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Face the Nations

By asking the United Nations to fulfill their national aspirations, the Palestinians are following a script Israel’s founders wrote in the 1940s

Samuel Moyn
September 21, 2011
René Cassin, in glasses, with Eleanor Roosevelt and other members of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in 1949.(UN Photo)
René Cassin, in glasses, with Eleanor Roosevelt and other members of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in 1949.(UN Photo)

It’s further proof of the law of unintended consequences. This week’s showdown over the creation of a Palestinian state is playing out at an institution some of whose most fervent early adherents hoped would be a vehicle for transcending nationalism entirely. Indeed, though the United Nations—a collection of all the world’s nation-states—played a critical role in the establishment of the State of Israel in the late 1940s, a group of Jews committed their lives to building a world organization that would be focused instead on protecting individuals from state power rather than making new states.

Influenced by the state-sponsored barbarism of the Holocaust, these Jewish activists believed that the nation-state should be supplemented by a system of international, not state-based, human rights. And the United Nations would be the body through which this new world order would be birthed.

“I wanted to work for something which was permanent, of universal importance, and indestructible,” Moses Moskowitz, one of the most dogged of these Jewish internationalists, said in an oral history. “I didn’t believe it will bring the redemption, but I believed that we could not proceed unless this principle [of human rights] was established solidly in an international treaty.”

But the international regime of human rights that Moskowitz and others had imagined, he bitterly reported, “died in the process of being born.” Indeed, the very treaty that founded the United Nations, though its preamble references universal human rights, made it clear that the main fulcrum of world order would remain statehood. Ironically for Jewish internationalists, the most significant thing the United Nations would soon do for the Jews would be to abet the creation of the Jewish nation-state—marginalizing Jewish internationalism and paving the way for a cascade of new states that the Palestinian Authority hopes could now result in one more.


In 1939, there were a half million Jews in Palestine but perhaps 20 times that number across Europe, concentrated in the east. It’s no wonder that international Jewish politics focused on Eastern Europe. The Jewish investment in internationalism began in the mid-19th century, and for more than 50 years, wealthy and powerful Jews in Western Europe and the United States focused their energies on trying to support and protect their brethren. While much of the action took place through Jewish philanthropic groups—as Jews tried to support their former shtetlach—elites tinkered with early forms of international organization.

Building on 19th-century precedents, after World War I the new states of Eastern Europe were made subject to minorities treaties. These arrangements were ways of protecting Jewish rights as minorities within nations. Since Jews were protected as a group rather than as individuals, the term “human rights” wasn’t yet used.

But in the midst of World War II, Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee revised this strategy. Ignited by President Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches about human rights, like his Four Freedoms address, they began to insist that Jewish concerns were simply a subset of everyone else’s. If the Jews supported international human rights, in other words, they would also promote the interests of their brethren abroad.

Moses Moskowitz was taken by this vision. Born in 1910 in Stryj, Ukraine, scion of a Hasidic dynasty, Moskowitz immigrated with his family as a teenager to New York, where he attended City College and Columbia University, specializing in international affairs. An analyst for the American Jewish Committee before World War II, Moskowitz served in the European theater with the U.S. Army during the war. Later, he played a special role in occupied Germany as chief of political intelligence in Württemberg-Baden.

When he returned to the United States in the spring of 1946, Moskowitz began to work to make the rhetoric of internationalism a reality by representing world Jewry as the United Nations began its life. The U.N. Charter offers so-called consultative status to nongovernmental organizations working with it, so Moskowitz formed the Consultative Council of Jewish Organizations with the assistance of like-minded co-religionists abroad.

Moskowitz’s venture was sponsored by the famous French Jew René Cassin. Cassin—whom Charles de Gaulle asked in the middle of the war to take over the Alliance Israélite Universelle, the oldest global Jewish advocacy organization—also helped author the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hersch Lauterpacht, a Galician Jew-turned-Cambridge don, promoted the cause of human rights in legal thought. Lauterpacht wrote the first—and for a long time best—book on the legal dimensions of human rights. Egon Schwelb, a former city councilman in Prague, became the second in command of human rights in the U.N. Secretariat. After working doggedly for the cause for two decades, Schwelb later retired and taught one of the first courses on human rights in this country. Still another Eastern European Jew, Raphael Lemkin, would almost singlehandedly push the genocide convention through the United Nations at precisely the time Cassin was working on the Universal Declaration and Moskowitz was getting the Consultative Council up and running.

For these men, the nation-state was insufficient as a forum for rights. If the war and the Holocaust had proven anything, it was that some supranational guarantees of rights had to be built; clearly the nation-state couldn’t be relied upon. Others disagreed, believing that this internationalist vision had been overtaken by events—especially when it came to the cause of Jewish protection. By 1945, the Nazis had decimated Eastern Europe, the homeland that had dominated modern Jewish history and provided the focus of Jewish internationalism. Aside from Jews in former Ottoman lands, the geography of the Jewish people had shifted, and there were no longer Jewish minorities to protect through international machinery.

