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James Loeffler discusses his book Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century. We talk about why the history of human rights matters, and how it fits into modern Jewish history: Who were the Jews who played a role in the shaping of the idea of human rights and its legal framework, how it was that they were both interested in the particular rights of Jews and the universal rights of all human beings, how the state of Israel fits into all of this, and what this tells us about the nature of human rights within the context of the history of the twentieth century as well as today.
- Read the Prologue to Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century
- Purchase Rooted Cosmopolitans on Amazon
- Read James Loeffler’s New York Times op-ed, “The Zionist Founders of the Human Rights Movement” (May 2018)
James Loeffler is Jay Berkowitz Professor of Jewish History at the University of Virginia.
The book presents a fascinating history of human rights and the Jewish lawyers, rabbis, and other public figures who played a role in the shaping of its discourse in the twentieth century: Figures like: – Hirsch Lauterpacht, a Polish Zionist who helped develop the framework of international human rights law – Jacob Robinson, a leader of interwar Lithuanian Jewry who worked on the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials – Peter Benenson, a British lawyer who converted from Judaism to Catholicism and later founded Amnesty International – Jacob Blaustein, an American Jewish leader and a chief human rights booster in postwar U.S. foreign policy – Rabbi Maurice Perlzweig, a British Zionist, a founder of the World Jewish Congress, and a U.N. human rights activist.
In the book, Jim argues that instead of being “rootless cosmopolitans” – an antisemitic epithet from Stalin’s Russia referencing both Jews’ interest in internationalism and drawing from a well of distrust of Jews as foreign – instead of “rootless,” Jim argues that the history of human rights shows that Jews were intensely rooted in the places where they lived and also their own concerns about Jewish and minority rights. In fact, the figures he examines show the convergence between human rights and Zionism, at least in the pre-state era. And so, he traces the trajectory of the human rights discourse from the years following World War I through the Cold War in three acts: the emergence of human rights within the context of minority rights, the convergence of the idea of human rights with the question of how to secure Jewish rights, and then the way in which these two sets of issues diverged.
An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Human Rights Has a History
Jason Lustig: One question that we can maybe start with is, why do we even have this book in the first place? This is a history of human rights. And why do we need a history of human rights? One might think, in kind of a simple or simplistic way, that the universality of human rights is not just geographical—meaning that all humans should have access to them—but it is also essentially temporal, that one can talk about Genghis Khan and human rights violations, for instance. Now, of course, we know that that’s anachronistic, right, that (human rights) is an idea that was created in the twentieth century. The question that I want to get to here is, in what way is a history of human rights necessary and useful, and why do you think it’s so important to write about now in particular?
James Loeffler: I think that the starting point for writing the history of human rights is that human rights are the language we use nowadays to talk about justice, and to debate what we owe each other, what we owe the people in Syria, what we know people in on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, right, what we owe to everyone, right? It’s the language we’ve come to use it to describe a notions of justice. At the same time as we use that language all the time, human rights are something which are intensely debated, in terms of whether they’re too politicized and whether they’re viable at all. And there are now some voices who think that human rights have distracted us from other urgent debates about economics or other debates about democracy or terrorism.
So human rights are all around us. And we talked about them all the time. And we often end up in these impasses: which right is more important? Is this just a weapon to attack a group or people we don’t like? Is this just something which is hopelessly utopian? History gives us a way to basically understand where this language and these norms and these laws that we have, where they come from, and therefore gives us a way to understand our world and why we freight them with such responsibility to solve everything.
On a more practical level, as someone who studies and researches and teaches Jewish history, I’ve often been struck—I say this in the book—by how much debates about human rights often converge on the Jews and on Israel. Some of that’s because we live in a world in which there’s an unresolved conflict in the Middle East, involving Israel, many conflicts; some of it’s because antisemitism is alive and well; some of it’s because so much of the way we think about human rights is tied into their modern appearance in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
What I wanted to do in the book was take a deep look at those origins and try and understand why Jews surface at so many points in the story, and what was the Jewish attitude or attitudes actually towards human rights as they become something turned into international laws and conventions against genocide and crimes against humanity and all kinds of new laws and treaties and norms that emerge after World War II. So basically, we need to have a sense of where we come from to make sense of why we’re stuck today. And, if we’re going to talk about Jews, then we might as well know exactly what the Jews who gave us so many of our norms and ideas and our terms, what they actually thought they were doing and how they balance these questions that we confront today.
