We ought to back this move

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT - Geral­dine Van Bueren

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

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