“Jews and Human Rights” by Robert Traer

Reference: Religion and Human Rights

After World War II there was active Jewish support for the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And Jews continue to play an important part in human rights advocacy. Many Jews, like many members of other religious traditions, affirm that human rights are an expression of their faith.

Rabbi Daniel Polish acknowledges that the phrase “human rights” is a modern juridical notion. However, he argues that “the system of values and ideas” on which human rights are grounded

are among the beliefs which constitute the very core of Jewish sacred scripture and the tradition of ideas and practices which flows from it. The idea-set which is represented by the phrase “human rights” derives in the Jewish tradition from the basic theological affirmation of Jewish faith.

The “core theological affirmations of the Jewish faith,” which require recognition of the sanctity of the individual and the equality of all as children of God, “serve as the undergirding for the Jewish commitment to the idea-set we call ‘human rights’.” Polish asserts that the history of the Jewish people has brutally demonstrated the necessity of the freedoms and protections, which are designated by the phrase “human rights.”

Traditional Rights

David Daube argues that foundations for human rights may be found in the religious literature of Judaism. Similarly, S. D. Goitein asserts that “human rights, and relations among men in general, had been fully established in the Bible and the Talmud, and these formed the very substance of medieval Jewish beliefs and practices.” The consequences of this tradition may be seen in the active involvement of Jews in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when “the support for universally valid laws and human rights became almost a self-understood Jewish concern.”

Polish argues that human concerns have always been central in the Jewish tradition: “The recognition of the importance of human life is at the same time both integral to the Jewish faith system and the first and necessary precondition for a belief in human rights.” Michael Fishbane makes a similar affirmation of faith:

The fundamental presupposition of the rights of the person in Judaism is a belief in the absolute and uncompromisable worth of human life. This belief is grounded in the unique value of the individual in the divine scheme of creation and is variously articulated in both biblical literature and rabbinic tradition.

Polish adds that: “The notion of human rights flows as a natural extension of the Genesis account of the creation of humanity.” The Genesis story affirms both the sovereignty of God and the sacredness of the individual, for it is a single person that is first made in the image of God. Thus, the rabbis teach that killing a person “is tantamount to diminishing the reality of God’s own self.”

Polish notes that the three major festivals in the Jewish year—Pesach (Passover), Succot (Tabernacles), and Shavuot (Pentecost)—commemorate aspects of the Exodus from Egypt, which is the basis for Jewish affirmations of the human right to political liberty. Purim, the commemoration of the events of the Book of Esther, clearly affirms the rights of minority peoples, as does the Torah in its demand that the rights of the stranger be protected. Moreover, on the afternoon of every Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement),

Jews read a recounting of those who died “for the sanctification of God’s Name” to live a life of fidelity to Torah, even when that was proscribed by the Roman occupiers. Martyrdom for acting on higher values has been considered a positive virtue through our history.

In these ways Jews affirm that “the right of conscience cannot be abrogated by law—indeed, that one is entitled to violate the law in order to remain true to one’s conscientious beliefs.” Similarly, the festival of Chanukah (the Feast of Lights) is a “celebration of a human right” for it “celebrates the specific freedom of religion.”

In addition to political rights, the Jewish tradition affirms economic and social rights. Polish writes: “There can be little doubt that the Torah and subsequent Jewish teaching argue for the defense of the poor.” He argues that the Jewish community has actively sought to alleviate the deprivations of poor people. Moreover, this is a matter of recognizing a right and not merely of engaging in charitable acts:

Remarkably, Jewish religious literature and Jewish communal practice reflect an attitude that attending to such needs of the poor is an act not of beneficence but of concern, to which the poor are rightfully entitled by virtue of their circumstances.

Meeting the needs of the poor is a matter of justice, because it is only through such practices that the poor can gain access to that which God has “provided for . . . all.”

William Irwin suggests that biblical stories in which prophets confront kings for “their highhanded indifference to human rights”—Nathan confronting King David for taking Bathsheba and killing her husband Uriah, and Elijah confronting King Ahab for taking Naboth’s vineyard and having him killed—are highly important “as steps in the rise of Israel’s sense of a higher law; for, in both, a prophet intercedes to rebuke the monarch in the name of the Lord.” Irwin says of the prophet Amos: “His enlarged concept of the nature and authority of God evidently was rooted in a feeling of common human rights, pervasive beyond the political and religious boundaries of the time. This principle was for him embodied in the person of the God of Israel.”

