In an age of resurgent authoritarianism and populism, the idea of human rights is rapidly losing whatever influence it once enjoyed. Perhaps it is a sign of this obsolescence that the history of human rights is now an urgent topic of scholarly debate: It is only when something is finished that historians start to analyze it. Over the past decade, scholars like Lynn Hunt and Samuel Moyn have debated where the idea of human rights came from, locating its origins everywhere from the French Revolution to the Cold War maneuvering of the 1970s. Now, in Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, James Loeffler focuses on a crucial part of the history of human rights, and one that earlier scholarship has neglected: the Jewish dimension.

Loeffler’s previous book was a study of Jewish musical culture in Eastern Europe, which makes Rooted Cosmopolitans something of a departure; and it is a masterful one. His study is of the first importance, not just for the history of human rights, but for understanding modern Jewish politics. Indeed, Loeffler (a Tablet contributor) argues that it is no coincidence that the State of Israel was founded in the same year, 1948, that the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For in key ways, the fight over how to think about human rights began as, and remains, a struggle over Jewish identity and destiny.

Even a glance at the human-rights movement shows that many of its leaders have been Jews—from Raphael Lemkin, who introduced the term “genocide” into international law, to Aryeh Neier and Kenneth Roth, the leaders of Human Rights Watch. In Rooted Cosmopolitans, Loeffler traces the stories of several figures who are now known mainly to specialists—Jews who played central roles in the evolution of human rights from the 1910s through the 1960s. They include Hersch Zvi Lauterpacht, a native of Poland who became a professor at Cambridge University and a world expert on international law; Jacob Robinson, who began his career as a member of the Lithuanian Parliament after World War I and served as a key legal adviser to the new State of Israel; and Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International, who was born to a prominent Zionist family and ended up converting to Catholicism.

What these figures, and the others who appear in Loeffler’s pages, have in common is that their interest in human rights grew directly out of their concern for Jewish politics. Loeffler’s story begins after WWI, when the leaders of the victorious Allies met in Paris to determine the shape of the postwar world. The situation of the Jews was a key issue for the peacemakers, both in Palestine, which was to be ruled by the British under a mandate from the new League of Nations, and in Europe, where millions of Jews found themselves minority citizens of ethnic states such as Poland and Hungary.

For idealistic young leaders like Lauterpacht and Robinson, this was a golden opportunity to ensure the Jewish future through the power of international law. The mandate system was supposed to ensure that Palestine did not remain a British colony, but would eventually be granted independence as a Jewish home, under the terms of the Balfour Declaration. And a series of treaties was supposed to bind the new European countries to respect the cultural and legal rights of minority groups—not just Jews, but also the millions of Germans and Slavs who now found themselves living under the rule of their traditional enemies. The phrase “human rights” had not yet become current, but Loeffler argues convincingly that it was here, in the 1910s, that the key human-rights question was first asked: How can the international community protect a minority against persecution by its own government?

Soon enough, however, the high hopes lodged in the League of Nations would be disappointed. Even as Lauterpacht wrote treatises explaining that the nations of the world were now bound to obey a higher legal authority, and Robinson mounted campaigns on behalf of Jews and other minority groups, it became clear that power politics would go on as usual. Crucially, the League was not obligated or even permitted to hear appeals from nonstate actors such as minority groups or individual citizens: Only states mattered. And while Germany could lodge protests on behalf of Germans living in Czechoslovakia, or Poland on behalf of Poles under Hungarian rule, there was no Jewish state to act on behalf of Jewish interests.

Loeffler shows that Jewish activists at various times tried to enlist Britain and Germany to play this role, but without success. (Since the United States had rejected League membership, American protection was not an option, even assuming that it would have been forthcoming.) Finally, the collapse of the League system, the outbreak of World War II, and the Holocaust proved beyond a doubt that international law alone offered no protection for the Jews. Human rights without political power was a cruel illusion—as Hannah Arendt, one of the most important rights theorists of the period, observed in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

After WWI, it seemed to many Jews that Zionism and human rights were two sides of the same coin: Both were attempts to use international law to secure the well-being of a persecuted people. But by the end of WWII, it was becoming clear that these two visions of the Jewish future might be incompatible. In the middle section of his book, Loeffler chronicles the fierce internecine struggles among Jewish leaders and organizations surrounding the creation of the U.N., in 1945. Under the leadership of Jacob Blaustein, a self-made oil millionaire and another of Loeffler’s main subjects, the American Jewish Committee placed its bet on human rights as a moral force that would shape the postwar world, ensuring the equality and safety of Jews everywhere. As the end of the war approached, the AJC mounted an impressive PR campaign on behalf of an International Bill of Human Rights, gathering the support of hundreds of luminaries.