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The Meaning of “Rooted Cosmopolitans”
Lustig: I want to come back to some of these issues about the contemporary relevance. I want to maybe start by thinking about the title, “Rooted Cosmopolitans.” What do you mean here when you’re trying to describe the twentieth-century Jewish relationship with human rights, when you’re talking about Jews in these terms?
Loeffler: Sure.There’s a common image of Jews as sort of natural cosmopolitans who gravitate towards universalist movements, campaigns for justice, and things like that. And I think many of us, when we think about the image of Jews and human rights, we say it’s a natural pairing, because Jews are minorities so they fight for causes and they’re often attracted to universalist ideas. So “cosmopolitan” is a word we associated with it. The “rootless” comes in from a famous epithet that emerged out of the Soviet Union when Stalin ratcheted up the pressure and launched a real all-out antisemitic campaign against the Jewish intelligentsia. And one of these great Soviet euphemistic phrases they coined was “rootless cosmopolitans” to describe Jews as somehow this group that wasinternational, wasglobalist, but belonged to nowhere and was particularly dangerous because of that.
The “rootless cosmopolitan” is a kind of an epithet that carries itself into our everyday moment and parlance today, right? Because we have people denouncing Jews as globalists and evil cosmopolitans who want to take over such-and-such a sector of the world economy or Hollywood or the media or things like that. So you can draw a certain line between that particular word itself and its origins in the post-World War II realm of Communist antisemitism.
So that is the reason I wanted to call it “rooted,” because I thought in a certain sense, this is a book about Jews who are thinking globally and are interested in creating new visions of human rights, and they’re vulnerable. As I talk about in the book, they’re often vulnerable to antisemitism and backlash. But ultimately, they’re actually people who have those universalist aspirations and commitments, but they’re really rooted. They’re very inside the heart of Jewish life. And so it’s almost turning upside down that antisemitic phrase and saying that the best way to look at these people, is as Jews who are activists, inside kind of the bosom of Jewish life, but still looking thinking broadly beyond the more particularist confines.
So that’s a long way of saying it’s a pun. It’s a pun on a pun, and that’s what we’re doing with the title.
Lustig: Are you saying, in a certain way, that the connection between Jews and the developing discourse of human rights has led in some way, one way or the other, to some of these attacks upon Jews? That there is this connection between the attacks on Jews as international, as “rootless,” disconnected, and so on and so forth, and this attempt to conceptualize a universalistic framework?
Loeffler: I think that’s true. I think it cuts both ways. And really, what I try and do in the book is show that when we speak of Jews and human rights as rooted cosmopolitans, what we’re really talking about is people who on the one hand, these were different activists, lawyers, in some cases rabbis, diplomats, philanthropists—yes, they were committed to a project of internationalism. They were committed to a project of international law. They were committed to projects of protecting vulnerable populations through law and through new kinds of human rights ideas and norms. And for that, they were attacked. And they were attacked by those who saw this new kind of human rights and this new kind of law as a threat, as a danger to nations or national interests, or old elites, or other competing political visions.
At the same time, the flip side is also true. So one of the things that we also see when we look at this history is that in many cases, just as they were attacked for being too rootless, too internationalist, too associated with these ideas of transcending the nation-state and creating new kinds of global norms—they were also attacked at the very same moment, in many cases, for being too parochial, for being too narrow, for too clannish, too concerned about the Jews.
