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  • Gil Rubin

A State of Their Own: Jewish Internationalism and Human Rights

Gil Rubin reviews James Loeffler’s Rooted Cosmopolitans

In a 1938 speech in Prague, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, founder and leader of the right-wing Zionist revisionist movement (the predecessor of Israel’s present-day ruling Likud party), lamented the decline of support in European capitals for the League of Nations. The League, he asserted, “is an eternal body! And it would ultimately become our ruling body!” Jabotinsky’s vow of allegiance to the League seems peculiar. Why would a right-wing Zionist leader so vigorously defend an international institution, and do so at a moment of crisis in which it seemed to have lost many of its other defenders? For Jabotinsky, the future of Zionism and the Jewish people depended on the success of the League. In the aftermath of the First World War, the Great Powers designed a minorities protection regime in Eastern Europe to be supervised by the League that provided Jews and other minorities with limited group rights. And the League was entrusted with overseeing the British administration in Palestine – making sure that the imperial authorities were developing the territory as the “national home” of the Jews, as the terms of the mandate stipulated. As Jabotinsky saw it, the interests of Jewish nationalism and those of the interwar experiment in internationalism were deeply intertwined.

As James Loeffler shows in Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, this fusion between Zionism and internationalism was central to an entire generation of Jewish political activists and international lawyers. Loeffler weaves together in vivid detail and captivating narrative the biographies of five figures whose careers traversed the trajectories of Zionist politics and internationalist commitment – among them Polish international lawyer Hersch Lauterpacht, who famously coined the legal neologism “crimes against humanity”; Lithuanian Jewish rights defender, Jacob Robinson; and British Zionist leader, Maurice Perlzweig. Robinson, for example, fought for the rights of Jews and other minorities in the Lithuanian parliament, was a key member of a pan-European minority rights NGO, and petitioned the League to address violations of Jewish rights. Lauterpacht, whose early Zionist activism is recovered for the first time by Loeffler, spent his early career explicating the meaning of the mandate system in international law. Devoted Zionists, both Robinson and Lauterpacht envisioned these twin legal innovations as the basis for a satisfactory solution of the “Jewish question”: the millions of Jews living throughout Eastern Europe would thrive as a protected minority while Jewish pioneers and refugees would be free to develop a national center, and ultimately a state, in Palestine.

This interwar Zionist-internationalist nexus, Loeffler argues, also proved central to some of the most important innovations made in international law after World War II. Recent work on the topic – most notably, Phillip Sands’ East West Street – has emphasized the Eastern European Jewish context that gave rise to Lauterpacht’s concept of “crimes against humanity” and Raphael Lemkin’s invention of the concept of genocide. Making use of stunning archival discoveries, Loeffler delves deeper to show that this Jewish context was a specifically Zionist one. Just a few years after Lauterpacht shaped the charge of individual criminal responsibility under international law in the Nuremberg Trials, he assiduously worked on a draft of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. And as Loeffler has shown in another recent piece, as a lawyer in interwar Poland Lemkin wrote a series of advice columns on Jewish minority rights, and celebrated Jewish national achievements in Palestine, before hiding his Zionist past and recasting “genocide” as a vision born out of a universalist pedigree. Peter Benenson, another central figure in Loeffler’s account, spent his early days vacationing with Chaim Weizmann’s family, was consumed by the plight of German Jewish refugees in the 1930s, and admired the Zionist politics of Perlzweig, before converting to Catholicism and establishing Amnesty International several decades later.

James Loeffler, Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018, 384 pp., $32.50

Loeffler’s recovery of the Zionist roots of postwar international law sets the stage for the central argument of his book – a reinterpretation of the relationship between Zionism and human rights in 1948. Loeffler argues that Jewish international lawyers and activists saw the “dual incarnation” of a Jewish sovereign state in Palestine and the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) as “two sides of the same coin.” “This sequence was more than an accident of timing. It was a logical consequence of the fact that the same dramatis personae populated both stories.” Much like the League’s twin programs of minority rights and the mandate, defenders of Jewish rights envisioned the State of Israel and the UDHR as complementary instruments. The rights of Jews in Israel would be guaranteed through citizenship in a nation-state, while the rights of Jewish communities in the diaspora would be defended through international human rights law. Indeed, Loffler shows that many Jewish-rights advocates sought to infuse the nascent legal instruments of the postwar human-rights regime with the spirit of group protection, transplanting the interwar vision of minority rights into the postwar order. His main protagonists – Lauterpacht, Robinson, and Perlzweig – could easily tread between promoting human rights in the halls of the United Nations and defending Zionism because they saw no tension between the two policies. If we now think of Zionism and human rights as a contradiction in terms, it is only because, Loeffler argues, the politics of the Cold War and the Arab Israeli conflict politicized Jewish activity in the United Nations, making it impossible to insulate Jewish-rights advocacy from the conflict in Israel/Palestine.

