Our supporters were key in helping René Cassin to survive the severe shock of the onset of last year’s pandemic, and crucially, to start 2021 a strong organisation with ambitious plans for growth. That continued support has enabled us to make good progress in putting those plans into action in 2021, with a new campaigns officer developing new workstreams on women’s rights and social justice. The outward impact has been very significant – not just in the new areas of work, where we have quickly developed key priorities and partnerships, but also in our ‘legacy’ areas – genocide, immigration, slavery, discrimination, and human rights protections – where we have been able to focus greater resources on important ongoing and emerging issues.


In May 2019, when we introduced Uyghur campaigner, Rahima Mahmut, to the UK Jewish community at a public meeting, we pledged to “bear witness to what is happening [to Uyghur Muslims in China], raise awareness among the Jewish community, and advocate for an end to China’s persecution of its minorities”.

By the beginning of 2021 we had succeeded in mobilising key elements of the community – with the Chief Rabbi, the Board of Deputies, and Jewish News all making high-profile pronouncements on the issue. These interventions were timed to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January when René Cassin and Christian Solidarity Worldwide hosted Together for Uyghurs – a panel event that included the daughter of an imprisoned Uyghur doctor, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg. This event, and the unity of communal revulsion at the repression of the Uyghurs gained both national (The Observer) and international (Al-Jazeera) news coverage.

That international theme continued, as we marked Pesach 2021 by partnering with Jewish World Watch in a Uyghur Week of Action – which included a ‘Freedom Seder’ and global days of action on advocacy and business engagement.

In April, our attention turned back to domestic politics as we urged MPs to recognise China’s actions as genocide, a campaign we had started in January. Efforts to insert a ‘Genocide Amendment’ into the Trade Bill narrowly failed but, on 22 April, the House of Commons passed a motion that Uyghurs were “ … suffering Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide”, calling on the government to act “… to bring it to an end”.

Over the summer, we continued to work ‘behind the scenes’ to advance Jewish community support on the Uyghur issue – we facilitated support from Office of Chief Rabbi to the World Uyghur Congress; Mia Hasenson-Gross joined the UK Advisory Council of the World Uyghur Congress; and we helped negotiate a substantial ‘start up’ grant for Rahima Mahmut’s new organisation Stop Uyghur Genocide (SUG), made by the Pears Foundation on behalf of the British Jewish community.

Our outward-facing work progressed on three broad fronts:

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Asylum & Detention

Throughout 2021, we have continued our key role as interfaith facilitators on the issue and in particular for the Detention Forum, the umbrella coalition of organisations working on the crucial issue of immigration detention. In a mirror-image of the ‘hostile environment’, the Forum is developing the concept of a ‘supportive environment’ for those fleeing persecution, which includes alternatives to detention.

Our interfaith work included hosting an educational webinar – Immigration detention – What is it? And how can faith groups challenge it? – in collaboration with Faiths Forum for London, and co-ordinating an interfaith letter in protest at plans for a new detention centre at Hassockfield, County Durham.  

We responded to the government’s new plan for immigration, made a submission to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees consultation on the Borders and Immigration Bill, and launched a public information campaign on the Bill, which we feel is harmful, inhumane, and contrary to Jewish values.

Detention is a Feminist Issue banner

We marked 2021’s Refugee Week with blogs on how the UK’s detention policy echoes Jewish experience, be it Jewish women’s experience of internment on the Isle of Man or the brutality of offshore detention of Jewish refugees. This latter issue was particularly poignant given the Home Secretary’s regular floating of the idea of offshore detention in response to refugees from crisis-torn regions, a subject we had examined earlier in the year with our event Off-Shore Immigration Detention – Jewish History & Future Trajectories.

Another key element of our Refugee Week programme – the event Detention is a Feminist Issue – dovetailed with our newly-launched workstream on women’s rights (see below).

The tragic loss of 27 asylum-seekers in the Channel in November highlighted the urgency of our campaign to amend the Nationality and Borders Bill, a draconian piece of legislation that will further endanger lives and undermines the UK’s commitments under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

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Modern Slavery & Human Trafficking

We have continued to play an active part in the Free for Good coalition of anti-trafficking charities supporting proposed victim support legislation written by Lord McColl of Dulwich.