And from early in the twentieth century, where I start the story, those Jews who began the quest for an international system of law and rights actually found themselves immediately accused of doing it just to protect their own, and that this this human rights mission was actually just a sneak or stealth campaign to protect Jews but not to help others. And one of the great challenges that I think many of these people I’m talking about over the course of the years between World War I and really the end of the twentieth century and even into the present, is how to strike that balance—when there is an accusation that comes from either direction, to Jews as too particular too parochial, “this is all just about Jews, isn’t it?” Versus the other claim, which is that Jews don’t really care, these are Jews who don’t care about their own, “they’re too focused on chasing utopian visions of fixing the world, but forgetting their own brethren left behind.”
The people I chose to write about in the story of human rights turn out to be people who actually are getting it from both sides, because they’re in the middle, pursuing kind of a Jewish mission and a Jewish politics, to try and build this system of human rights. And sometimes that wins them praise from the left, and sometimes it’s criticism or attacks, and sometimes praise from the right, and sometimes criticism and attacks, because they’re actually walking down a middle path between the poles of particularism and universalism as we often think about them.
Lustig: There are two things that you’re saying here that I think are really interesting. The first one is that you’re pointing out the way in which there’s this disconnect between one conception of human rights, this idea of human rights as perhaps overly universalistic, overly international, and this criticism that is wrapped up in this terminology of “rootless cosmopolitans” and the reality of the complexity of this whole history. And then the other thing which you’re just referring to which is so interesting is the attack on the Jews who are involved in the development of ideas of human rights from both sides, right, from those who say that they are “too cosmopolitan,” too international, on the one side, or they are “too parochial” on the other. And that seems to me almost like the core of a major kind of attack of antisemitism upon the Jews, right? You see so many times throughout modern Jewish history in particular, the Jews are attacked from both sides, whether you’re looking at the Nazis who called the Jews both communists and capitalists, for instance, or any other number of examples. It seems to me that you are picking a Stalinist term to turn on its head, but you are getting at, in this core idea, something really interesting and really potentially nuanced. It goes far beyond the pun.
Loeffler: I think that’s exactly right. And I’m glad you mentioned that Nazi image, that weird image of Jews as the ultimate communist threat and the ultimate capitalist threat. Because that is basically something similar that happens with international justice and human rights.
One of my first introductions to the topic was reading a speech in which an Indonesian leader, I think it was the Prime Minister, back in the early 2000s, denounced human rights as something that Jews invented along with communism, along with capitalism, as a conspiracy, along with Zionism. So what I immediately became interested in was, first, where this line of attack comes from, but also this strange pairing, that Jews would be accused of inventing Zionism and human rights as if those were opposites, the way capitalism and communism are. And as I argue in the book, once we begin to look a little bit more closely at this history of these two generations of activism that emerge after World War I, again you see that these are people who frustrate those stereotypes of being wholly in one camp or the other. And they kind of frustrat a lot of our assumptions, when we talk about just sort of how we imagine Jews behave in the world: that they protect themselves or they cling to the tribe, or we think that they, inspired by their own experience, reach outwards to try and help others.
And I think a lot of the time we see, for those of us who look at Jewish political history, they often try and do both at once. I mean, I think that’s pretty normal. But human rights is a kind of hard arena to isolate that in, at first glance, because it is so fraught with, as you said, both attacks on human rights from different political elements and also an idealization of it, the ways in which we write some fables about human rights and imagine the people who pursue it don’t have any politics, don’t have any commitments other than just humanity.
The people I described in the book are interesting because they very much have politics. They very much have political commitments and ideologies, which include working for a broader notion of humanity and working for a kind of Jewish peoplehood idea. And they all come out differently on what that means. And this is the Jewish story, so they argue constantly with one another about what’s the balance, what’s the way forward, and things of that nature. But they’re doing that, and it’s something that’s often left out.