Democratic Rights

Lord Acton agrees that these prophetic examples strengthened “the doctrine of the higher law,” which was a part of the covenant relationship between God and the Hebrew people. Similarly, Milton Konvitz writes: “In the Biblical conception, no one is above the law.” As Rabbi Phineas said: “All are equal before the law. The duty of observance is for all.” Emanuel Rackman acknowledges that “Biblical Hebrew has no word for ‘equality’,” but he affirms that in Leviticus 24:22 God extends the right to be treated equally under the law even to include those who are strangers within Israel.

The notion of equality is also grounded in the fatherhood of God, which means that all persons are brothers and sisters. Konvitz comments that “wherever one turns in the writings of the Jews this motif of equality, the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, appears irresistibly.”

Thus, at the Passover seder a drop of wine is to be spilled from the cup at the mention of each of the ten plagues with which the Egyptians were afflicted, the reason being, say the Rabbis, that one’s cup of joy cannot be full as long as there is suffering somewhere in the world. . .. Again, at the seder the head of the household reads of the drowning of the Egyptian hosts in the Red Sea; and the Rabbis comment on the passage by relating that when the drowning was taking place, angels in heaven commenced to sing the praises of the Lord, but He rebuked them, saying, “My children are drowning, and you would sing!”

Therefore, Konvitz concludes: “the spirit, the inner values, the energies of democracy are right at the very heart of Judaism.”

The notion that democratic values are rooted in the Jewish tradition is reflected in Thomas Paine’s argument, in Rights of Man, that all persons are equal because they are all descended from Adam. Robert Gordis makes a similar claim: “The classic thesis of the Declaration of Independence is deeply suffused by the spirit of biblical faith, refracted by the rationalist liberalism of John Locke.” However, Lenn Evan Goodman argues that in this refraction by Locke there was a shift from the Jewish affirmation of equal dignity before God to an emphasis on enlightened self-interest.

Judaism founds human right [sic] upon the assumption that, ideally, all human beings are of equal merit (i.e., all are, at least at the outset, equal in their moral potential), equal before God and, therefore, equal in desert before the law and their fellow human beings. . .. Locke, following Hobbes, Machiavelli, and, ultimately, the Sophist equation of right with power, founds human equality on the presumed natural equality of power, not to create but to destroy.

Goodman asserts that Locke’s “assumption of the virtual equality of the power of all individuals” is a fiction, because it ignores “the plight of the helpless and dependent classes in society.”27 By contrast, the Torah demands “that individuals be treated as equals, regardless of actual differences in their station, wealth or position.” Thus, the Jewish notion of equality, which requires positive acts by government for the welfare of the people, when refracted by Locke, results in the liberal orthodox doctrine of civil and political rights limited to the noninterference of government in the lives of its supposedly equal citizens.

Even as Jewish law recognizes the fundamental right to equality of treatment as well as equality of opportunity, Emanuel Rackman argues that the Talmud “is a veritable mine of materials pertaining to human rights” in that it recognizes many other rights generally traced back through the liberal philosophical tradition, including the doctrine of judicial review, the right of civil disobedience, the right against self-incrimination, the right of the accused to an adequate defense, the right to dissent, and immunity from being compelled to support an established religion.

Similarly, Herbert Brichto argues that “the biblical ethos has provided the sole ideological base for democracy.”

Whatever its political form or organization, society is required by Scripture to uphold the standards of minimum human dignity. These standards include, for example, the right of any Israelite to satisfy his hunger at his fellow’s expense but not to harvest his fellow’s labors. Among the provisions for the administration of justice are many examples of social legislation such as those permitting the poor and the alien access to harvest gleanings, unreaped borders, and the forgotten sheaf. Another illustration of these egalitarian standards is the protest against the creation of landed estates.

Milton Konvitz suggests that fundamentally, “the democratic faith is a moral affirmation” that no one is to be used merely as a means to an end, for

no matter how lowly his origin, a man is here only by the grace of God—he owes his life to no one but God. He has an equal right to pursue happiness: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are his simply by virtue of the fact that he is a live human being.

If this faith finds its essence in what Henry Michel called the “eminent dignity of human personality,” and Konvitz asserts that: “One of the chief sources of this faith is in the wellsprings of Judaism.”

