Rabbi Jonathan Sacks identifies Rebecca’s brother Laban as the first anti-Semite. Rabbi Sacks follows the logic of the Haggadah, which states that Laban was worse than Pharaoh because Laban sought to destroy everything, whereas Pharaoh only made a decree against Jewish males. Rabbi Sacks notes that Laban began as a friend, but ultimately sought to deny Jacob the basic human rights related to property and personal dignity.
Judaism played an important role in the development of the idea of human rights. Lenn Goodman of Vanderbilt University argues that the “metaphysical foundation” for human rights lies in the Torah, Mishnah and Talmud. Peter Haas of Case Western Reserve University explains that while human rights are not explicitly articulated in Jewish sources, the concern for marginalized members of society – the safety and welfare of the stranger, the widow and the orphan – is a significant element of our tradition.
Late Israeli Supreme Court Justice Haim Cohn wrote that while Judaism is focused on obligations and responsibilities, all duties imply rights. Awareness of having been enslaved strangers leads to Torah teachings regarding equality of all people, religious freedom, asylum and freedom of speech. Our experience makes us sensitive to the suffering of others.
The Mishnah obligates witnesses in capital cases to be reminded: “The first human was created alone, to teach you that the destruction of any person’s life is tantamount to destroying a whole world and the preservation of a single life is tantamount to preserving a whole world” (Sanhedrin 4:5).
Irwin Cotler has argued that we must retain a core commitment to human rights as part of our Jewish value system. Proper conceptualization of human rights would start from our Jewish experience, enable us to defend Israel and empower us to speak with integrity and consistency to those outside our community.