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Zionism and Human Rights: A Conversation with Historian James Loeffler

Human rights are universal. They belong to everyone, as the term implies. But the movement for human rights is a story grounded in particulars: a time, a place, a group of people. That story is told, brilliantly and for the first time, in Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, by the University of Virginia historian James Loeffler. Over the summer, Professor Loeffler took some time to field questions from Yale University Press. What are human rights, exactly? Who decides? Can those rights, once agreed upon, be enforced? Who can do the enforcing? Along the way, he limned the story told in his 384-page book, which answers a different question: How did five Jewish leaders, inspired by the bitter truths of Jewish experience, change the world for the better?


Yale University Press: How should we understand the term “human rights”? Is there a simple, static definition, or can it only be defined historically, as a set of evolving laws and safeguards?

James Loeffler: There are two ways to define “human rights” today. The first definition is the one most of us carry around in our heads: Human rights are the basic universal norms of dignity and freedom that we possess as human beings. The second meaning is much narrower and more specific: Human Rights are a set of international legal protections created after World War II, through specific treaties, and monitored and enforced by various legal bodies and non-governmental organizations. Built into that second definition is a recognition that human rights are not something eternal and unchanging, but the recent product of international diplomacy and law-making. Yet that story is virtually unknown.


YUP: How far back can we trace the movement for human rights?

JL: It’s common to imagine that human rights stretch back to antiquity. And indeed, every civilization and religion possesses its own powerful vision of justice and dignity. But universal morality is not the same as international law. In reality, the idea of ascribing to every human being a set of legal rights is incredibly recent, dating only to the mid-twentieth century. There are some antecedents in the eighteenth century, the era of Enlightenment and revolution, but neither the French, American, or Haitian revolutionaries dreamed of a binding global system of legal rights for every individual in the world. The real emergence of human rights came after World War II, when people set out to create a legal system that would enshrine human rights and popularize the concept and the term itself. Even then, however, it didn’t really turn into a global movement. That didn’t happen until the 1970s and afterwards.


YUP: What role did the Holocaust play in the story you tell in Rooted Cosmopolitans?

JL: Many people—and many scholars—assume that the Holocaust shocked the world into declaring human rights. That’s not surprising: Modern human rights began after World War II. And the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights happened in 1948.

In truth, however, there is surprisingly little evidence that the Holocaust led diplomats or activists to the cause of international human rights. For some Jews, it happened much earlier, a generation before the Holocaust, in the aftermath of World War I. That’s when the Jews in my book began working for international rights protection.

Their interest was sparked by anti-Semitic violence, but they focused less on preventing mass atrocities than on ensuring the survival of vulnerable minority groups. Their aim was to protect Jews and other national minority communities in the Russian, Ottoman, and Austrian empires—all ruined or crumbling. That meant providing 1) freedom from discrimination and 2) the means to preserve the cultural, religious, and linguistic facets of their group identities.

These Jewish activists fought desperately during the Holocaust to rescue as many Jews as possible. But they didn’t need the Holocaust to inspire them: well before World War II, they were working to protect humanity. Indeed, the Holocaust had surprisingly little impact on Jewish human rights activism—except in a couple key ways. After the massive destruction of European Jewry, there was no longer the same need for special protections for Jews—or other minority groups—in Europe. At the same time, the world was trending more and more in the direction of nation-states. The idea of singling out minority groups for special international legal protection fell rapidly out of favor. Most of these Jewish human rights activists concluded that the best way to protect Jews in the new postwar global order was to relocate them to Israel or the United States where they would form part of the majority population. They went from seeking to protect Jewish rights as a minority group in the diaspora to seeking to protect the rights of Jewish individuals as Israeli and American citizens.

It was not until much later that Jews and others began to refer to the Nazi mass murder of the Jews as the reason for the world’s need for human rights. It was only decades later that the Holocaust became linked to human rights as the example of what would happen if we did not heed its lesson.

The other key way involves the Genocide Convention, thought that’s really a separate story (and the subject of my next book).


YUP: The principal figures in Rooted Cosmopolitans all engaged with Zionism—ardently, ambivalently, and, in one case, antagonistically. How did they see the connection between Zionism and human rights?  

JL: In writing this book, I wanted to puncture the widespread myth that Zionism has no connection to the history of human rights. Many people assume that since Zionism was a nationalist movement, it focused only on securing the Jews a homeland. Some even assume that Zionism’s particularism placed it in opposition to the universal cosmopolitanism of human rights. But the truth is that before international human rights there was the cause of international minority rights, and that project was to a large degree a Zionist one.

There are two reasons for that phenomenon. First, only Zionists thought globally about Jewish peoplehood and made grand claims to be acting on behalf of the entire Jewish people. Bundism, Diaspora Nationalism, and other important Jewish political movements stopped their activism at the borders of the lands in which their leaders lived. Other non-Zionist Jewish liberals cared deeply but selectively about far-flung Jewish communities. But Zionism, because of its own ideological principles, focused on naming and claiming a global Jewish nation.

That leads to the second reason Zionists were so interested in international rights schemes. Jews were an historical anomaly—a nationalist movement comprised of a diaspora people outside their ancestral homeland. Someone else (first the Turks, then the British) controlled Palestine. So they turned to international law as a way to make claims both on behalf of the Jewish people and in service of their political aspirations for a country of their own. To be sure, not everyone agreed with these ideas, but no one could ignore them. For to protect a global minority, you had to engage with the questions of its unique collective identity and its status in international law.