Revising Received Narratives of Jewish History
Lustig: There’s so much to delve into here, when we think about what we can learn from this cohort of individuals that you’re writing about, and how they upend some of the assumptions that we might have about the nature of the Jewish experience in the twentieth century, in terms of the rise of Zionism, the development of various forms of Jewish nationalism, and so on.I think that the part of what’s happening is that when we think about the history of Zionism, some people have this idea that it’s always about a state. I think part of what you’re articulating here is that the discourse of human rights is connected in many ways to an entire history of Jewish nationalism and Jewish particularism that is not necessarily state-based. If we sort of if we have this caricature perspective of Zionism, on the one hand, and human rights on the other—human rights as international, human rights as global, human rights as universalistic, and nationalism as particularistic, setting up barriers between countries and so on—one might assume that these two things are contradictory or in conflict with one another. Part of what I think you’re illustrating here, as part of this bigger shift in terms of the scholarship on the history of Zionism and the various types of Jewish nationalism especially in the interwar period, about the possibilities that not everybody was thinking in terms of a state, there were other approaches, and it wasn’t necessarily that these two things were in conflict with each other.
Loeffler: Right. Right. I think that’s exactly it. When you think about it, one way to talk about this, the twentieth century and the Jews, is to say that there were two strategies for survival. Right? One is, you take a vulnerable people and you give them a state—you create Israel. And the other is, you build something else, some other kind of international protection, that we would now call human rights. In the ‘20s and ‘30s and even to the ‘40s, they called that minority rights. And it was using international law, using this new system, to try and protect Jews as a minority or national minority.
So it’s kind of natural to think that’s the story, and those two developments are parallel or in conflict. But for me, what becomes apparent when you look more closely, is they’re actually intertwined interesting ways. As you said, we’re now at a point where historians have begun to show us that Zionism meant many more things than simply the goal of the road to statehood, as it’s often described. And that is both true in terms of non-Zionist Jewish nationalism, but also Zionists, people who thought of themselves as Zionists and supported the goal of Jewish nationhood, they didn’t only focus on building a state in Palestine or something like the state.
What was interesting to me, where I tried to focus a lot of attention in this book, is realizing how these people often understood these things as actually intertwined and complimentary. I’ll just give you one quick example from the book: One of the people I write about is Jacob Robinson. Jacob Robinson was the leader of the Lithuanian Zionist movement in the 1920s and ‘30s, pretty much as Ben-Gurion called him “the most important Zionist colleague of ours in Lithuania.” And he was committed to the idea of the Jewish national home, raising money for it, advocating for it. He fought hard battles against Jewish socialists and others who he felt were unable to, or refusing to, embrace this core tenet of Zionism.
But Jacob Robinson also was a member of the Lithuanian Parliament. He led the minorities’ bloc there for a few years, was very active in the defensive Jewish minority rights in Lithuania and across the Baltics, and really saw this as an equally important goal. It wasn’t really either/or. “We sympathize with Zionism, but we really just we give the shekel and we think of it as a cause far away, but we build our lives here,” perhaps the way we often think about America Jews. it was really more symbiotic. He was someone who thought every Jew in Lithuanian should learn Hebrew and that the goal of Jewish nationhood, with a home, was important as was Jewish minorityhood, in a certain sense, in the Diaspora.
The newer scholarship that allows us to see Zionism as not only focused on the telos, on the end goal of building a state, is really important. And I take that as sort of the starting point and say, that’s why we can understand Jacob Robinson as a man who will go from 1920’s Lithuania to post-World War II New York at the United Nations, where he is virtually, from one week to the next, advising the Israeli UN delegation-in-the-making on how to win statehood and what to do about legal questions, and giving advice to the UN Commission on Human Rights, helping them draft some of their legal language for the International Bill of Rights. And he’ll do both at the same time as he’s still trying to find ways to protect the remaining Jews of Europe and give them some legal protections after World War II.
So the same person’s in all these stories. And everyone I talk about in the book, in different ways, lives inside these stories. They’re involved in Zionism in the kind of the classic, simple sense we think of, as building a country for Jews, building a state, but they’re also interested in other things such as rights, protections, and law that go beyond it and don’t assume that all Jews will live in that state or all Jews will surrender their nationhood to this thing called Israel.
