James Loeffler, Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century

, September 3, 2018

James Loeffler, Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century. Yale University Press, 2018, 362 + 15 pp. ISBN 978-0-300-21724-7.

James Loeffler’s study of Jews, Zionism, and the evolution of modern human rights discourse links three topics that many readers will not have known to be so closely intertwined. Loeffler has written a work of rigorous scholarship, expressed in carefully hedged academic prose, based on extensive original archival research in several different countries. The book consists of ten chapters divided into three parts titled “Emergence,” “Convergence,” and “Divergence,” the last of these indicating the conflict between Zionism and the UN and NGO human rights establishment that would break out after 1967.

The title of this book is a challenge to two traditional stereotypes of the Jews. On the one hand, Jews have been caricatured as being stubbornly “rooted” in their own Jewish nation, having no loyalty except to their fellow Jews; on the other, they have been pilloried as “rootless cosmopolitans,” citizens of the world with no loyalty to any of the nations among whom they reside.

Indeed, in the Jewish world one finds both particularistic and universalistic tendencies. Many Jews have embraced Zionism as a Jewish nationalist movement seeking national self-determination for Jews in their ancient homeland, while Jewish human rights activists have stressed universal values that transcend the particularity of tribe, nation, or ethnicity. Today many see these two tendencies as logically opposed, but Loeffler demonstrates that many of the pioneers of modern human rights discourse were also Zionist Jews who supported the founding of modern Israel. In Loeffler’s words, “Much of what we think of today as post-World War II international human rights began life as a specifically Jewish pursuit of minority rights in the ravaged borderlands of post-World War I Eastern Europe. This vision came couched in the political language of early twentieth-century Zionism” (xii-xiii). These Jewish human rights activists championed values that they saw both as universal and as rooted in the Jewish tradition. They were thus “rooted cosmopolitans.”

Loeffler focuses on five key figures: Hersch Zvi Lauterpacht, a Polish-born expert on international law who wrote early versions of the International Bill of Human Rights and the Israeli Declaration of Independence; Jacob Blaustein, founder of the American Oil Company and leader of the American Jewish Committee who worked to place human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy in the years following World War II; Maurice Perlzweig, a Polish-born British Zionist leader, liberal rabbi, and cofounder of the World Jewish Congress who led the WJC delegation to the founding of the United Nations in 1945; Jacob Robinson, a Lithuanian Zionist leader who helped design the UN Commission on Human Rights and, as a legal scholar, played a major role at both the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials; and Peter Solomon Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International, who began life as a British Zionist youth activist mentored at Eton by the Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Maurice Perlzweig.

Although Jewish Zionists played a central role in advocating for the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Commission on Human Rights, and the United Nations played a central role in the establishment of modern Israel, the decades after World War II saw the UN change dramatically in composition and focus. The Soviet bloc, the Arab League, the Islamic bloc, and the Non-Aligned Movement teamed up to demonize and delegitimize Israel and Zionism. As former colonies began to predominate in the UN General Assembly, colonialism and apartheid became the only sins that the UN was prepared to denounce. Loeffler writes: “The Arab states seized on the new anticolonial reality to broker an alliance permanently linking apartheid to Zionism” (272); “In return for Arab support on fighting apartheid, African diplomats readily acceded to Arab demands to treat Israel like a Western colonial power in all UN human rights matters” (272-73).

The Soviet Union eagerly seized on anticolonialism as a way of attacking the West and cultivating allies in the developing world, including many Arab states. In 1961 the Soviet press published the first image of the swastika within the Star of David (246; cf. 252), and in 1975 the Soviets and their allies passed a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Zionism as racism.  “Instead of avatars of moral universalism, Jewish rights-defenders were depicted as the ultimate partisans of the particular” (233). Rabbi Maurice Perlzweig, an early booster of the United Nations, contrasted its loud denunciations of apartheid with its silence on the massacres of Biafrans in Nigeria and black Africans in Sudan. He wrote ruefully in 1967:

When Black men slaughter other Black men, it is apparently nobody’s business.… We seem to have acquiesced in a double standard, one for white and the other for colored, but inherent in this approach is the acceptance of the view that the life of colored peoples is less valuable than that of the others, provided always that it is destroyed by Afro-Asians. (272)

This double standard remains operative in the United Nations, and it increasingly permeates the Western academy, where Western colonialism, imperialism, racism, slavery, misogyny, and homophobia are highlighted mercilessly by professors who turn a blind eye to the moral dark side of non-Western societies, even when they exhibit the same sins to an even greater degree than the West. Loeffler’s book provides helpful historical background for understanding this Orwellian reality.

Joseph S. Spoerl

Joseph S. Spoerl is the Professor and Chairman, Philosophy Department, Saint Anselm College, Manchester, NH, USA.