The concept of human dignity has been present throughout history, across nearly all cultures. The Bible, too, reflects the approach that every person is worthy of respect, because he or she is created in the image of God; it follows that assailing a person’s dignity is tantamount to showing disrespect for God, which is a sin.
In the past, however, the exceptions to the rule that people must be shown respect often outnumbered the cases in which the rule was actually observed. The more hierarchical the culture, the more limited was the right to respect. The elderly were considered more worthy of it than the young, the rich more than the poor, adults more than children, men more than women, free individuals more than slaves, and so forth.
The notion that all humans are deserving of respect – regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, religion and beliefs – reemerged in parallel with the development of the modern democratic ethos. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted in France on August 2, 1789, less than a month after the outbreak of the French Revolution, included an immortal statement that represented an unprecedented philosophical and historical breakthrough: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”
This notion spread like wildfire. As much as it may seem paradoxical, it is precisely because of this idea that Nazi race theory demoted Jews to the status of “subhuman.”
This devaluation made it possible for its adherents to trample on the Jews’ dignity and divest them of their most basic human rights, to the point of their ultimate nullification – depriving them of life.
Yet, truth be told, even today the concept of human dignity remains as elusive as ever. This stands in contrast to the similar but not identical concept of human rights, which has become an established notion and has been the subject of countless explicit and binding legal formulations.
Human dignity, upon which the concept of human rights is based, remains vague and open to interpretation – and some interpretations are intentionally exclusionary and restrictive. Even those who view human dignity as a noble value fall into two camps: those who believe that every human being is entitled to respect, and those who maintain that human dignity must be earned.
After all is said and done, however, when it comes to human dignity, the common tendency is to respect those who are similar to us and make light of those who are different from us. Many of us are guilty of disrespecting others or believing outright that some people are not worthy of respect.
Moreover, equally weighty values often counterbalance human dignity – such as the sanctity of life, public order and national security. In such cases, it is hard to decide which value is more important. Yet, so that human dignity is not overridden in every such conflict of values, it is essential to invest in educational efforts to introduce the importance of human dignity into the public discourse and mind.
As part of the “Israel Speaks: Human Dignity” project, the Israel Democracy Institute is sponsoring an event, endorsed by President Shimon Peres, at which 200 rankand-file Israelis – men and women, old and young, Jews and Arabs, secular and ultra-Orthodox, city dwellers and those in the periphery – will discuss and investigate these issues. The event and project’s overall aim is to increase awareness of human dignity in the various sectors of Israeli society, but not by providing shallow answers to difficult questions. Through intensive discussions across all social groups, we aim to develop a Declaration of Human Dignity, which will enshrine the common values we hold dear, in a document that we hope will be a foundational document for the State of Israel.
Indeed, we aspire to elevate the discourse, and educate and ensure that our dignity is undeniably bound with our very humanity.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.