Yet by this time, an increasing number of American Jews were convinced that only the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine could reliably protect the world’s surviving Jews. Loeffler quotes a Yiddish journalist to this effect: “The true meaning of the Bill of Rights can only be realized through a homeland in the Land of Israel.” In San Francisco, where thousands of lobbyists gathered for the launch of the United Nations in April 1945, Blaustein’s AJC found itself pitted against Maurice Perlzweig, Jacob Robinson, and other Zionist leaders associated with the World Jewish Congress. The hostility between these groups was so intense that the State Department intervened to make sure they were housed in different hotels.

In the end, both factions would score victories through the United Nations. The partition of Palestine was approved in 1947, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted the next year. But as Loeffler shows in the final section of Rooted Cosmopolitans, Israel and human rights were on a collision course. The new Jewish state found itself on a permanent war footing, with a large Arab minority subject to military rule; the problem would only get worse after 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank. With Israel seen as an oppressor by much of the Arab and Muslim world, the cause of human rights therefore turned into a powerful weapon to be used by Israel’s enemies. Jews who had fought for human rights in the early 20th century lived to see the U.N.’s Human Rights Commission become a leading venue for attacks on Israel. In 1975, the U.N. General Assembly notoriously declared that Zionism was a form of racism, and thus itself an abuse of human rights.

Loeffler explores this phase of the Jewish human-rights experience through the lens of Peter Benenson, who is the most fascinating figure in Rooted Cosmopolitans. Born Peter Solomon in Jerusalem in 1921 (he would later adopt his mother’s maiden name), he belonged to the Zionist aristocracy: His mother was a founder of the Women’s International Zionist Organization, and his father was a leading British official in Palestine. He was educated at Eton, where he started a group to sponsor German-Jewish refugees in England. Later in life, however, Benenson became disillusioned with both Israel and Judaism, and entered the Catholic Church. Not long after, spurred by outrage over the treatment of political prisoners in Portugal, Benenson started Amnesty, a group that drew attention to the plight of “prisoners of conscience” through letter-writing campaigns and other publicity techniques.

Benenson himself was eccentric, perhaps unbalanced, and he was eventually forced out of the leadership of Amnesty. But Loeffler shows that Israel became an important issue for the evolution of the group. Criticizing the Jewish state was a way of demonstrating its absolute commitment to human rights, above all political or religious allegiances. As a result, many Jews came to see Amnesty’s focus on Israel as a front for anti-Israel or anti-Semitic politics; they argued that Israeli actions were closely scrutinized, while far worse abuses by Arab states were ignored. Loeffler sees hostility to Israel as an essential part of the identity of the later human-rights movement: “The quest for the universal always begins with a rejection of the particular,” he writes, and the Jewish state became a symbol of particularism, just as Judaism itself had always been for Christianity.

In the end, for all the attention it pays to the hopes and ideals of the human-rights movement, Rooted Cosmopolitans cannot help but read like a brief against that movement. Again and again, Loeffler shows, human rights failed to protect the Jews who believed in them so ardently. Human rights and international law could not avert the Holocaust, or protect the State of Israel, or secure the rights of Soviet Jews to emigrate. In a fallen world based on power politics and the rivalries of nation-states, human rights can never exert more than a rhetorical force. This does not mean that they should be rejected or ignored; as a moral standard, human rights have an important role to play in constraining the acts of responsible governments, including the government of Israel. But as Arendt saw many years ago, and Loeffler confirms in this important book, any group that finds itself relying on its human rights alone is in bad trouble.

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