This is a counter-intuitive and provocative claim, and it will be at the center of the many debates this study is sure to elicit. One point of critique is that there is very little room in Loeffler’s account to explain how the actions of Israel – the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948, the occupation and military rule over Palestinians after 1967 – constrained the possibility of being at once a vigorous Zionist and a staunch human-rights defender. But another critique is that, in my opinion, Loeffler simply does not tell the main story about what transpired in the relationship between Zionism and Jewish internationalism in the postwar period. His biographical focus leads him to tell a story of overwhelming continuity, in which Zionist activism for minority rights and mandatory Palestine is seamlessly replaced by advocacy for human rights and the nation-state of Israel. But what is missing from this narrative is an account of the growing separation of Zionism from Jewish internationalism: between the wars Loeffler’s protagonists represented a mainstream vision of Zionist politics, but after the war their political program was pushed to the margins.

Jewish internationalism – the idea of protecting Jewish rights and security by imposing restrictions on the sovereignty of states – originated in the nineteenth century and was focused on the plight of the Jewish masses in East Central Europe and Jewish communities under Ottoman rule. It was promoted by the organized leadership of the newly emancipated Jewish communities in France and Britain, and later Germany and the United States, represented in organizations such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Alliance Israélite Universelle, and the American Jewish Committee. Through advocacy in a series of international conferences and public campaigns these organizations drew on the diplomatic machinery of the Great Powers, and the nascent European international legal system, to protect Jews from their rulers. This vision was motivated in part by a sense of shared Jewish ethnic and religious solidarity. But it was also motivated by Western European Jewish apprehensions over the fate of emancipation in their own countries. Emancipation was tied to a discourse on Jewish cultural and racial affinity. But if most Jews lived as persecuted minorities, could a Jew in France really claim to be more akin to a Frenchman than to a Jew of the Polish Shtetl? Jewish rights had to be fought everywhere for them to rest on a firm foundation anywhere. From the late nineteenth century, Jewish internationalism also became motivated by a desire to curb waves of east-west Jewish migration. By protecting Jews where they lived, Jewish internationalists reasoned, their push to immigrate would subside, preventing the emergence of new “Jewish problems” in Western Europe.

Theodor Herzl, who organized the first Zionist Congress in 1897, shared the vision that the “Jewish question” in Europe required an international solution, even as he decried the politics of the organized Western European Jewish leadership. Herzl famously turned to the German emperor and the Ottoman Sultan in the hope of gaining an international charter for a territory that would become a future Judenstaat. But for the most part, the Zionist movement, as it developed in the crowded space of Jewish nationalism in turn-of-the-century Eastern Europe – alongside Bundists and other diaspora nationalists and autonomists – sought to promote its political goals within, rather than from above, the state. Zionists and other Jewish nationalists joined the struggle of various European minorities to reform the Habsburg and Tsarist empires into multiethnic federations with extensive autonomy for their nationalities. Zionism had little room in the politics of Jewish internationalism, not least because Western European Jewish leaders feared that any association with Jewish nationalism would call into question their own politics of belonging.

At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Zionism and Jewish internationalism were fused together. The British mandate over Palestine tied the interests of the Zionist movement with those of the world’s largest empire and its first international organizations. The minorities protection regime, though it fell short of the earlier dreams of Zionist leaders for Jewish autonomy, nonetheless codified group rights into international law. The reincarnation of empire as international law proved disappointing to many national movements, but it was very beneficial to the Jews. It established mechanisms for taming the excesses of ethnic nationalism in Eastern Europe, and for thwarting the development of an indigenous national movement in Palestine. Western European Jewish organizations also warmed up to Jewish nationalism now that it had the stamp of approval of the British Empire and the League. This situation gave rise to what Loeffler describes in his book as the “trinity of 1919,” an interwar political vision that saw three separate solutions to the Jewish question – equality in Western Europe, group protections in Eastern Europe, and a small and gradually developing national center in Palestine. Even as the system of minority protection unraveled in the 1930s, and Britain turned away from privileging Jewish aspirations in Palestine, Zionist leaders remained committed to this program, having no other allies than the British Empire and the now defunct League.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, however, Zionism and Jewish internationalism began to part ways. The Nazis displaced millions of Jews throughout Eastern Europe, and the local populations had taken hold of many of their properties and professions. Several Eastern European leaders insisted that they would not confiscate the plundered loot from their ethnic majorities just so that Jews could reintegrate after the war. This situation took place at the same time Eastern European Governments in Exile and Allied leaders planned to expel millions of minorities after the war. Many Zionist leaders concluded that the fight for new international guarantees for Jewish rights in these new realities was futile and that the Zionist movement should focus exclusively on plans to transfer millions of Jews to Palestine. If on the eve of the war Jabotinsky still celebrated the League, just several months after the outbreak of war he would virulently attack those Jewish internationalists who lobbied the Allies for new protections for Jewish rights. “[Jews] are taking part in spreading the illusion,” Jabotinsky wrote, that a day after victory “… the world will be repaired … and that a reconstructed League of Nations will watch over [our brothers].” “Enough with the lie! It is as if Jews have become mad, and have begun plotting their own destruction.”

