We ought to back this move
IT IS time for British Jewry to join the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury in speaking out about poverty. We should feel secure enough in ourselves as a community to publicise widely the work done by us and to call for governments to honour the legal commitments they have made to reduce poverty. The wide range of work, from the Charedi communities’ Gemach, or Talmudic interest-free loans to those in need, to the Liberal synagogues’ paying of a living wage to employers and contractors, are only reported in the Jewish press.
Jewish generosity, if more widely known outside the community, would help to combat repugnant antisemitic images.
Calling for safety nets and the right of everyone to basic human rights such as food, medical care and shelter is regarded by some in the community as an inappropriate entry into party politics. It is not. It is possible to call for social justice based on Jewish values without becoming party political.
To do this effectively Jewish bodies can learn much from international organisations, such as Unicef, and British charities, including Save the Children. Their messages are effective but they steer clear of party political labels.
They seek to implement better protection of the poor and the vulnerable, not by making party political statements, but by calling governments to account by using another form of higher law, not religious law but international human rights law.
Judaism and international human rights law have much in common, although (to borrow from Michael Caine) not a lot of people know this. Both are higher forms of law, and both reinforce each other in matters of poverty.
Even the titles of the principal human rights treaties, the two Covenants, resonate with the religious significance of the agreement between God and the Israelites.
The United Nations treaty, which focuses on social justice rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, has been binding on the UK since 1976. It sets out an impartial framework by which all British governments regard themselves as bound.
The United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights creates a legally binding obligation to use the “maximum of available resources” progressively to provide everyone in the UK with the right to “an adequate standard of living” and the “continuous improvement of living conditions”.
The right to an adequate standard of living includes the right to adequate food and adequate housing. Everyone includes citizens and noncitizens, the working poor and those on benefits and refugees.
The advantage of focusing on both Jewish values and international law is that calls for social justice will be patriotic. No government of any political persuasion has ever called for a withdrawal from the International Covenant, so it would not be entering party politics for a wide range of Jewish bodies to call for the obligations of the Covenant on the United Kingdom to be met.
Israel is also party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This is hardly surprising. The International Covenant ’s right to an adequate standard of living is based on the earlier Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of whose principal drafters was the Jewish jurist and Nobel prize winner, René Samuel Cassin.
One of the difficulties in adopting a common Jewish voice is, that unlike the Vatican or the Church of England, the Jewish community is not hierarchical.
If Jews could agree on a common call for the UK to honour its commitments to the poor, under the Covenant — that would be news.
We can learn much from independent bodies
Geraldine Van Bueren QC is professor of International Human Rights Law at Queen Mary, University of London. Her fee is donated to the Jewish Blind and Disabled