Jews and human rights

Loeffler takes the reader on a journey that stretches from minority rights through the idea of a universal Bill of Rights.

Rooted Cosmopolitans:  Jews and Human Rights  in the Twentieth Century (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The title of James Loeffler’s new book is Rooted Cosmopolitans, a term originally used by the USSR to denigrate its Jews. In typical antisemitic mode, it charges Jews with being both rooted and rootless at the same time – wedded to the idea of belonging to a Jewish homeland while being incapable of belonging to any one country. Loeffler demonstrates that when the oxymoron is unpacked, it reveals the central role that Jewish political activists played in the development of international human rights in the 20th century.
By detailing the lives and achievements of five Jewish political activists – far less recognized than they deserve – Loeffler provides a deeply researched account of the struggle for Jewish minority rights, and what that struggle morphed into.
The movement to achieve Jewish minority rights, born in the shtetls of Eastern Europe before the World War I, gained a new momentum immediately after the war by way of the League of Nations. Demands for minority rights for the Jewish communities scattered far and wide across eastern Europe vied, within the League’s political imperatives, with the re-establishment of Europe’s historic national identities such as Poland and Lithuania, and also with the rights of other minorities left stranded by the post-war redrawing of the map of Europe.
Loeffler takes the reader on a journey that stretches from minority rights through the idea of a universal Bill of Rights, to the emergence, and general acceptance, of the concept of international human rights.
One of the first steps of the United Nations in 1946 was to establish its Commission on Human Rights, and two years later it adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Neither would have been possible without the achievements of the five Jews whom Loeffler rescues from the annals of history and reinstates as the founders of a branch of international law that is now universally recognized.
Who were they?
Hersch Zvi Lauterpacht started as a Zionist leader in his native Poland; Jacob Robinson in Lithuania; Maurice Perlzweig was born in Poland but grew up in London; Jacob Blaustein was a native American; Peter Benenson was born in Jerusalem but brought up in Britain.
Two underlying themes emerge from Loeffler’s absorbing and scholarly work. One is the central role that Britain, and while it lasted the British Empire, played in the development of the concept of human rights. The other is the inherent contradiction, unrecognized for a long time and sometimes denied, between minority rights and human rights, or to put it another way, between nationalism and internationalism. It remains unresolved.
Finally Loeffler brings us to a situation where the UN Commission on Human Rights – the internationally recognized forum for advancing the cause long championed by Loeffler’s Jewish activists – became consistently and unremittingly hostile toward Israel. (On this account it was abolished, to be replaced by a successor body that has proved no more successful in pursuing a balanced approach).
The determination of the Palestinian leadership not to recognize Israel, and the consequent failure to resolve the Israel-Palestine dispute, has meant that Israel is perceived as an oppressor by much of the Arab world and beyond. The cause of human rights, which played so large a part in the establishment of Israel, has become weaponized against it.
The UK plays a central role in Loeffler’s account, as the lives and struggles of his five protagonists weave and interweave with each other.
In the mid-1920s, Lauterpacht journeyed to London and enrolled in the law faculty of University College, London (UCL). Loeffler believes Lauterpacht wanted to be able to influence political action by Britain, the world power entrusted by the League of Nations with the mandate for Palestine that held the fate of both Jewish rights and international law in its hands.
Perlzweig, though born in Poland, came with his family to England in the early 1900s, and grew up in what was then a Jewish district of London. He quickly became a noted figure in England’s Zionist movement, mixing with leading figures such as Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow. He too entered UCL, where he took his first degree in history. His active support for Zionism inevitably brought him into conflict with the old-established Anglo-Jewish establishment, which was vehemently anti-Zionist in outlook.
Perlzweig persisted in defying them. He described British efforts to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine as “an experiment not only in nationalism but in internationalism” – in other words, it was to be a land both for Jews and for the “enrichment of humanity.”
Perlweig was appointed by Eton College – England’s premier scholastic establishment that nurtures prime ministers and the leaders of British society in every field – as its visiting “Jewish Master.” Every Sunday morning, while the vast majority of the boys attended chapel, Perlzweig would assemble those professing the Jewish faith and speak to them about Jewish politics and Zionism.
One of the boys who attended his Sunday addresses was Peter Solomon, born in Jerusalem in 1921. His father was a senior official in the British administration. Later Solomon decided to call himself Benenson, the maiden name of his mother who founded WIZO (the Women’s International Zionist Organization).
While still at Eton, Benenson started a group in 1938 to sponsor German-Jewish refugees in England. In his manifesto, Benenson appealed to the parents of his schoolmates for support in the name of “common humanity” – an early sign of the direction his world view was taking him.
A few years later, Benenson became disillusioned with both Israel and Judaism and converted to Catholicism. In the early 1960s, moved by the fate of “prisoners of conscience” worldwide, he conceived the idea of mobilizing mass public opinion in their support. He contacted his old mentor, Perlzweig, and set up Amnesty International as a global grassroots movement.
“The quest for the universal,” Loeffler writes, “always begins with a rejection of the particular.” As part of Amnesty’s agenda, it became an act of faith to hold Israel unremittingly to account for any perceived failings. Loeffler believes that Benenson did so to prove the movement’s freedom from political or religious allegiances, and its absolute commitment to human rights.
To many Jews, however, Amnesty’s apparent obsession with Israel simply proved that the organization was inherently antisemitic. Loffler does not believe that Amnesty was alone in this, but identifies anti-Israel attitudes as a common characteristic of the later human rights movement.
After the Second World War, both Robinson and Blaustein engaged with the US political establishment, but they saw the world through very different eyes. Head of the American Jewish Committee, Blaustein was a non-Zionist concerned with ensuring that Jewish interests across the world were encompassed within US foreign policy. Robinson was a full-hearted Zionist, absolutely certain that only by the creation of a Jewish state could both minority and human rights be fully realized.
At the launch of the United Nations in San Francisco in April 1945, Blaustein and his followers clashed swords with Perlzweig, Robinson and other Zionist leaders. When Blaustein succeeded in having a general declaration on human rights included in the UN Charter but without legal sanctions, Robinson felt betrayed. He bested Blaustein later that year at the opening of the Nuremberg Trials, when he and Lauterpacht, together with Justice Robert H Jackson, succeeded in having “crimes against humanity” accorded full legal recognition for the first time.
Both parties were able to claim some degree of success by way of the United Nations. In 1947 the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine, to the approval of the Zionists, while the following year it adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, much more to the liking of Blaustein. The ultimate irony, perhaps, is that the creation of Israel, far from being the ultimate endorsement of universal human rights and the justification for decades of effort, resulted almost immediately in a stand-off with the supporters and advocates of human rights – a stand-off that has, if anything, grown worse with time.
Loeffler undoubtedly brings to light the previously neglected connection between Jewish activists struggling for minority rights for downtrodden Jewish communities in the Diaspora, and the development of the concept of human rights. Yet it is not a success story. All too often, as events unfolded, persecution of Jews continued, while today the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) remains as hostile to Israel as its predecessor body, and as ineffective, as violations of human rights abound across the globe.
In short, against nationalism and the self-interested clashes of power politics, human rights born of a belief in internationalism and the “brotherhood of man” are all too easily swept to one side.
Rooted Cosmopolitans is a profoundly insightful exploration into how a totally new concept in international law, now universally accepted, was conceived, grew and developed. James Loeffler has chosen to do so by providing an eminently readable account of the lives and experiences of five extraordinary Jews. On both counts, it is highly recommended.