In the words of Michael Fishbane, because of the “principled standards of moral choice based on a clear notion of the person,” the Jewish legal tradition may provide “a powerful resource for contemporary reflections on human rights and duties in our time.”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Israeli jurist Haim H. Cohn has written an extensive commentary from the Jewish perspective on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He discusses most but not all of the rights set forth in the Declaration, because “Jewish law does not take cognizance of all ‘human rights’ therein provided for” including “rights to social security and rights to participate in government.” By “Jewish Law” Cohn means both “the system of religious law which comprises Scriptural or Written Law, said to emanate from direct or indirect divine revelation, and Oral Law, first expounded in the talmudical sources and later developed by the rabbis.” He notes that, because of the divinity of the law, it is “well nigh self-evident that there is not ‘any nation so great that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law’ (Deut. 4:8).”

In order to discern “human rights” in Jewish law Cohn looks at commandments (mitzvot), including both positive and negative injunctions, with “the premise that the purpose of imposing duties toward your fellowmen was but the recognition and implementation of rights of which these fellowmen stand possessed,” which is the same thing as “the fulfillment of their legitimate expectations and legally recognized needs.” Thus, “from the duty to assist and maintain the poor a fundamental human right of every human being to his livelihood may reasonably be inferred, as the fundamental right to life may justifiably be inferred from the prohibition of homicide.”39

Cohn notes that all commands of the Jewish law are addressed to individual persons. In this sense Jewish law has much in common with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares rights but provides no social mechanism of enforcement:

in the same way that the rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration reflect ethical standards postulated by the founding fathers of the United Nations as the aspirations of a new world sick of war and lawlessness, of inhuman atrocities and human sufferings, so do the duties imposed by Jewish lawgivers reflect their ethical standards, which were postulated by a legal order conditioned by, and wholly dedicated to, the service and worship of God.

Often duties in Jewish law are supported by a threat of divine wrath if they are ignored, as in the obligation to care for widows and orphans:

if thou afflict them in any wise, and they cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear their cry. And My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows and your children fatherless (Exodus 22:22-23).

Cohn observes that this divine threat “shows just to what lengths a wrathful God may go to vindicate human rights.”

The human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that Cohn derives from the duties of Jewish law include: the right to life, the right to liberty and security of person, the right to privacy, the right to reputation, freedom of movement and residence, the right to asylum, the right to marry and found a family, the right to property, the right to work and remuneration, the right to leisure, freedom of thought, speech, and conscience, freedom of information, and the right to education and participation in culture.

Jewish law, like Islamic law, does not allow the kind of religious freedom that is declared a human right in the Universal Declaration. Cohn writes: “The premise from which all Jewish law flows, that there is no true and right faith other than the Jewish, necessarily implies an intolerance of contradictory and incompatible religions.” However, after lengthy debate within the tradition, adherents of monotheistic religions—such as Christianity and Islam—were classified as “strangers” and therefore were acknowledged to have rights as being among the strangers “thou shalt love as thyself” (Lev. 19:34, Deut. 10:19).

Talmudic law distinguishes between a stranger who had converted to Judaism and a stranger who had not. Although it achieved “an almost perfect equality between indigenous and converted Jews, it practically obliterated the provisions of biblical law which had been intended and expressed to apply particularly to unconverted aliens.” Whatever the theological motivation for this retrogressive change, Cohn asserts that biblical law stands out among the legal systems of all times as a model of nondiscrimination against strangers: “God Himself loves them (Deut. 10:18) and protects them (Ps. 146:9), and their oppression is a grave offense and abominable sin (Ex. 22:20, 23:9; Lev. 19:33; Jer. 7:6. 22:3; Zech. 7:10).”

The general rule in Jewish law is that the laws “which thou shalt set before them” (Ex. 21:1) apply to women as well as men, with the numerous exceptions to this rule resulting from either physiological or assumed psychological peculiarities of women. Often these distinctions result in discriminations that favor women. However, in marriage law the husband alone consecrates the marriage and only he has the right to write a bill of divorce, even though both husband and wife have a right to sexual intercourse.

Finally, Cohn argues that Jewish law provides for equality in the administration of justice: “Ye shall have one manner of law” (Lev. 24:22).50 He notes that Jewish law sets judicial standards and elaborates procedural safeguards, and that in talmudical law biblical talionic punishments were replaced by monetary compensation and capital punishment was moderated.

Cohn concludes his study by asserting the recognition in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Jewish law that the paramount duty upon every person who claims any right or freedom is to secure “due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others.” He writes that Hillel once said, “Do not do to another what you would not like another to do to you: that is the whole of the law—and everything else is but comment and elaboration.” And he observes that Jesus, who was a contemporary of Hillel, echoed this thought in positive terms in the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them, for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12).54 It is clear then that

All of the law is self-restraint, is practical recognition and implementation of the rights of others; though both the motivation and the justification of such self-restraint may be the ultimate recognition of and respect for your own rights.