Which is why few Jews (and non-Jews) paid attention to the attempt by Moskowitz and his fellows to update the old Jewish politics. For most, the goal after the war was to ensure the happy acceptance of Jews in the states that had gone furthest to integrate them: Britain, France, and especially the United States. Even more important was another aim: to create a new country to shelter stateless, vulnerable Jews—then and later.

In 1947, as one U.N. committee was putting the finishing touches on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the General Assembly ratified a Jewish state on part of the land of Mandate Palestine. The resolution’s procedures for how a Jewish state would come about were not followed—war broke out instead—but the United Nations certainly played a critical role in Israel’s eventual creation.

In the end, the triumph of statism at the very moment when some hoped a new form of internationalism would be announced is not surprising. In some ways Moskowitz and his fellows were working on an update to an old, perhaps obsolete, project, not a novel one. By the mid-1940s, Jewish internationalism had existed for decades, and the destruction of European Jewry may have actually made its resumption irrelevant. Jewish internationalism had died along with the 6 million murdered. Another Jewish observer, favorable in the 1940s to some forms of Zionism, saw nothing wrong in this development: Human rights, Hannah Arendt maintained in 1951, were now available as “national rights,” which the State of Israel proved.

In this way, the United Nations became a device of an ascendant statism in which the Jews proved to be the vanguard of much of the world. By ratifying the creation of the State of Israel, the United Nations played a crucial role in the reinvention—or was it abandonment?—of earlier Jewish internationalism. But it also set the stage for decolonization.

Obviously, Jewish internationalism wasn’t wholly superannuated, and isn’t even today. For decades, it remained important for Jews behind the Iron Curtain and in former Ottoman lands. But in both cases, postwar history was to resolve matters in favor of statism. The ingathering from both places occurred, and the shift from Eastern Europe and around the Mediterranean basin to Israel and the United States was complete.


In a way, this may have been inevitable. Contrary to the intentions of its founders, the United Nations became—in part based on the template of the early examples of Israel and India-Pakistan partition—a device through which empires fell and states rose.

There are very few cases on the specific model of Israel, in which the United Nations helped usher in a state that didn’t already exist. Most peoples moved from empire to nation only through the negotiated departure of imperial powers or force of arms on the ground. The United Nations recognized these new nation-states only after everyone agreed that the states had already come into being. These new states that arose from the ruins of empire transformed the global body where they could—adding many tools for the creation of states beyond the sort of resolution that Israel once got and that the Palestinians now seek.

Jewish internationalists, who had favored the creation of the State of Israel, proved much more nervous about decolonization. They had sidelined their own concerns about the violence of state power when it came to Israel’s founding. Then they watched from the sidelines, scandalized, as the international human-rights regime they cherished was completely redefined, and the United Nations became synonymous with the project of creating postcolonial states.

In the U.N. General Assembly, which the Afro-Asian bloc of newly decolonized powers made into a forum for airing charges of racism and colonialism during the 1960s and 1970s, resolutions abetting oppressed peoples flew fast and furious, even when these peoples’ states hadn’t yet been recognized. In this way, from Algeria in the 1950s to Namibia in the 1980s, the United Nations came to offer rhetorical kindling and symbolic authority to emerging states—indeed, as many would argue, what it is now doing for the Palestinians.

In one of the great ironies of this process, the creation and admission of new states also led to the stigmatization of Israel. Moses Moskowitz devoted his last book, The Roots and Reaches of United Nations Actions and Decisions, to explaining how the United Nations went so awry. By 1980, when the book was published, the denunciation of apartheid and racism had turned to target Israel, notably in the famous General Assembly equation of Zionism and racism in 1975. “The United Nations seems to be more adept at orchestrating tensions than at calming tempers; more adroit at arousing passions and inflaming prejudice than at achieving accommodation; more artful at acting out real or simulated rage than at resolving disputes,” Moskowitz wrote.

In the meantime, of course, Moskowitz’s dream of a human-rights regime has gone much further than he could have imagined. It didn’t happen through the United Nations, but largely thanks to civil-society organizations that hadn’t existed in the 1940s, like Amnesty International and Helsinki Watch, which arose to make sure the United Nations did not retain proprietary control over the cause of human rights.

The events this week surely justify recalling the fateful choice in the 1940s of Jews for the state—through and thanks to the United Nations. Jews helped write the script that stateless peoples of the world have followed ever since, including the Palestinians. By the end of his life, Moskowitz bitterly watched the United Nations become an engine for states rather than for transcending them. But he still paid attention: “Although opinion is deeply divided on the question of the efficacy of the United Nations,” Moskowitz noted, “the impact of the international organization for good or evil can be ignored only at our peril.”

Samuel Moyn is James Bryce Professor of European Legal History at Columbia University. His forthcoming book in spring is Human Rights and the Uses of History.

Samuel Moyn is James Bryce Professor of European Legal History at Columbia University. His forthcoming book in spring is Human Rights and the Uses of History.