Speaking Truth to Power

Review of James Loeffler’s Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century; Yale University Press
384 pages; $32.50


The exponents of human rights can often be an irritant to those who hold office even in democratic lands. Those who speak “truth to power” in countries ruled by authoritarian figures often risk imprisonment or worse. And yet, as Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century amply demonstrates, international human rights legislation was essentially the work of Zionist Jews in the wake of pogroms, persecution and extermination. The book, by American academic James Loeffler, reclaims this lost world of Zionist internationalism, a moral asset illustrating the cosmopolitan nature of Jewish nationhood.
Hersch Zvi Lauterpacht, the founding father of the human rights movement, bore witness as a student to a three day pogrom in Lvov by Polish troops in November 1918. Without a state or an army to defend them, Lauterpacht understood that the rule of law was the mark of a civilized society – and that a body of legislation had to be constructed to protect minorities in all countries.
A founder of the World Union of Jewish Students, he eventually emerged as the very model of an English academic at the University of Cambridge.
The author chooses Lauterpacht and four other figures to illustrate the need to promote human rights in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Jacob Blaustein was a Baltimore oilman who fashioned the very American belief in a Judeo-Christian vision of human rights. He was close to leadership in Israel and the US and was often used as a back channel to opponents and adversaries.
Jacob Robinson represented the minorities bloc in the Lithuanian parliament and further established this template in
Poland and other Baltic states. Escaping from the Nazis, who made the rule of law conditional on the will of the state,
Robinson eventually reached the US and worked with Lauterpacht after 1945 to create a raft of legislation which placed
“Never Again!” into a legal framework.
He was one of the architects of the International Refugee Convention of 1951 and argued that the benefits of membership
of the International Criminal Court far outweighed its risks.
Loeffler describes in detail the work of Maurice Perlzweig, a British Liberal rabbi and Zionist leader who created the modern NGO at the UN. But perhaps the most intriguing figure is Peter Benenson (né Solomon), the British founder of Amnesty International. Benenson was the son of Flora Solomon, who was a committed Zionist, close to Chaim and Vera Weizmann – a mover and shaker among the Anglo-Jewish elite and friend of Kim Philby, the Soviet spy. Benenson came from a privileged
background and was deeply affected by the events of Kristallnacht in November 1938. Benenson, however, was “a study in contradictions.”

Unlike his mother, Benenson viewed the struggle to establish the state in polarized terms, and regarded Zionists as “political zealots.” He later downplayed his Jewishness and converted to Catholicism. However, the idea and aims of Amnesty International appealed to many Jews. Its advisory board boasted Martin Buber, George Weidenfeld and Dayan Isidore Grunfeld as members.
Yet, as Loeffler demonstrates with great clarity, today is not yesteryear. Debates at the UN – and outside it – periodically
demonize Israel with expressions of selective outrage. Loeffler characterizes the superficiality of debate as colored by
“facile clichés.” Israel is framed either as a model democracy or as a rogue regime. What is left out is the historical link between the emergence of modern human rights and Jewish political activism. This was upheld by David Ben-Gurion
and Golda Meir in the early 1960s, when Israeli diplomats forcefully condemned the apartheid regime in South Africa at
the UN. Ten years later, a diplomatically isolated Israel was forced to cultivate pariah regimes such as Pinochet’s Chile.
In November 1974, Shimon Peres made a clandestine visit to Pretoria in the hope that South Africa would buy Israeli armaments. Israel’s national needs, it was argued, came before Zionist support for human rights. This, in turn, played
into the hands of those who cared little for human rights in the first place and regarded it as no more than the public
angst of a few liberal Jewish intellectuals.
Loeffler could have devoted more space to the relationship between the Jewish emigration movement in the USSR and
the Soviet human rights movement. But the author’s highly instructive work will interest anyone genuinely concerned with human rights. It digs beneath the slogans and the shouting to uncover the Jewish originators of the human rights movement and their desire to repair the world for all.

Jerusalem Post 17 August 2018

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