Throughout my book, Jews argue about Zionism. They are not of one mind. But they are all shaped by that powerful early connection between Zionist politics and international human rights.


YUP: How did Jewishness—Jewish identity, Jewish historical awareness—shape their convictions?

JL: Jewishness is everywhere in this story. But not in the way many might assume. These pioneering Jewish human rights activists never mentioned “tikkun olam.” They very rarely sourced their ethical commitments from religious principles and Talmudic passages. It is true that the rabbi in this story, Maurice Perlzweig, believed passionately in a connection between the ancient prophets’ quest for justice and the modern Jewish role in international affairs. But he also declined to say that it was the religion of Judaism that inspired him. His Torah was Zionism. Jewish justice began for him and the others with political activism in defense of the Jewish people. This is not to say there was not a deeper Jewish historical awareness at play. Clearly, these activists thought a great deal about the meaning of Jewish history, and they understood their generation as uniquely positioned to apply the lessons of diaspora experience to their grand task: reimagining a better world for Jews and other endangered minorities.


YUP: How well did your five subjects know one another?

 JL: The fun thing about tracing these stories was seeing how their lives intersected. I mentioned Rabbi Maurice Perlzweig. When he wasn’t campaigning for Jewish rights at the League of Nations or officiating at his London synagogue, he served as Jewish chaplain at Eton College. There he mentored a young student, Peter Benenson, who two decades later sought his blessing before launching Amnesty International.

Perlzweig worked closely with Jacob Robinson, a Lithuanian Jewish diplomat and lawyer; together, they established the World Jewish Congress. Hersch Lauterpacht, the noted international lawyer, worked with Perlzweig in the World Union of Jewish Students, of which they both served as president. Lauterpacht and Robinson worked together at the Nuremberg Trials.

All of these people interacted with Jacob Blaustein, during and after World War II, at the United Nations and elsewhere. So there was plenty of Jewish geography involved in researching their lives.


YUP: Why do you think this story has been neglected until now? 

 JL: Until quite recently, few historians paid any attention to the history of human rights. The topic never merited mention in textbooks or scholarly journals. Meanwhile, the Jewish historians who did know about Perlzweig, Blaustein, et al. tended to focus on their relationship to Israel and Zionism, not international law or human rights.

That’s the simplest answer. This state of affair has only changed recently.


YUP: Finally, a question I cribbed from your book: “What explains the human rights community’s unswerving focus on the State of Israel?”

JL: In the book, I identify four factors. The first two, I would call obligation and opportunity.

Some of that intense focus is the inevitable result of Israel’s controversial security policies, which directly affect its Palestinian neighbors. With an unresolved border war, a stalled peace process, and an ambiguous Israeli military rule over West Bank Palestinians, human rights groups simply feel an ethical obligation to intervene. But if that obligation applies to many countries, why the intense, consistent focus on Israel?

Here’s where the second factor, opportunity, comes in. The human rights community sees in Israel an open, democratic society, whose press and courts are committed to Western liberal norms. That makes it easier to track human rights problems, and increases the chances of a positive governmental response and world attention.

But there are two deeper factors at work. The most obvious is ideology. Beginning in the early 1960s, both Soviet and Arab spokesmen learned to weaponize human rights in order to attack Israel. Their propaganda efforts succeeded. Anti-colonial movements began to identify with the Palestinian cause. They adopted the smear that Zionism is Racism. Soon, a consensus emerged: Israel, in the eyes of the human rights community, was a problematic state intrinsically hostile to human rights norms.

Political bias aside, and propaganda aside, why do human rights advocates care so much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? After all, there are plenty of other conflict zones and repressive regimes which far surpass Israel in terms of human rights violations and mass deaths. Why focus on a particular place, a specific problem? To answer that, we must seek an additional explanation.

In my book, I stress a subtle trend that no one else has noticed. It began in the 1960s, and relates to what we might call the political theology of human rights. The human rights movement was shaped dramatically by the emergence of Amnesty International. As I show, its Jewish founder, Peter Benenson, went from being a socialist Zionist to a Catholic humanitarian. In the process, he set his organization—and by extension, the larger human rights movement—on a course to view Jewish nationalism as an affront to the universalist sensibilities of the liberal, Christian West. The human rights community, in other words, came to define itself as a universal Church of humanity through renouncing its Jewish origins. The State of Israel became an irresistible target, worthy of extra scrutiny and moral critique by virtue of its ties to Judaism and the Holocaust.

This was not antisemitism in the classical sense. But it was an ideological obsession with Zionism, and it saw Israel as cartoonish rogue state and icon of clannish tribalism. Thus, what we might call the “deep culture” of the human rights movement grew out of an almost missionary-like, Christian-inflected worldview, in which Israel became a symbol of the redemptive promise of human rights universalism and the failure of Jewish nationhood.

That complicated view is not necessarily shared by all human rights activists the world over. Nor does it discount the other factors that logically and justifiably do lead to scrutiny of Israel. But this underlying political theology does help explain why the human rights community often disproportionately focuses on Israel.

James Loeffler is Jay Berkowitz Professor of Jewish History at the University of Virginia and former Robert A. Savitt Fellow at the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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