Gold Blog Original Barrister... Chaplain... Human Rights

Yom HaShoah Address at Hamonean

Memorial at Valašské Meziříčí. Photo Credit: Radim Holiš
Memorial at Valašské Meziříčí. Photo Credit: Radim Holiš

Reverend Ernst Levy was a Cantor in Scotland and over the years became the voice of survivors in there. Rev Levy was a camp survivor and through his broadcasts on BBC Scotland reached and touched the lives of thousands of people. In truth, he was one of the nicest people I have ever met. I came into contact with him during my first-ever job where I worked in Scotland for the Jewish community. We were asked to develop a Jewish education programme following concerns about the declining numbers in the city and put on a series of courses, formal and informal. One of those courses we were asked to do was on the Shoah. Finding someone to lecture on the historical side of the Shoah was not too difficult. However, people on the course wanted a session of G-d after Auschwitz. Rev Levy was acceptable to all. Ernst spoke movingly about his unbroken faith and we went to questions. There was a moment of silence in the questioning and so I put my question. I asked a stupid question and got a brilliant reply. ‘You have told us that you have retained your faith in G-d after Auschwitz, but do you still have faith in humanity’. He smiled at me and said, ‘If you don’t believe in humanity then there is no point in believing in G-d’. He went on to tell me about the soldiers who had found him in a ditch at the end of the war and rescued him, the German nurse that had brought him back to health… There is no point in believing in G-d if you don’t believe in humanity…

I have taken his message of believing in humanity as a motif throughout my career. 15 years ago my friends and I set up a human rights group in the UK. It is a Jewish group that campaigns on universal human rights, those fundamental rights that the nations of the world signed up in the aftermath of the Shoah. Our group represented the interests of one of the first non-Governmental bodies to achieve accreditation at the United Nations in the late 1940s. We went to task at promoting the rights of all from the Jewish experience. In essence we have spoken out on potential genocides, on slavery which still exists across the world and shamefully on the streets of London today and on forms of discrimination and racism. In the early days of the group we collected a lot of young Jewish human rights activists, some well-known, others less-so. They tended to be secularised and liberal in their outlook. For a while, we ran ourselves a great collective, wondering how we could both be a Jewish organisation whilst promoting universal rights. Yes, our group that we represented at the UN had been founded by the co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and yes, after the war many of the classic human rights texts had been shaped by Jewish intellectuals: Lauterpacht, Cassin and Lempkin to name but a few… We were told that some of our questions had been thought about by these great thinkers and intellectuals but accept for some one page declaration on Judaism and human rights we could not find out what they had studied. Much to my surprise the group decided to study the Jewish sources to each and every article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to put them in a Jewish context. At the heart of our religion is the concept that we were slaves in Egypt. We are told time and again to look after and ensure justice for those who were the weakest in society: the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our land and to ‘not stand idly by our neighbours blood’ which Rashi helpfully explains means we need to go out and do something when our neighbour is in trouble. We were so excited by our findings we drafted a Judaism and Human Rights Charter which the Chief Rabbi signed along with the Attorney General who was Jewish at the time, a number of movements in the Jewish community etc at the Houses of Parliament.