On a practical level we have organised two workshops to help those working at synagogue drop-in centres for asylum-seekers spot the signs of exploitation. These will take place early in the new year. This crossover with the issue of asylum (see above) is an example of a common feature of our work in this area. Other examples include our work to link to highlight how the current Nationality and Borders Bill fails victims of modern slavery, and our highlighting of the massive use of forced labour as a key element of China’s repression of Uyghur Muslims and other minorities.

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Discrimination and Hate Speech

We have built on our anti-hate speech CutItOut campaign, and are now developing ‘Reach out for your Rights’  – a new solidarity campaign that will see René Cassin partnering with: Hope Not Hate to deliver workshops on campaigning on campus and beyond’; and Stop Funding Hate on a campaigners’ toolkit for Jewish youth and JSocs.

Our statement to mark Hate Crime Awareness Week spoke out “for refugees, asylum seekers, and our Gypsy and Traveller friends”, noting that the Jewish community “is no stranger to society’s role in normalising intolerance, stigma, and discrimination”.

Our work on hate speech has grown out of our long-standing support for the UK Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities. We continued that work, with an event to mark June’s Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller History Month. We also issued a statement of solidarity and support on Roma Holocaust Remembrance Day, and our event Solidarity and Pride: LGBTQ+ Jews and Travellers in conversation was a powerful and practical discussion on cross-communal solidarity.

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Safeguarding Human Rights Protections

Our work in this area has concentrated on defending the Human Rights Act (HRA) from threats of damaging reform. In March, we responded to the government’s independent review of the Act, concluding “ … the importance of the HRA to the Jewish community cannot be overstated”, and wrote a piece published in Jewish News in support of that conclusion.

We have subsequently worked to reinforce that vital message. In June, as reported in Jewish News, we coordinated a high-level interfaith letter to the Prime Minister, reiterating the HRA’s importance and urging him not to weaken its provisions.  We have relayed the same message to Jewish MPs and Peers, and MPs with significant Jewish constituencies.

In the wider community, we have brought our unique Jewish perspective to partnerships with other NGOs, working to defend the HRA. For the first time, we ran a widespread and creative social media campaign “Because of our Human Rights Act” that has emphasised how the Act provides vital support to ordinary people in their everyday lives.

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Social Justice

This is an entirely new area of work for René Cassin, so the first part of the year saw us ‘laying the foundations’ to determine exactly where a Jewish perspective would be most relevant and effective in securing progress.

We decided to concentrate on a right to food as the first and most fundamental of the ‘socio-economic rights’ listed in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the others being clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services).

We began by scoping the current NGO landscape in this area, and identifying key project partners such as Just Fair, Sustain and Nourish Scotland. In May we launched our Right to Food campaign with a ‘Recipe for Rights’ resource pack during the Jewish festival of Shavuot. The launch was backed by a Jewish News article by Professor Geraldine van Bueren QC, a René Cassin advisor and long-time advocate of socio-economic rights. Professor van Bueren also agreed to convene our Jewish Food Rights Alliance as a means of advancing this issue within the Jewish community. At Rosh Hashanah, we updated the ‘Recipe for Rights’ pack with a ‘High Holy Days’ edition.

We have also introduced the campaign to close to 30 Jewish MPs and Peers, asking them to work with us to enshrine a Right to Food in UK law. And we broadened the campaign beyond the Jewish community with our November event linking football supporters with foodbanks.

As the year drew to a close, the right to food was the subject of our 47-page resource pack, to help synagogues, university JSocs, youth movements and Moishe Houses mark Human Rights Shabbat.

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Women’s Rights

Although we made tentative initial steps on women’s rights in 2020, this is another largely new area of work for René Cassin. It was therefore an enormous boost to our planning and profile on this issue that, in May, our policy roundtable on women’s rights was not only addressed by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, but was also attended by an array of experts working on the front line – including an MP, women working at a variety of NGOs, academics, lawyers, funders, and members of Jewish community organisations.

The roundtable further strengthened partnerships we had built earlier through work on International Women’s Day, on Stella Creasy MP’s campaign to make misogyny a hate crime, on ensuring protection for migrant women via the Domestic Abuse Bill, and on the proposed Hassockfield women’s immigration detention centre.

