Root­ed Cos­mopoli­tans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twen­ti­eth Century

James Loef­fler
Final­ist for the 2018 Natan Book Award

  • Review
By – October 15, 2018

In 1789, the French rev­o­lu­tion­ary Cler­mont-Ton­nerre argued: Refuse every­thing to the Jews as a nation, and accord every­thing to Jews as indi­vid­u­als. That idea entered inter­na­tion­al law when the Unit­ed Nations adopt­ed the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Human Rights in 1948. Han­nah Arendt, how­ev­er, didn’t think that was a prac­ti­cal solu­tion. The restora­tion of human rights has been achieved so far only through the estab­lish­ment of nation­al rights,” she observed, refer­ring to the State of Israel.

In a work of strik­ing schol­ar­ship and orig­i­nal­i­ty, James Loef­fler looks at the evo­lu­tion over the last cen­tu­ry of those two strate­gies – human rights based on the indi­vid­ual and on the nation – through the lens­es of five Jews who were their lead­ing advocates.With a keen sense of dra­ma, he vivid­ly cap­tures the life and times of each sub­ject, weav­ing their sto­ries into a com­pelling chron­i­cle of the past while also shed­ding light on present-day nation­al­ist and human rights movements.

Jacob Robin­son served on the U.N. Com­mis­sion on Human Rights in 1947. A British expert on minor­i­ty rights who had once been the leader of the Jew­ish cau­cus in the Lithuan­ian leg­is­la­ture, he always had doubts about the effi­ca­cy of an inter­na­tion­al Bill of Rights.” He watched as the lofty ambi­tions of the Com­mis­sion devolved into coun­tries mak­ing speech­es invok­ing human rights to jus­ti­fy their own actions, includ­ing massacres.

That Com­mis­sion result­ed part­ly from the work of Her­sch Zvi Lauter­pacht, author of An Inter­na­tion­al Bill of Rights of Man. A Zion­ist leader in his youth, he wit­nessed repeat­ed attacks on the Jew­ish minor­i­ty in Poland. In the wake of World War II, he came to firm­ly believe that human rights meant noth­ing with­out the effec­tive enforce­ment of those rights.

Robin­son and Lauter­pacht had both attend­ed the San Fran­cis­co con­fer­ence where the U.N. was found­ed – so too did the British lib­er­al rab­bi Mau­rice Per­lzweig, a celebri­ty and Zion­ist who became the World Jew­ish Congress’s Inter­na­tion­al Affairs Rep­re­sen­ta­tive at the U.N. in 1949. In the 50s he fought for explic­it recog­ni­tion of the rights of Sovi­et Jews as a minor­i­ty group.

The head of the non-Zion­ist Amer­i­can Jew­ish Com­mit­tee, oil mag­nate Jacob Blaustein, held a con­trary view. A con­fi­dant of Roo­sevelt and Tru­man, he staunch­ly advo­cat­ed for indi­vid­ual rights over the rights of minori­ties. When Adolf Eich­mann was cap­tured by Israelis in 1960, he fierce­ly argued against sin­gling out the Nazis’ Jew­ish vic­tims in the trial.

Peter Benen­son, a stu­dent of Mau­rice Perlzweig’s, also became an inter­na­tion­al leader in the cam­paign for uni­ver­sal human rights. Benen­son had left Eton in order to orga­nize the res­cue of Jew­ish chil­dren from the Nazis. Lat­er, he renounced Jew­ish advo­ca­cy, and Judaism itself, and found­ed Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al on the prin­ci­ple of pro­tect­ing the rights of indi­vid­u­als everywhere.

In our own time, Loef­fler laments, the human rights move­ment has lost faith in polit­i­cal solu­tions, pre­fer­ring to pro­mote cos­mopoli­tan sol­i­dar­i­ty. Robin­son, Lauter­pacht, Per­lzweig, Blaustein, and Benen­son, on the oth­er hand, worked con­stant­ly with gov­ern­ments to pro­tect human rights and Jew­ish rights.

Root­ed Cos­mopoli­tans is not only an impor­tant and remark­able book of his­to­ry; it’s a time­ly reminder of the rela­tion­ship between ideals and power.

Discussion Questions