It’s a subtle distinction, but I think it’s important. Because it’s easily lost. This goes back to where we started our conversation. It’s pretty it’s easy to miss it today, because the nature of Israel as a political culture develops, and Israel as a state and the meaning of Zionism changes after 1948. And therefore it’s harder for us to see back and see how many more things were going on and how many more things some of these people thought were likely or necessary for what a kind of, as I call it, a “Zionist internationalism” could mean before and even after World War II.
It’s Not Just the Jews
Lustig: I think you’re really illustrating, in a very detailed and very exciting and interesting way, this issue of the connection between Jews and human rights. Were their other major non-Jewish groups who you would say were part of this as well?
Loeffler: Definitely. I’m not one of those Jewish historian to thinks the Jews have a monopoly on anything. And what’s interesting to me about this story of human rights and human rights history is there are many different groups active, but for very different reasons. I stress in this book that it is not “Tikkun Olam,” it is not religious ethics. It’s not theology that drives these Jews into human rights. It’s really politics and concerns about law and minority status and antisemitism. But once they get there, they turn around and find that, for instance, they’re working alongside Catholics, and there are a lot of Catholic groups who’ve come to human rights for very different reasons. Because for Catholic, starting in the interwar period, human rights is a way to push back against the power of the godless state and to preserve the church and to think about the meaning of Catholicism and natural law in a secular age.
So the people I’m talking about who are lawyers and activists and political leaders who emerge out of Europe, many of them find their way to the UN, and there they meet all kinds of Catholic intellectuals who are deeply interested in human rights because they view it as way to, as I said, further the notions of Christianity. And there’s a twist in this book, because one of the five people that I focused on starts out as a as a Jew and a Zionist and after World War II turns into a Catholic and develops a very distinctive vision of human rights, which is a Christian vision. And that’s the vision that I argued gives us Amnesty International, because that person is Peter Benson, who is actually the founder of Amnesty International.
So there’s a complicated, interesting story about Jews and Christians, particularly Jews and Catholics, who come to it for different reasons and see in it something very different, what human rights as an idea as a modern project means. I could say more about that, but I would also just know there are there are other groups too. There are lots of other smaller groups, and this reflects something that I think we’re getting to focus more on now, which is other groups, Lithuanians Ukrainians, Lithuanian American exiles, Poles and Polish exiles, who are also interested in human rights for different reasons after World War II, because they view it as part of the struggle against communism and to protect their societies from the Soviet empire. African-Americans are a big part of the story, although they have a very different view, it turns out, of what human rights can do for African Americans after World War II. And they partner with Jews, but ultimately they have a different conception of it because they’re by and large much more focused on the American horizon.
Human Rights and the Nation State
Lustig: You’re talking about all sorts of groups that are involved in the struggle to establish human rights as an international system of one kind or another. But in this book in particular, you’re talking about the Jews as really the centerpiece of this story. And I think what was striking about it is that you argue that the development of human rights as an idea in the twentieth century was related to the Jewish experience in a number of ways. You talk about a particular set of persecutions, of outbreaks of violence, that led people towards trying to create a universal framework for human rights. You talked about, in one case, human rights as emerging as a response to the Jews’ lack of a state, because there was no state to protect the Jews and their rights. In the introduction, you reference Evan Burke, that “if Dutchman are injured and attacked the Dutch have a nation, governments, and armies of redress or revenge their cause,” so on and so forth, but then of course the Jews don’t.
What’s interesting here is that you’re suggesting that there are all these groups that are involved in the debates about human rights, but that the Jews have a particular case. They become kind of the paradigmatic case of those people who need access to human rights, in the early twentieth century. And this is, of course, first we’re talking about the pogroms and the explosions during World War I, and then eventually of course also the case of refugees in the 1930s, that states don’t want to take Jews in who are fleeing from Nazi Germany. Fundamentally, the entire international system just doesn’t work. So you have this discourse of human rights dealing with these kinds of issues. What’s going on here, in terms of this relationship between the modern Jewish experience and the argument for human rights?