Ourselves, armed with this information and our belief that we had some sort of moral responsibility to ensure the Shoah must never be repeated we went off to the United Nations. One of our early projects was to try and push through a UN agreements that states / countries should consider group rights. Most countries in the world told us this was new and could have grave difficulties. At first, I went to the meetings in Geneva alone then brought along Dan, a barrister who was part of our group. Dan and I faced a little problem. We went to a meeting where all the countries were invited and approximately 150 turned up and were all against group rights. This was our argument: if a head of state kills an entire family, then there is no one to pursue justice for them and what is more if you kill an entire family there are no heirs and the property is intestate and becomes the property of the state. This tends to be the rough outline of the law where property right are recognised. The upshot is that a genocidal dictator will gain more wealth and property for the state the more people he kills (it tends to be a he). We believed that most genocides or mass killings were carried out against a specific group based on their ethnic background, their religion, denomination or tribe so there were groups who could pursue claims. It seems right that the victim groups could pursue justice and be returned heirless property. We were told that was very nice but it was not international law. Again, we came armed. You see in my lunch break studying law I had discovered a series of very dusty books on the top shelf of the Inner Temple Library. The top shelf of the library at Inner Temple is a good 15 feet / 5 metres up. Yours truly became an experienced high wire student hanging precariously off ladders to find out what the Supreme Restitution Court of Berlin had to say. This court was set up after the Shoah by the Allies (French, US and Britain). It had judges from those countries and was chaired by a neutral judge i.e. one of the Scandinavian countries that had declared neutrality at the beginning of the war. This court had direct appeal to the International Court of Justice and it said that groups rights were permissible and made sense. Having convinced the UN lawyers that my time perched on a ladder in the law library was worth it they started drafting in group rights. We lobbied and when it went to the vote only two countries on the Human Rights Council remained opposed: Germany and the US. The US had technical issues but changed their vote due to our presence. I actually negotiated with the lawyer in what can only be described as cubby-hole on the entrance to the Commission. The Germans sent their top person from Berlin to meet us. He told one of my colleagues that he believed that Germany had settled most issues with the Jewish community. We explained to him that we wanted to preserve these precedents. Exhausted he told us it was not us but they feared claims from the White Russians. Another colleague said, ‘so what did you to do to them…’. He was silent… And went onto change his vote against to an abstention.

You see if we had not taken this stand then the lessons of the Holocaust risked being lost and forgotten forever, lying on an old and dusty shelf in one of law libraries and perhaps one day being put into storage and from then who knows?

I have spent time fighting injustice, promoting good relations etc. More recently, I was asked to do this in the context of sport. I have been an Ambassador to the Football Association for a number of years and chair their Faith in Football group. Concerned by rising Islamophobia and Antisemitism in the sport Dal Babu, a great friend, former chair of the Association of the Muslim Police and an Arsenal fan suggested that we ask the FA to set up a Commission on Islamophobia and Antisemitism. The group went onto recommend ways in which football could tackle these issues more successfully. I sincerely believe communities working together on these issues is much more powerful then one group working alone. Today, we have seven faith groups represented on the FA’s Faith in Football Group which I chair. Racists and xenophobes can hide better in a crowd and those policing the games from the stewards to the police are more wary of large crowds but we need to work and convince people that whilst football has had success in kicking out some of the worse excesses of racism until all racism is kicked out of the game. 20 years ago we witnessed the most appalling scenes of racism aimed at young Afro-Caribbean players emerging at the highest level of the game. Speaking to Cyril Regis who was one of those players he recalls how crowds would throw bananas on the pitch and the like. Imagine what it is like to be in the middle of a pitch aged a couple of years older than you and having hundreds of fans chant at you. Actually, I don’t have to imagine. I once turned up to a game at Brighton and Hove many many years ago. My brother and I were late and had to walk across the Brighton fans to our set of fans. I was wearing a berret. Perhaps, because of this or the way that I look or some quirky coincidence 5000 fans burst out in a song of ‘Yiddo’ pointing at me. Partly, I laughed and partly I was extremely concerned. You see if we ignore racism happening to one group then what right do we have to complain when it is aimed at us.

Last year, during the Olympics, I was a Chaplain to the Games. I was asked by the US State Department to bring together different communities to work on projects side by side, to volunteer their time. It was a great time to do this. We felt a sense of solidarity in the air. My most memorable experience was sitting in Glasgow discussing issues of racism, diversity and sectarianism with young students in a mixed school with the US state Departments Special Representative.

We as Jews know what harm looks like. Hillel taught us that ‘What you yourself find harmful: do not do unto others’. The same Daily Mail that attacks immigrants in the 21st Century attacked immigrants from Germany in 1938, the very same German Jewish immigrants who formed this school; we know what it is like to be excluded because of our ethnicity or religion and when it happens today it is no different; we know what it is like to suffer from discrimination and persecution. We know how hard it was to get some of synagogues built in the 19th century in cities in Europe, the same arguments occur today over Temples and Mosques and minerets. My family probably mirrors yours.What we know empowers us to help others… It empowers you, me, us to go out there and put up a big mirror to the world. It happened to us, it should not happen to others, never again…

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