How I found Human Rights Activism Through My Jewish Communities

5 May, 2023 | Latest, Reach Out for your Rights, Tackling Hate Crime

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René Cassin intern Alfie Futerman writes about our new resource A Jewish Guide to Human Rights Activism

Rabbi Hillel was a prominent Jewish Babylonian scholar. He was once challenged by a frustrated student to summarise the Torah, what Jewish people call the Old Testament, whilst standing on one foot. Hillel responded, ‘that which is hateful unto you, do not do to your neighbour; this is the whole of Torah’. This view of Judaism as a religion and a culture that is fundamentally values-driven has echoed through generations and united Jewish people behind causes that reflect values of equality, respect and the sanctity of family and community. This guide will support Jewish people today in communicating these values to a wider audience, through relevant and important current issues.

Celebration of these values, and condemnation of those who seek to violate them, are littered throughout Jewish history. Pesach, Purim, and Channukah are all historic festivals demonstrating the importance of personal and religious freedoms, free from persecution, suspicion, and hate. Within living memory, the Holocaust provides the starkest warning of the depths that humanity can plumb when hate is given power and allowed to go unchallenged.

Given our shared history of experiencing and opposing hate, it is no coincidence that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, co-drafted by French Jewish jurist Monsieur Rene Cassin following the Jewish tragedy of the Holocaust, reflects Jewish values back to us in a modern legalistic form. Jewish people speak from communal experience. We carry a moral authority when challenging discrimination and speaking up for human rights. If we see part of the Jewish experience reflected in another group’s struggle, then pointing out the commonality can be enormously powerful. This Jewish voice can be incredibly powerful when used in the right way. Utilising a wealth of experience, the activists’ guide can help create a clear and consistent tone for your Jewish activism that draws upon deep historical and values driven experiences whilst remaining accessible to a wider audience.

As a small, deeply familial religion and culture, it is unsurprising that the Jewish sense of community is so powerful, and so outspoken in the UK. What is particularly special, is the diversity and the intentionality of the communities that we create. We naturally find like-minded people and push ourselves and each other to bring out the best in ourselves and in the world around us.

Growing up in progressive Jewish circles, the phrase tikkun olam, repair the world,became almost a guiding mission within my head, with ideas of social responsibility beginning at an early age and slowly being built upon, ideologically and practically. As a young child, I remember spending Mitzvah Day engaging in broadly apolitical social goods such as picking up litter or playing ‘snakes and ladders’ with the elderly in old-age homes. Whilst perhaps not understanding the full implications, the message was embedded in my young mind – I am Jewish, and that means that I have a duty to help others.  

This symbiotic relationship between my Judaism and social justice, through the paradigm of tikkun olam, was refined and given ideological and political substance through my time in my youth movement. Between the ages of 12 and 22 I was given education, and educated, on key social justice issues and steadily built my own holistic world view through the people I was surrounded with. In this immersive environment where people openly, and positively, discussed issues of social justice, I learnt that having no opinion was simply not an option.

These opportunities for informal education and for activism are the Jewish community’s superpower. We as a community can be inspired by passionate individuals to contextualise current issues within a framework of Jewish values and use these values, and the power of community, to be the change that we want to see in the world. It is essential that these conversations that we are so good at having in the community do more than create politically literate individuals. It is one thing to have interesting and politically relevant discussions around the Friday night dinner table, but another entirely to act on these opinions. A Jewish Guide to Human Rights Activism complements these existing practices of informal education and community activism by providing concrete advice on how to communicate opinions on sensitive human rights issues and providing a lens through which our community can creatively educate.

There is often a temptation amongst Jewish people to separate our Jewish identities from our place in civil society, I believe this to be a mistake. For so many of us, Judaism and our Jewish values are integral to our identity. To truly live these values, their unique Jewishness must inform our actions and the way in which we interact with injustice. The phrase tzedek, tzedek tirdof, justice, justice, you shall pursue, must ring in our ears and remind us that our Jewish values cannot allow us to turn our back on injustice and suffering, and must compel action.

This guide to Jewish activism will be a massively helpful tool in distilling the way Jewish values influences the uniqueness of progressive Jewish opinion in a manner that can be effective in a secular world. We as a community must use our voices, internally, to hold our own to the mark, and externally, to project the historical experiences and values of the community. When our Jewish identities can form part of our political and activist identities, it renews our strength to rally for social justice and human rights.

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