That is, Jewish law concerning human relations is basically altruistic: “If ‘human rights’ can be said to provide a basis or starting point, or perhaps also the ultimate goal, of the norm-creating process, it is the duties, the do and the do-not, the care and respect for the other man, that make for true law.”


Despite the lack of protection of their human rights over the centuries, Louis Henkin asserts that “Jews will remain dedicated to human rights in principle and in program; they cannot do otherwise.” Jews will, Henkin believes, continue to advocate the rights of freedom of religion and emigration, because their faith demands it. As Isaac Lewin argues, quoting Exodus 12:37-39 to the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, “Either we let the people go or, at least, give them the right to bake Matzoth and to practice their religion freely. This is the least justice demands. . ..”

Michael Meerson-Aksenov observes that “The right to emigrate, which was formulated by the exodus movement as the right of Jews to return to the land of their ancestors, has now been adopted by the Russian human-rights movement as one of their [sic] basic demands.” Therefore, he argues that “the Jewish liberation movement has become a social force for spreading awareness of rights” in the Soviet Union:

Taking up the struggle for the right of Jews to emigrate to Israel, the exodus has caused the entire rights movement to expand into the hearts of the Soviet people. Never before had they realized that, according to their own Constitution, these are rights to which they are entitled de jure.

As the exodus movement has attracted Jews from all strata of Soviet society, it has spread to remote parts of the country and even its minimal successes have been inspiring for many.

The Zionist cause has been formulated by many Jews as a way of securing their human rights. Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, was hailed by some Jewish leaders as a champion of the “human rights of the Jewish people.” Leslie Green writes:

Zionism advanced a new direction for the achievement of Jewish emancipation and human rights: national self-determination through the founding of a Jewish state. For Herzl, as for many early Zionists, the establishment of a Jewish state represented a continuing expression of the effort to guarantee universal human rights for Jews.

In the language of international human rights law, Zionists have framed the issue of an independent Israel as their right to self-determination.

Palestinians argue for the same right to the same land, and were displaced by the war of 1947-48 that resulted in the new state of Israel. In addition, Palestinians have had the support of many Third World governments for UN resolutions condemning Israel for violating human rights. Jacob Talmon strongly criticizes these UN resolutions: “from the very forum of the apparent enshrinement of the universal principle of human rights we have heard the latest version of the denial of the legitimacy and rights to the Jewish people.” Walter Laquer even asserts that political attacks on Israel reveal the UN Human Rights Commission to be “a farce” and “a totally irrelevant institution.” Jews are particularly outraged by the resolution adopted 17 October 1975 by the Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Committee of the UN General Assembly, because it contains the sentence: “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.”

Daniel Moynihan believes that the very nature of human rights, as a standard above politics to protect the small and weak of the world, is threatened by such attacks on Israel. And Sidney Liskofsky warns that in the battle over international human rights, between authoritarian and democratic ideologies, it is imperative to struggle so that “the moral and political forces generated by the ideal of human rights” are not lost.

Yet, as early as 1967, I. F. Stone, an American Jewish journalist, criticized the Zionist ideal for promoting an ethical double-standard:

Israel is creating a kind of moral schizophrenia in World Jewry. In the outside world the welfare of Jewry depends on the maintenance of secular, non-racial pluralistic societies. In Israel, Jewry finds itself defending a society in which mixed marriages cannot be legalized, in which non-Jews have a lesser status than Jews and in which the ideal is racial and exclusionist.

Stone urged Jews to look to the moral vision articulated by the prophetic writings of Judaism: “Universal values can only be the fruit of a universal vision; the greatness of the prophets lay in their overcoming of ethnocentricity.”

A Zionist ideology need not be racist, but certainly for some Jews it has been racist. Many Zionist leaders during the war in 1948 favored expelling Arabs from Palestine, and terror was justified by some as the means of implementing this policy. Moreover, there is support today in Israel for removing Arabs from the land that Jews believe was given only to the “chosen people” by God.

Teachings from the Torah and the Talmud are used to substantiate the claim that Jews have a divine right to deny non-Jews basic human rights. Deuteronomy 20:16-18 in the Hebrew Bible commands nothing less than the mass murder of those who oppose the Israelite occupation of Canaan.

But as for the towns of these peoples that Yahweh your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them — the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites — just as Yahweh your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against Yahweh your God.

