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Why our Human Rights Act the Jewish Community

This blog is by Debora Singer MBE, Safeguarding Human Rights Volunteer at René Cassin. René Cassin is a charity working to promote and protect universal human rights, drawing on Jewish experience and values.

Please note, this is a guest blog and views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of BIHR.

For the Jewish community, the UK Human Rights Act feels like a birthright.

The Human Rights Act protects individuals from the power of the state.  Why should this have particular importance for Jews?

After centuries living peacefully alongside their Christian and Muslim neighbours, Jews were persecuted and later expelled from Spain in 1492.  Jews were similarly persecuted and forced into exile from the Middle East and North Africa during the 20th century after many centuries of being completely accepted.

And many of us had grandparents murdered in the Holocaust for being Jewish.  Along with Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, gay people and disabled people, the Nazi state persecuted people simply for their identity.

As the cry of “Never Again” went up following the horrors of the Holocaust, in 1948 the Jewish French lawyer, Monsieur René Cassin drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  This developed into the European Convention on Human Rights which was brought into UK law as the Human Rights Act in 1998.

Principles that underpin human rights extend beyond just Jewish history. The idea of human rights goes back to Biblical times.  There are tenets that determine how we should treat the other ‘love the stranger as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:34) and ideas of justice ‘learn to do good.  Seek justice. Help the oppressed’ (Isaiah 1.17).  

In recent times, it is the Human Rights Act that has ensured the enjoyment of rights by members of the Jewish community. When in 2018 the Inner North London Coroner considered each case in chronological order of deaths (the cab rank rule) this conflicted with both Muslim and Jewish law to bury people within 24 hours.  The Adath Yisroel Burial Society took the Inner North London Coroner to court claiming this was against the Human Rights Act. The judge agreed, declaring that this policy was unlawful as it was against religious freedom and had to be changed.  The national Coroners’ guidance was consequently amended to accommodate Muslim and Jewish religious law so that their burials could be expedited. 

This is a good example of how the Human Rights Act allows for laws and guidance to be reconsidered if they turn out to be incompatible with the Human Rights Act.  It also serves as a way to balance people’s rights.

In fact, the Human Rights Act has very seldom been used in the UK in specifically Jewish cases.  However, we all benefit from the rights evidenced in other cases, many of which do not even go to court to reach a solution.  Getting sufficient care hours, couples being able to live in the same care home, same-sex marriage, housing being provided to women and children fleeing domestic abuse have all come about in individual cases through raising the Human Rights Act with the authorities involved.

The significance of the Human Rights Act to the Jewish community is both because of the historical experience of needing protection from the state, and because of the unique role that leading Jewish human rights lawyers such as Monsieur Cassin, Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin played in setting up the human rights framework we have today.

To us, human rights are a reflection of the values that underpin our faith, a safety net, a helping hand and ultimately, our birthright.

Rights Removal Bill Update

In December 2021, the UK Government announced plans to "overhaul" the Human Rights Act. We asked for René Cassin's thoughts on the reforms and they said:

"Because of our Jewish religion, values and history, the government’s plans to change the Human Rights Act are especially concerning for the Jewish community."

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