Loeffler: Right. I think it’s exactly the way you’re putting it so nicely. What makes the Jews unique, specifically in the interwar period, is they don’t have a state, and they’re acutely aware of that. Everyone else running around Europe—and there are many other minority groups, because the Paris peace conference divided up Europe and created all kinds of situations in which you had millions and millions of people, including Germans, including Poles, living on “the wrong side of the border”—so the Jews are not unique. But they come out with a unique level of engagement and attachment to this idea of protecting rights internationally. And it’s because they realize they have no one to advocate for them. And this becomes the great tragedy, of course, that as things worsen in Europe, and it becomes a question about rescue and refuge and intercession, there is no country willing to do it. So that that is exactly what seems to propel a lot of them into it.
But I think there’s a flip side to that, and I try and stress that it’s not only because they’re so stateless that they are drawn to this. It’s also because many of them realize that that’s why they want a state. And some people read this book might say, well is it only Zionists who do this? And the answer is no, but it is more Zionists than non-Zionists who participate from the Jewish fold in this human rights cause. And the reason is, the Zionists are thinking about international law because they want to build a state, and the way to build a state is to use the power of law—the Balfour Declaration, the League of Nations Mandate—to use these tools to make the claims about what Jews deserve and what Jews ought to have in Palestine and in general.
So there’s an interesting phenomenon that happens there, where basically Jews find themselves, yeah, a stateless diaspora group. And those who want to seek rights and legal protections as the answer often are the same people who then say, we need to make ourselves visible in international law. We need to be recognized as a people, as a nation. And that dovetails very nicely with that quest for nationhood as a territorial nation in what’s now called the Jewish national home in British-control Palestine. So these things begin to align in interesting ways and the kind of unique position of Jews propels them that way.
I want to caution and say, that there are many Jews who don’t believe in this. But those people, more likely than not, are the ones who either opt for socialism or more radical forms of leftism because they want to have another vision of transforming European society. Or they opt for migration. But then, of course, then they find themselves right back in the position of saying, well, “now that we’re safe in in England or the U.S., to some extent in France, what do we do to protect the Jews back in the danger zones of Europe?” And then, more often than not, even those who are not Zionists find themselves identifying with the same impulse to declare Jews a nation in need of protection in a certain part of Europe in the interwar period and to advocate for them.
That’s all going on right there, and the Jewish position, the Jewish pathway into this, as I argue, was really because of where they start out and because of the nature of it. What’s interesting is that you find in a lot of ways that Jews are acutely aware of demography, they’re acutely aware of the numbers and just what it means by “minority.” And this of course also has profound consequences for how they want to think about Palestine, Arabs and Jews, and what kind of country they can imagine being there, and what they think should happen and will happen, when they imagine what it means to be a minority or majority, looking outwards and into the post-war period.
Human Rights, Minority Rights, and the Failures of Modernity?
Lustig: I want to delve into a bit more of this question of the relationship of the history of the idea of human rights and Jewish history modern times. To what extent would you say that the concept of human rights developed as a response to the various failures of the promises of modernity and the promise of emancipation, individual rights secured by the state, and then later on minority rights, in terms of kind of an international system, in the interwar era? What is the relationship between this new kind of rights—this idea of a universal human right—as opposed to individual and minority rights? And how is this all connected?
Loeffler: So I would put it this way: I actually think that the story of human rights and Jews isn’t one of the failure of emancipation. I mean, it’s easy to think of it that way, because different schemes to protect Jews and others fail in Europe, and then the Holocaust, and then human rights really emerges as we now see, dramatically, in the 1940s, and then lifts off later on even more so in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But I don’t think that’s about the failure of emancipation. The reason I say that is the following, when you look at the people in 1919 who are talking about rights for Jews, they’re talking about minority rights and they’re talking about how Jews should have national cultural autonomy, they should have their own schools, they should have cultural rights and linguistic rights, some kinds of autonomy in Eastern Europe, perhaps beyond, some of them believe. They don’t actually say it’s because emancipation has failed and we don’t have citizenship and we don’t have freedom or the liberal model that we that we often associate with the nineteenth century.
