cassin makes it its job to stand up for this as a proposition.

From our Advisory Council – Francesca Klug OBE, human rights academic and activist

From our Advisory Council – Francesca Klug OBE, human rights academic and activist

René Cassin takes its name from the Jewish activist and intellectual who helped to change the world by shaping the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, adopted exactly 70 years ago. His vision of a world where no-one is deprived of the fundamental rights and freedoms which define our humanity drew from both Jewish experiences of persecution and exclusion and from Jewish ethics of solidarity and justice which he proudly proclaimed as the foundational values of the UDHR.

With this inspiration to guide it, the modern British NGO, René Cassin, draws on the particular injustices facing marginalised communities in the UK today to champion the universal values of equal treatment and fairness for all.

In our troubled world where nationalism and populism are on the rise once more, René Cassin provides a beacon of hope for young people that the lessons learnt from the terrible events of the Second World War will not be forgotten and that the essential purpose of universal human rights is passed on to new generations.

Read or download Making the Jewish Case for Human Rights in the UK as a PDF