By Mia Hasenson-Gross, Executive Director, René Cassin
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the definition of a superhero is ‘a character in a film or story who has special strengths and uses them to do good things and help other people’. Collins Dictionary’s definition is ‘a character in a cartoon or a film who has special powers and fights against evil’.
‘Human rights’ are a set of fundamental values – freedom, justice, equality, fairness – enforced by law. They are universal and do not depend on social status or any other criteria, and they are equality based so that the only condition for claiming human rights is to be human.
While our world is not a film, and human rights violations are not a make-believe evil, some of the founding figures of the modern human rights framework can be called heroes for the exceptional role they played ‘to do good and fight the evil’.
Monsieur René Cassin, AKA ‘Superman’
When Superman had just arrived on earth and his powers began to emerge, his earth parents instilled into young Clark Kent the ideals of truth and justice and, once a fully formed adult and hero, Superman stood as a symbol of American justice and liberty for years.
Like Superman, Monsieur René Cassin is a symbol of universal human rights and is often referred to as the ‘father of human rights.’
With the end of the Second World War and the defeat of the Nazis, the world became aware of the Holocaust and determined that ‘never again’ could such horrors be allowed to happen. That is how Cassin found himself on the human rights committee chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, tasked with drafting the first Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The main goal of the Declaration was to set out a vision of a world where (in the words of its preamble) “the inherent dignity … of all members of human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace” and where all humans act “in the spirit of brotherhood’. For the first time, there was an attempt to commit to a voluntary system of moral accountability to a higher set of norms and institutions than those of sovereign states, to ensure real ‘truth and justice’. In 1968 Cassin was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his guiding role in drafting the Declaration.
Monsieur René Cassin always maintained that the concept of human rights emerged from the same roots as his Judaism: “Human rights are an integral part of the faith and tradition of Judaism. The belief that man was created in the divine image, that the human family is one, and that every person is obliged to deal justly with every other person are basic sources of the Jewish commitment to human rights”.
Hersch Lauterpacht, AKA Batman
As a child, Batman witnessed his parents’ murder and, as a result, swore to get revenge on the criminals while taking an oath of maintaining a sense of justice.
Polish-born Hersch Lauterpacht, already from a young age was “angered by social inequality… dream[ing] of a Jewish Renaissance based on the spirit of social justice”. When discrimination made it no longer possible for him to study in Europe, Lauterpacht moved to the UK to pursue an education in international law – leaving behind all of his family, who were all murdered by the Nazis in concentration camps.
Lauterpacht played a vital role in defining the offences with which the perpetrators of the Holocaust would be charged – namely ‘crimes against humanity’. This concept was ground-breaking in placing individual rights and responsibilities centre-stage – until then only states had responsibilities under international law for crimes committed during the war, not individuals carrying orders or acting on behalf of the state. Amongst those convicted of crimes against humanity in the Holocaust was Hans Frank, who was Governor-General of the occupied Polish territories and oversaw four concentration camps including Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka.
Crimes against humanity have since been prosecuted at international tribunals concerning Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and when charges of apartheid, rape and sexual violence are heard.
Raphael Lemkin, AKA Captain America
Captain America was originally created in 1940 as a patriotic super-soldier fighting the Axis powers during the Second World War. In a rare instance for a new superhero, Captain America debuted with his own comic, the cover of which depicted him punching Hitler in the face. Unlike Superman and Batman, he was not an original member of the avengers but over time became indispensable to the team.
Raphael Lemkin, like Lauterpacht a Polish-Jewish lawyer, is best known for coining the word ‘genocide’, also first introduced at the Nuremberg trials. Lemkin advocated that the way to prevent mass killings of individuals was to protect the group to which those individuals belong. Although the concept of genocide was not used at the Nuremberg trials, Lemkin subsequently led the United Nations General Assembly to adopt the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide on 9 December 1948. This convention has since been used to prosecute those responsible for the genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
Simone Veil, AKA Wonder Woman
Unlike her male counterparts, for Wonder Woman it was not about killing the villains she fought against, but more about reform and rehabilitating them. The same can be said about Simone Veil.
Simone Veil was born in 1927 to a Jewish family in Nice. In 1944, like many French Jews, she was deported with her mother and sister to Auschwitz and later to Bergen-Belsen. 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, as Minister of Health, introduced the legalisation of the use of contraception and abortion, known as ‘la loi Veil’. She also led efforts to improve conditions for disadvantaged groups including the disabled, those with HIV, and mothers of young children.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, AKA Captain Marvel
In her adventures, Carol Danvers, AKA Captain Marvel, is not only a heroic woman but also a hero for women and was seen at the time as a feminist symbol for women’s rights.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born in New York in 1933 and from an early age pursued a career in law, championing the way for women in a then male-dominated academic field. Despite facing gender-based discrimination from even the highest authorities, she pressed on and excelled academically, eventually becoming the first female member of the prestigious Harvard Law Review and the first female professor at Columbia University to earn a tenure.
Her personal experience of discrimination in the workplace motivated her to direct the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union during the 1970s. In this position, she led the fight against gender discrimination and always believed that the law was gender-blind and all groups were entitled to equal rights.
In 1993 she was appointed by Bill Clinton to the US Supreme Court, the second woman ever to hold such a position.
To infinity and beyond …
This list of Jewish human rights heroes goes on. At René Cassin, the Jewish voice for human rights, one of our key messages is that we are all human rights heroes – by speaking out and standing in solidarity with those who need our support. That is why one of our core values as an organisation is to invest in empowering tomorrow’s human rights advocates so that the Jewish community, our leaders, our youth, all of us, speak out and act on behalf of other vulnerable groups here in the UK.
(This month sees two significant human rights anniversaries: the 72nd anniversary of the Genocide Convention on Wednesday 9 December and the 72nd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Thursday 10 December. The fundamental significance of the Declaration means that the latter date is celebrated around the world as ‘Human Rights Day’)