What they actually say, and they’re very much influenced by Simon Dubnow—even if they’re not exactly following the same brand of Jewish politics that he preached—but they often say that minority rights isn’t the end of emancipation or the alternative, it’s the continuation and the fulfillment of it. So basically they say, we don’t want this in place of democracy, in place of citizenship, in place of this liberal status. We want it sort of as an add-on to address the unique needs of our people as a minority and the unique conditions of what the modern world has looked like. And they argue this again and again. I was struck by how prevalent that rhetoric is. In 1929, one of the people I write about in the book says, in 1789 the French gave the world the rights of man, and now we’re going to fulfill that by adding on the rights of groups, as if this is a continuation and a fulfillment, not a kind of correction and a rejection.
And then you jump to World War II, and what you find there is that many of these people who fought for minority rights are still holding on to this dream of it well into the 1940s. There’s been some other great scholarship about the postwar peace conferences, and I touch on that theme too, where you see Jews still hoping and realizing that no one wants to talk about minority rights anymore, but hoping to find ways, even into the 1950s and arguably into 1960s, to keep alive some of those ideas of protections for Jews, particularly when they think about this massive amount of Jews that are that are locked in the Soviet Union and what might help them protect their identity.
But even those people who become huge champions of human rights, and they think about it in the sense that we often do as individual rights and liberties—and I’m thinking now American Jewish liberals like the folks at the American Jewish Committee, who play a big role in the story—they also don’t say, “we need human rights because emancipation failed.” They say, because human rights is, again, the continuation or fulfillment of emancipation and those earlier dreams of integration. What they say human rights amounts to is an antidote to too much nationalism, an antidote to too much groupism, as well as antisemitism, and human rights is kind of a way to just add an extra level of assurance and, if you will, insurance, to protect Jews, but as individual citizens, which I think is still the ideal that we often recognize as the earlier emancipation ideal.
I see it that way: It’s almost like, in each moment, they’re rethinking things but they’re imagining that they’re preserving the best of that dream of the Jewish modern path of emancipation.
Lustig: Let me push back on you on this for a second, because maybe it’s not necessarily about the “failure of emancipation,” but the failure of the state. Which is to say that the idea of emancipation, coming out of the experience of Jews in the French Revolution and its aftermath, was this idea of rights that are bestowed upon Jews as individuals by the state and that are protected by the state, and perhaps the idea of human rights is the same idea—still individual rights, or the rights of groups that are persecuted, individuals that fall into that framework, but the reason why you need more universalistic, a more global framework of human rights as opposed to a human right or an individual right that is guaranteed by the state is because of the failure of the state to protect those rights which are, in theory, bestowed upon individuals, but in fact or in reality, are not.
Loeffler: So I welcome the push back, and I actually agree with you. I mean, I think it’s what we often as Jewish historians—the two of us—(we) often have to remind people that Jews are emancipated with the famous line, they’re emancipated not into some status of emancipation, they’re emancipated into the status of individual citizens. They get their freedom from countries, from governments, and when those states fail or failed to give the rights, or take them away, it’s not a failure of some abstract process of emancipation. It’s a failure of governments and governance.
So, the difference in the way I would respond to you about that is that I think it is important to understand what human rights really was, as legal project. It wasn’t rights that really were understood to be something that people could port with them, independent of their citizenship. All the treaties that were passed and all the efforts that were made in the interwar period, and then really in the period I talked about in 1940s now afterwards, in one sense their goal was to give people legal protections, but to still better protect them inside the countries in which they lived by making those countries obligate themselves to give the rights and protect them.
Another way of describing this is, their goal was really to—to use a phrase that has been used recently—to socialize or to correct the behavior of these states. It wasn’t to give Jews some kind of protection that would have been separate from their status as citizens of say, Hungary, or France, or the United States. It was to give them a way to appeal above their governments so that some body, such as the UN, would then be able to go to their governments and say, “you’re violating the rights of your own people.” That’s why I think there’s a certain continuity there.
