Mitz-Vote

A Jewish Claim to Human Rights

By Robert Ilich

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Human rights are breaking out all over. (When they’re not being tamped down and trampled, that is.) What role does Judaism play?

Earlier this week at Cardozo Law School in Manhattan, the topic of human rights and Judaism was explored in a panel discussion involving three top legal minds as well as a history professor. Co-sponsored by the Center for Jewish Law and the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) and supported by the Leonard and Bea Diener Institute of Jewish Law, the speakers included Shahar Lifshitz and Yair Lorberbaum, both from the law faculty of Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, Suzanne Stone from Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law, and historian Samuel Moyn of Columbia University.

Moyn recited a quote from the McGill International Colloquium on Judaism and Human Rights adopted in Montreal in 1974. “Human rights are an integral part of the faith and tradition of Judaism. The beliefs 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.”

Moyn proposed that this was an act of apologetics.

“Now of course it’s true that Jews have believed all of those things,” he said. “But they had never until the 1970s thought this meant that they have created human rights or that they should be for them in the contemporary situation.”

In an article he wrote in The Nation, Moyn addressed the point that President Jimmy Carter’s proclamation from the Capitol steps to address a commitment to human rights was among the only references made by a U.S. president aside from a few comments by Franklin Roosevelt.

Basically, Moyn takes the position that the concept of human rights is a relatively new one.

“In modern times, the main and primary political allegiance of Jews has been to the nation-state, as the fundamental building block of the modern world,” Moyn said. “At the beginning of modern history, Jews sought emancipation as citizens — as part of local nations, rather than in the name of supranational ‘human rights.’ Modern Jewish history has also featured various forms of internationalism, of which ‘international human rights’ today is a latecomer.

“Ultimately, ‘human rights’ ought to be studied not as a product of Judaism, but as one of a range of internationalisms Jews in modern times have considered,” he said.

Stone has written extensively on Jewish tradition and civil society. “A Jew can recite a blessing on behalf of another because all Jews are responsible for one another’s fulfillment of the commandments,” she said, referring back to the Babylonian Talmud, which states: “All Jews are responsible for one another. They are like one body and like a guarantor who repays the debt of a friend.”

According to Stone, “Such a system may, and does, respect individual rights of personhood and property, but it cannot confer on its members the kind of freedom or autonomy presupposed by civil society.”

Lorberbaum spoke briefly about the concept that famous Jewish biblical verses suggesting man being created in God’s image guarantees universalism, humanitarianism and equality are misguided. “These verses were interpreted and understood by many along the generations in a radically different way,” he said.

Lifshitz described the story from the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 20a) that “effectively demonstrates that offensive, exclusive, and disenfranchising behavior toward another human being deeply undermines the Jewish belief that ‘beloved are human beings because they are created in the image of God.’”

He added that, “the way in which people relate to individuals with disabilities, therefore, like the way in which people relate to the ‘Other’ in general, involves not only issues of fairness and just distribution of resources, but the most profound questions of human dignity and humanity.”

Lifshitz believes that Jewish history obligates us to maintain a heightened level of sensitivity to the place of the “stranger” and “Other” among us. The Jewish discourse, he said, is optimally positioned to assist in the development of social rights.


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