Today, in Israeli publications, the Palestinians are compared to the peoples of the land that the ancient Israelites dispossessed.

For some Jews, the Jews are a racially, distinct people chosen by God. Rabbi Ginsburgh, a leading authority of the Jewish Lubovitcher sect headquartered in the United States, speaks openly of “Jews’ genetic-based, spiritual superiority over non-Jews. It is a superiority that he asserts invests Jewish life with greater value in the eyes of the Torah.” It would seem that most Jews today do not subscribe to this racist view. However, as Cohn acknowledged in his study of Jewish law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Talmud clearly interprets the Torah to hold that the rights of non-Jews are subordinate to the rights of Jews.

For instance, “The Halacha [Jewish law based on the Talmud] permits Jews to rob non-Jews in those locales wherein Jews are stronger than non-Jews,” and only “prohibits Jews from robbing non-Jews in those locales wherein the non-Jews are stronger.” The principle is clearly ethnic (racial) expediency, rather than an ethical standard that can generalized for all people. Relying on such teachings from the Halacha, a well-known rabbi has stated publicly the logical conclusion of such a double-standard: “A Jew who killed a non-Jew is exempt from human judgment and has not violated the [religious] prohibition of murder.” Or, as Rabbi Aviner from the Gush Emunim movement in Israel explains, “While God requires other normal nations to abide by abstract codes of justice and righteousness, such laws do not apply to Jews.”

The Gush Emunim movement that propagates this view is a small minority in Israel, but its statements are widely disseminated in Jewish and Israeli publications. Moreover, the use of rabbinical teachings to justify denying the human rights of non-Jews is not limited to Gush Emunim extremists. In 1984 Kivunim, a publication of the World Zionist Organization, printed an argument by Mordechai Nisan, a lecturer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, that non-Jews permitted to reside in the land of Isael “must accept paying a tax and suffering the humiliation of servitude.” Nisan went on to assert: “Non-Jews must not be appointed to any office or position of power over Jews. If they refuse to live a life of inferiority, then this signals their rebellion and the unavoidable necessity of Jewish warfare against their very presence in the land of Israel.”

These “reasons” for persecuting Gentiles, who resist Israeli dominance over the land given to the “chosen people” by God, were Dr. Baruch Goldstein’s “justification” in 1994 for murdering twenty-nine Muslims while they prayed in Hebron at the tomb of the patriarchs, a place holy for Jews and Muslims. In an article published a few days later in Yerushalaim, journalist Yuval Katz pointed out that “with the exception of the wealthiest neighborhoods, people could be seen smiling merrily when talking about the massacre.” Appalled by this observation, Katz urged Jews to resist the use of Jewish teachings to claim divine sanction for denying the human rights of non-Jews: “We have to acknowledge that our supposed advancement in progressive beliefs and democracy have failed to affect the archaic forms of Jewish tribalism.”


Because of their religious faith, some Jews have defended universal human rights while other Jews have sought to justify denying these rights to those who seem to endanger Jewish control of the land that Jews call Israel and Arabs call Palestine.

When there was no Jewish State, rabbis sought only to ensure the survival of Jews within other societies. In these circumstances rabbis taught that Jews had a lesser duty to care for non-Jews than to care for Jews. Whatever we think of such ethical principles, these religious teachings may have contributed to the survival of the Jewish people under trying and often terrible circumstances.

With the beginning of the Jewish State in 1948, distinctions between Jews and non-Jews were written into laws that discriminate against non-Jews. Once a Jewish government began to enforce such laws on non-Jewish citizens of Israel, a conflict with the human rights law being developed through the United Nations was inevitable. Today, Israel defends its actions not only on the basis of its security needs, but also on the basis of its religious identity as a State observing Jewish law. At the same time, many Jews argue that by taking this position Israel is denying its prophetic tradition, which rejects an ethnocentric understanding of God’s calling and supports justice for all peoples.

Giving voice in his Noble Peace Prize acceptance speech to this prophetic strand of the Jewish tradition, Elie Wiesel grieves that “human rights are being violated on every continent,” and urges that action be taken whenever “human dignity is in jeopardy.” Despite the horrors experienced during World II by millions of Jews, which Wiesel knew personally as a prisoner in the concentration camps, he affirms: “I have faith. Faith in God and even in His creation.”


*Revised from a chapter on “Jews” in Faith in Human Rights: Support in Religious Traditions for a Global Struggle (Washington, DC:Georgetown University Press, 1991).