Human rights are the antidote to prejudice in the community

Young activists campaigning for refugees (Credit Rene Cassin)
Young activists campaigning for refugees (Credit Rene Cassin)

Last month, a trustee of a major Jewish communal institution made dehumanising and derogatory comments about Muslims and patterns of migration in the United Kingdom. The responses, unsurprisingly, were myriad. They have ranged from a mass letter from community leaders demanding resignation, to outright denial and abdication of collective responsibility. Still, a frank discussion of prejudice, racism, and broader questions of discrimination has followed. Many have asked how and why this hateful language is showing up amongst our peers? Is this really a problem for us as a marginalised and diverse ethno-religious community? If so, how do we deal with it?

The answer is yes, this is a real problem. This is not the first-time high profile or well respected members of our community have espoused Islamophobia or other prejudice. The experience of discrimination alone does not equip us with the knowledge, empathy, and aptitude to unlearn the complex prejudices baked into the world around us. In fact, the experience of hatred can, unchecked, have the opposite effect. We close ranks, motivated by the well-founded fears of thousands of years of persecution. We fail to see outside of the walls we believe protect us, become suspicious of other marginalised groups, and incapable of recognising within ourselves the very prejudices that hurt us. At worst, we begin to see our rights and civic protections as a zero sum-game, secured at the expense of an ever encroaching other.

The irony of this position is not only that it narrows our vision and leads us to prejudiced views ourselves. It also hollows out the comprehensive and intersectional legacy of hard-won rights established in the wake of our persecution. As Jews, our experience in the Holocaust, alongside Roma, Sinti, LGBTQ+ people, set the stage for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be drafted in 1948. French-Jewish Jurist, Monsieur René Cassin, helped design this transformative piece of international law. The Declaration protects refugees, indigenous people, religious minorities, queer people, women, and people of colour to this day, by establishing economic and political imperatives for a dignified life for everyone. It is important to see our community challenging prejudice from within, particularly to remind us that ‘othering’ and dehumanising can come back to bite us.

Two pieces of legislation currently passing through Parliament do exactly this. The Police Powers Bill is the culmination of years of apathy and outright hostility towards Gypsies and Travellers, from politicians’ talk of ‘invasions’ to a chronic lack of road side camps sites for their nomadic way of life. René Cassin, the Jewish voice for human rights, works with the Traveller Movement on a #CutItOut campaign and #ReachOutcampaign to highlight the historic and contemporary links between Jews and Travellers, pushing an outward looking challenge to discrimination that relies on solidarity, education, and mutual understanding. Meanwhile, the Nationality and Borders Bill criminalises refugees, destabilises citizenship for dual nationals including Jews, and defies international laws like the 1952 Refugee Convention that were designed in our name.

This legislation spells a slow and steady backslide on our human rights. At best, it depends on our apathy. At worst, it capitalises on visceral fears that cast us as competitors in an already-rigged game of life, compelled to fight over the scraps of an ever-narrowing pool of protections attained by ever-shifting goal posts. It is in this landscape that we must undertake a radical reappraisal of how we ensure our safety and continuity.  We must be co-conspirators not competitors who refuse to play the game at hand, and instead work in solidarity across communities – not at their expense- to remake the case for our human rights. This is what René Cassin intends to do through our #ReachOut campaign. Our events, resources, and actions educate and build relationships within between communities, introducing Moishe Houses and Jewish students to new social issues, and arming them with the tools to challenge hate in all its forms. As the refrain from Eleanor Roosevelt goes: ‘where, after all, do human rights begin? In small places, close to home.’

About the Author
Esther Raffell, Campaigns Officer at René Cassin, the Jewish voice for Human Rights
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