Another partnership, with the Alliance of Jewish Women, saw us launch our ‘190 for C190’ campaign in June. This involved 190 Jewish women signing our letter asking the government to ratify the International Labour Organization’s Convention 190 which recognises “… the right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and harassment”. We are now looking to develop this campaign in support of the wider aims of the Istanbul Convention to counter violence against women and domestic violence.

As the year drew to a close our New Horizons Women’s Rights Festival showed René Cassin’s ability to champion, coordinate and convene both Jewish community and wider society partnerships, initiatives and debates around women’s rights.

The festival featured 30 sessions over ten days, covering engaging and topical issues, from politics to IT, religion to the law. Speakers included MPs Jess Phillips, Caroline Nokes, and Margaret Hodge, and Uyghur campaigner Rahima Mahmut.

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The strictures of the Covid pandemic – with restrictions on face-to-face meetings and international travel – meant that we had to suspend our Fellowship Programme. Instead, we were able to further develop our Ambassadors Programme – our leadership-oriented initiative to empower young Jewish human rights activists and help amplify their voices in the UK – with 18 outstanding participants for the second cohort this autumn and a third cohort planned for early 2022.

That theme of education as a key element in engaging, mobilising, and supporting community involvement was also evident in our digital campaigning toolkit, published in July, the New Horizons Women’s Rights Festival (see under ‘Women’s Rights’ above), and our ‘Right to Food’ resource pack for Human Rights Shabbat in December.

These resources back up our numerous educational sessions with schools, youth movements, synagogues, and other organisation with and beyond the Jewish community. And, in addition to the 30 sessions of the New Horizons Women’s Rights Festival, we have organised a further 11 online sessions, educating the public over the whole range of our workstreams, attracting a total of 1,150 bookings.

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Looking Ahead

In 2020, we made the strategic decision to “advocate for a thorough overhaul of human rights protections in the UK, to ensure social, economic, environmental and racial justice”. Our rationale for doing so was twofold. Firstly, because we believe that public support for human rights in general can only be sustained by a renewed focus on social and economic rights which, although enshrined in 1948’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, have tended to be side lined in the UK and other liberal democracies since. And secondly, because economic inequalities and social injustices have been successively exacerbated by the global financial crisis and the pandemic.

2021 has seen us lay the groundwork for this strategy, recruiting new campaigns staff, scoping new workstreams on women’s rights and social justice, including making important new partnerships. Next year, 2022, will see us building on this solid base – co-ordinating Jewish communal action in these areas and ensuring strong links with similar campaigns in wider civil society. We will work to solidify and grow the Jewish Food Rights Alliance, convened by Professor Geraldine Van Bueren QC, spearheading the Jewish community’s remarkable response to the food poverty crisis, as well as building a programme of work that addresses the fundamental challenges of social care and, fair, and respectful access and treatment of people with mental and other disabilities.

But needs are pressing in our ‘legacy’ workstreams too. The fact that we have grown as an organisation means we can not only continue, but intensify, our focus here. We will build on our success in uniting the Jewish community in support of the Uyghurs in China – via calls to label the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics ‘the Genocide Games’, and further pressure for the UK to take political and diplomatic action. We will continue to bring a unique Jewish perspective to the growing crisis of vulnerable asylum-seekers dying for want of safe routes to the UK to seek sanctuary. Likewise, we will seek to counter the rise in levels and intensity of hate speech – both addressing the increasingly ‘hostile environment’ in the UK affecting marginalised and minority groups in our society.

 In this, as in so much of our work, we see an increasing cross-over between the issues we work on – modern slavery intersecting with asylum and immigration, women’s rights with hate speech, and so on. In 2022 and beyond, we will work to highlight the particularly pernicious effects that such intersections cause. We will also continue to work to promote and protect the overarching human rights framework – like the UK’s Human Rights Act – that serves and unites us all.

Finally, we will continue to ensure that as an organisation, René Cassin has the resilience, the reach and the resources needed to maintain and build on our unique convening power to continue to ‘remake the Jewish case for human rights.’

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