Since the awful events of 7 October we have tried several times to marshal our thoughts on behalf of René Cassin, but find ourselves staring at a blank screen and a blinking cursor. Words have failed us.
René Cassin was the brainchild of young British Jewish professionals. Their rationale was this: the international human rights framework was set up in response to the Holocaust. But now, here in the UK, Jews are safe and secure. And so the UK Jewish community should advocate on behalf of other minorities who are today suffering the injustices that Jews know only too well from their own experience – like slavery, dislocation, discrimination and genocide.
But what if Jews no longer feel safe? Suddenly, it seems, the basis for that solidarity starts to dissolve. Like many of you, we’re sure, we have felt desperate and lost over the past few days. People have asked us what does René Cassin – the Jewish voice for human rights – have to say?
Wanting to add light, rather than more heat, we have until now found it very difficult to answer.
Those young British Jews named their new organisation after the French-Jewish co-author of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Universal Declaration is the well-spring from which virtually all later human rights instruments have flowed. A few years ago, a wise member of our Advisory Board and an expert on the history of the Declaration told us that its primary purpose was as a touchstone in times of crisis. And so we have gone back to the Declaration, and it has steadied the shifting ground beneath our feet. Its preamble begins:
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind …
And thence concludes “… that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.”
Human rights should be protected by the rule of law. One of the causes of our reticence has been that we have been asked to comment on the law. We are not lawyers. And, in any case, slow, dry, dispassionate law has sometimes felt like a wholly inadequate response to the horrors we’ve seen.
But we know that is wrong. And we have been doubly rescued by a powerful letter in last Tuesday’s Financial Times from eight eminent Jewish lawyers led by Lord Neuberger, Former President of the UK Supreme Court. They are crystal clear as to the law: listing the crimes that Hamas has committed, affirming Israel’s right to self-defence, and laying out the legal parameters within which it should act. But they conclude by recognising the very human frailty that has been haunting us:
“In these times of pain and terror the notion that there are laws that we must all live by is challenging but essential. Jewish history teaches us that we cannot give up on them.”
And with that, we feel our reticence lifting. We will not give up on the rule of law and human rights. In the coming weeks and months, René Cassin will use our convening power to assemble the best and wisest in our community and beyond to ensure that the power and principle encapsulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, our namesake’s precious legacy, live on.
Wishing you peace and strength in these truly terrible times