Academic journal article Shofar

Medieval Jewish Perspectives on Human Rights

Academic journal article Shofar

Medieval Jewish Perspectives on Human Rights

Article excerpt

We Jews have a precious message to give the world, a central part of which is an unalterable commitment to make the world in which we live a better place. We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are commanded to insure justice, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to liberate thepersecuted, and to share our bounty with those [who] have less than we. We are commanded. ... We are commanded . ... I, as a Jew, must fight for human rights, decency, and human sanctity because God commanded me to do so regardless of whether or not society demands it.

-Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer1

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerged in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The United Nations was established in October 1945. In 1946, it appointed an eighteen-member commission charged with crafting a statement of human rights and political ideals. The preamble explains that prominent among the goals of the postwar statement was the prevention of any further "disregard and contempt for human rights [which] have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind."2 The preamble also proposed a set of civil liberties and socioeconomic measures designed to eliminate the causes of desperation that might lead to violent "rebellion against tyranny and oppression." It was hoped that the eighteen members of the commission, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, would succeed in preparing "an agenda for improving the world [and] bringing about a new [world] in which the dignity of each individual will enjoy secure international protection."3

The committee labored intensively for two years. In December 1948, in Paris, the final draft of its statement was ratified. The tally of votes in the General Assembly of the United Nations was "forty-eight in favor, eight abstentions, and none opposed. Two countries, Honduras and Yemen, were absent."4 The defeated powers of World War II, Germany, which did not join the United Nations until 1973, and Japan, which did not join until 1956, were excluded from drafting and ratifying the declaration. The abstaining nations included Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, USSR, and Yugoslavia-all members of the Soviet bloc; South Africa; and Saudi Arabia, which deviated from the consensus of all the other Muslim nations, including Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syrian Arab Republic, and Turkey, which voted in favor.5 The timing of the Universal Declaration was therefore decisive: its content, participants, and pattern of voting were the contingent products of history, the expedient results of diplomatic compromise achieved against the background of the political, ideological conflict we euphemistically call the Cold War. Remarkably, despite the frigid temperature of postwar belligerence and the intense heat of postcolonial tension, no nation cast a negative vote, perhaps because no nation was being asked to surrender the slightest bit of sovereign jurisdiction to an outside power. Unlike a treaty or a convention, a declaration merely exhorts. It lacks the binding force of law.

Once ratified, the declaration began its work of gentle persuasion, inspiring the world's population with visions of postcolonial, perhaps even postnational, postinternational, universal utopia. Hence, the deliberately chosen, nonthreatening title of the document: Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but not International Declaration of Human Rights and not Universal Treaty (or Convention) on Human Rights. The advisory, utopian vision born in 1948 was nevertheless meant to be realistic. The vision was embodied in a set of thirty articles featuring a list of protections, or immunities, things that governments ought not to do to their citizens, and entitlements, actions that governments are expected to take on behalf of their citizens. Today, the utopian vision of universal human rights, with its radical list of immunities and entitlements, is still alive but unrealized.6

In its utopian preamble, the Universal Declaration affirms the Enlightenment's belief in "the inherent dignity and . …

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