Human Rights is Not a Dirty Word: Jews Should Embrace Human Rights

By Michaela Purdue
Director of Community Programs, Human Rights Coordinator, JCUA


Irene Lehrer Sandalow
Director of Strategy and Jewish Affairs, JCUA

(This article was written on Human Rights Day 2010, the 62nd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Watch video of a Human Rights Day event in which JCUA participated.)

Often when the notion of human rights is mentioned in the Jewish community, there is a sense of discomfort, defensiveness and rejection of the concept.

How did human rights become such a loaded term with negative connotations among Jews?

The concerns in some circles of the Jewish community are real and should not be discarded.  Discussions of human rights have been misused as a tool for the anti-Israel movement to delegitimize Israel.

The massive anti-Semitism that ran rampant at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR), which occurred in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, further fueled this perception for many Jews.

Using human rights principles as a tool for delegitimizing the state of Israel, decades of attacks have made supporters of Israel and members of the Jewish community very antagonistic and nervous about human rights language, reports and international meetings.

While it is clear that the human rights framework has been abused by anti-Israel and anti-Zionist groups to justify their efforts to delegitimize Israel, the human rights approach to ensure the fulfillment of dignity and respect should not rejected.


We need to understand what “human rights” means at its core before we consider how it has been misused. Human rights are the articulated entitlements of rights that everyone has because they are human.

Human rights are also obligations with which a government agrees to comply in order to ensure the dignity and respect of its entire people.

Finally, human rights are standards for ensuring that every person’s basic needs are met. Human rights include a minimum standard of living for everyone, the right not to be discriminated against and the right for all people to have housing, a living wage, education, food and more.


Our Jewish traditions are deeply ingrained with human rights values. The Jewish obligation towards our fellow human beings is rooted in the biblical concept that every person is created in the same image (God) and thus we cannot deny any person of their life, dignity and freedom.

Leading Conservative Rabbi Robert Gordis writes:

The right to justice adheres in all men, whatever their origin or racial character. The right and duty to enjoy God’s world and its blessings are inalienable, having been conferred on them by God and not by the state or a social contract. [1]

Jewish tradition considers human rights as a communal responsibility.

Not only does the Torah command us not to harm our fellow human beings, but both the Torah and Talmud prescribe structures that provide for the protection of individuals.

The human rights of the individual stem from the responsibility of the community to protect the individuals’ rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, equality and justice [2].

While there is broad consensus in American society that every individual has a right to life, healthcare and shelter, there is still a public debate on who should be protecting these rights.

Jewish tradition clearly states the communal responsibility to uphold these rights. These rights are protected for all individuals, independent of country of origin, religion, race and gender.

The Torah makes it clear:

“There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you” (Exodus 12:49).


For many Americans, human rights are seen as a tool to help developing countries improve people’s lives. Ironically, human rights are being abused  in our local communities every day. Human rights principles are a powerful approach to remedy such abuses.

In Chicago we are seeing disempowered and exploited communities effectively utilizing human rights principles to empower their residents to take actions to restore dignity and resources to those communities.

For instance, residents of the infamous Cabrini-Green public housing development have incorporated human rights into their anti-eviction campaign, which seeks to ensure fair and just standards for providing adequate access to affordable housing.

The People’s Law Office worked tireless for more than two decades to convict former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge for acts of torture he committed against more than 100 African-American men.

Had it not been for the lawyers at the People’s Law Office bringing the issue to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and to the International Committee against Torture in Geneva, the independent investigation and subsequent trial and conviction of Burge this year might not have happened.


We cannot forget how instrumental human rights and the work of the UN have been in creating a haven for the Jewish community.

World War II and the Holocaust motivated the creation of the state of Israel and the creation of articulated human rights.

And it was human rights principles that informed the justification for the creation of the state of Israel, namely through the articulated rights of self-determination, safety and security, and freedom from fear—all rights that have been enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

There is no question that the discussion of human rights has been used as a tool to delegitimize Israel. Politics has also been used to delegitimize Israel.

But Jews don’t stop engaging in political life because of the misuse of politics.

Similarly, Jews should not disregard the justice-creating benefits of human rights simply because the topic has been misused and abused by groups and countries with an anti-Israel agenda.

Human rights can’t be divorced from our Jewish values or traditions.

Before we reject a discussion of human rights principles, let’s learn more about them and embrace them as a way to strengthen our ability to actualize our Jewish values and to better our communities, locally and globally.


[1] Robert Gordis, Judaic Ethics for a Lawless World. Moreshet Series. Studies in Jewish History, Literature and Thought, 12 (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1986), p 76

[2] Obligations and Rights in the Jewish Political Tradition: Some Preliminary Observations, Daniel J. Elazar

One Response to Human Rights is Not a Dirty Word: Jews Should Embrace Human Rights

  1. […] The following blog post is cross-posted from the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs: […]

%d bloggers like this: