A Small Diaspora's Human Rights Defenders Find Their Limits

By Galchinsky, Michael | Shofar, Spring 2019 | Go to article overview

A Small Diaspora's Human Rights Defenders Find Their Limits


Galchinsky, Michael, Shofar


James Loeffler's Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century tells the riveting, intertwined sagas of five Jewish activists: Hersch Lauterpacht, drafter of the original international bill of rights; Jacob Robinson, expert on the Minorities Treaties, founding member of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), and advocate for the rights of refugees; Maurice Perlzweig, the rabbi-diplomat who worked using "quiet diplomacy" for Jews' interests through the WJC; Jacob Blaustein, oil baron and president of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), who represented American Jews' "foreign policy" to successive presidents; and Peter Benenson, founding leader of Amnesty International, who turned human rights into a global movement. Together, these Jews made outstanding contributions to Jewish and human rights.

Some of the ground in Loeffler's book has been covered before, in studies by Carole Fink, William Korey, Irwin Cotler, Felice Gaer, and myself.1 Yet even when Loeffler is retelling familiar stories, he often adds newly discovered archival information, and his individual focus enables him to provide a depth of analysis of the actors' motivations, personal stories, communications, and complex interactions that eluded previous studies. The book counteracts some myths and gives these activists the full-scale treatment they deserve. However, despite its title, the book does not cover the entirety of the twentieth century, and its "great man" approach to the history prevents it from a systematic analysis of Jewish organizations.

Loeffler's goal is to negate what he sees as a trend in Jewish politics: the growing "mental gulf … between Jewish politics and human rights," which he sees as a "false dichotomy between particularism and universalism."2 Rooted cosmopolitans are those who recognize "national politics as a precondition of international justice."3 That is, rootedness provides a Jewish activist with the realism of historical context and Westphalian constraints. Cosmopolitanism provides the Jewish activist with the idealism of human rights understood as modern moral universals. As Loeffler puts it, "The historical legacy of Jewish human rights activism offers a sober reminder that idealism and power must always be considered in the same frame, or else we risk hollow gestures and futile advocacy."4 The rooted cosmopolitan believes that Zionism and liberal internationalism are not opposite poles but linked ideals. Loeffler's subjects thought a Jewish state was necessary to protect the rights of the Jewish people and that it could and would incorporate international norms detailing how all people should be treated. Hence, Loeffler's study depicts the valiant attempts of these actors to find "the elusive meeting point between idealism and realism."5

He offers an intimate group biography in which his subjects often overlap, build alliances, and create intra-Jewish schisms. Through this composite portrait, Loeffler explores the efforts of Jews in Europe, the United States, and Israel to protect minorities, seek redress for stateless outcasts and refugees, and construct the system of international human-rights law. Yet he illuminates the substantial difficulties facing any Jew who attempted a synthesis between idealism and realism.

Loeffler introduces us to the early twentieth-century contributions of Hersch Lauterpacht, the Galician Jew and lawyer who gave the world the first blueprint for international human-rights law. Lauterpacht put his faith in the League of Nations' Minorities Treaties and mandate system. He bet that, backstopped by the League's authority, the treaties would compel Eastern European nations to protect their Jewish citizens, while Mandatory Palestine would protect Jewish immigrants. Lauterpacht thought that the League's commitment to the Jewish home in Palestine was itself a sign that international law was working on behalf of a national right—the dispersed Jewish nation's right of self-determination. …

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