After news of the extermination of Jews had begun reaching London, New York, and Palestine, the tensions between Zionism and Jewish internationalism grew ever stronger. With the prospects of just a small Jewish remnant in Eastern Europe after the war, there was no longer need for the two programs of international Jewish rights protection and nation-building in Palestine. If the two visions were fused together during the interwar period, now they were in direct competition – who will get to speak for the Jewish remnant? In 1944, a representative of the World Jewish Congress – the emergence of which as the most prominent Jewish internationalist organization Loeffler details in his book – asked the Zionist leadership to join a conference that would reiterate the broad support of Jews for both international rights protections and statehood in Palestine. But David Ben-Gurion, chairman of the Zionist executive, promptly refused. “When there were 18 million Jews in the world, and 9 million of them lived in Europe,” one member of the Zionist executive observed, “we could support the ‘luxury’ of Jewish rights in the diaspora,” but now it was too late.

Robinson was far closer to the views of Jabotinsky and Ben-Gurion than to those that Loeffler ascribes to the cadre of Jewish postwar internationalists. In late 1942 Robinson, in fact, urged the leadership of the World Jewish Congress to forgo entirely its advocacy for minority rights and focus exclusively on Jewish aspirations in Palestine, but his superiors rebuffed him. Thereafter he continued to fight for Jewish rights but did so as a reluctant internationalist. Though the archives are filled with his legal memos and reflections on international conferences, this material need not necessarily be construed as a sign of his political devotion. Robinson was, after all, a career internationalist – and writing legal memos and going to international conferences is what career internationalists do. When an opportunity emerged in the late 1940s, Robinson quickly left much of his work for international organizations and assumed a position for the Israeli government.

The marginalization of Jewish internationalism within Zionist politics was compounded by several developments that completely transformed its playing field. The achievements of Jewish internationalists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were based in no small part on the Great Powers’ unfounded and outsized perceptions of Jewish power. After the war, however, the myth of Jewish power – though not entirely supplanted – was now joined by widespread perceptions of Jewish powerlessness. Whereas in 1919 Jews secured minority protections and a promise for a Jewish national home in Palestine, in the various international conferences in the immediate postwar years Jews were scarcely allowed to present their demands officially. Loeffler beautifully captures the mood of humiliation among Jewish internationalists who traveled from the 1945 San Francisco Conference to the Nuremberg Trials to the 1946 Paris Conference only to learn, as

Perlzweig painfully put it, that “we cannot even add our voice to the formal proceedings.” 

Still, Loeffler ends up telling a story in which Jewish internationalist are overall content with what they get, and view their meager achievements as a basis for a new human rights order, even though, as Robinson observed, “it is obvious that the Big Powers will not commit themselves to an International Bill of Rights.” Robinson’s perspective is crucial. Historians have recently highlighted that the Great Powers envisioned human rights as a watered-down form of minority rights, a program exempt from the more elaborate enforcement mechanisms that characterized the League, which would allow them to reduce their international legal obligations. Human rights were a rather minor part of the Allies’ postwar agenda, and it was only the explosion of human rights politics in subsequent decades that bestowed on 1948 the aura of a transformative legal moment. Marginalized within the Zionist movement, operating without any power real or perceived, and trying to shape a system the Allies had no interest in bolstering, Jewish internationalists could do very little.

The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 served as the final blow to the nexus between Zionism and Jewish internationalism. Protection of Jewish rights mattered a great deal when there was nowhere Jews could immigrate. But after 1948 immigration to Israel, rather than international-rights protection, repeatedly emerged as the preferred solution to Jewish crises. Loeffler reconstructs an amazing episode in which Jewish-rights defenders in 1948 drew on the new legal conception of “genocide” to try to protect Jews in Arab countries from widespread outbursts of anti-Jewish violence. But after their failure, the fate of Jews in those countries was soon, for the most part, resolved through large-scale immigration to Israel. The legacy of 1948 is, then, perhaps not, as Loeffler argues, that a Jewish state and human rights emerged as complementary programs for the global defense of Jews, but rather that the vast majority of Zionists and many Jews concluded that the only way to gain the rights they sought was through membership in a state of their own.


Gil Rubin is an Israel Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies, Harvard University, and Co-Chair of the Jews in Modern Europe Study Group at the Center for European Studies. He is writing a book, The Future of the Jews: Planning for the Postwar Order


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