Now, it’s different than emancipation in the nineteenth century, because, absolutely, the ideal is this super-national authority, right? The law will be above the heads, above the level of the state. These countries now are bound by something above them, larger than them, and that didn’t exist before. That was the ideal of everything. But when you look at these treaties and look at the law today, what it still is is law that may give individuals rights, but places the obligation and the burden on the countries, the governments, to fulfill those rights, and gives people the chance to appeal to those countries and appeal beyond them in the name of the rights they’re supposed to have, because they are a citizen, or not even a citizen but a resident of a certain place.
That’s a nuanced answer, but I think that’s important, because otherwise, we would be getting down a road where we will be talking about what Jews were thinking and pursuing in terms of basically having a legal status as a people, sort of free-floating. And there were some interesting utopian legal thinkers who proposed different ways to do that. But ultimately what really this was about was, how do we as Jews get such a such-and-such a government to recognize its minority, to protect its minority? And how do we find other legal levers to pressure the government in its conduct, and to allow people to make rights claims against it? So it introduces another level of complexity and another vertical level of authority, but I don’t think it actually takes away the centrality of the state in the story of Jews and politics, it just kind of adds a layer on top of it.
Why are these Jews Attracted to International Law?
Lustig: I want to focus a little bit on this idea of Jews and their connection with the development of international norms and international law. That’s really what this is about, when you’re describing human rights, in practical terms it’s a series of treaties or agreements that enshrine the rights of individual humans beyond the rights or in addition to the rights that they receive from their states of residence. In the book, you’re describing and analyzing a group of Jewish individuals, really a handful of prominent figures, who might not be that well known now but who played an important role in the crafting of the idea of human rights. And it’s not that dissimilar, in a certain way, to another case that I think is perhaps more well-known than what you’re talking about, the development of the legal terminology of genocide, where you have a Polish Jewish figure by the name of Raphael Lemkin who is really instrumental in the 1940s in terms of developing an early framework that would become the basis for the formal definitions of genocide that would be adopted by the UN.
What’s interesting here is that this seems to be another parallel case, right, of the way in which we have a series of Jewish legal thinkers who are involved in this development of a discourse. I’m curious, here, again, to go back to this question, why Jews—and not even just “why Jews,” but why this set of Jews? What was it that primed these individuals, whether it was their Jewishness or some other characteristic, to make the kinds of interventions they did in international law, legal norms, or otherwise participate in these kinds of debates?
Loeffler: That’s a great question, and I asked myself that question many times. I’m making a plug here, I’m co-editing another book about that specifically, it gathers a bunch of different legal scholars and historians together to look at Jews and international law and try and unpack that relationship and see what patterns we can detect, given that there are so many striking examples. You mentioned genocide, it’s a parallel one. I do talk a little bit about it in the book, because there are parallels and their overlaps in (Lemkin’s) story. But the larger questions is a terrific question, what’s driving it?
What I could tell you is this: What’s striking is how little Jews are involved international law before World War I. Looking back, I found a really interesting speech that one of the people I talk about gave in 1949, in which he said, at the time of World War I, we were so involved in advocating for international legal changes, we couldn’t even find people trained international law to write briefs on behalf of, say, the Comité des delegations juives, this Jewish NGO that was present at the Paris peace conference. He said, we couldn’t find anybody, because Jews were really interested in law. They were lots of Jewish lawyers in Europe. But very few doing international law. And that completely changed in the generation that I’m talking about, which is also that generation of Lemkin and those born in the early twentieth century, coming of age during and right after World War I.
Something changed at that point in time. But what was it? I think the first thing that changed was, these people were living in crumbling empires that were very diverse, the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. They already were thinking about this issue of diversity and nationality and minority groups and language and things like that, which international law had begun grappling with. So there’s a way in which they realized law is the key tool to do this. I think the second thing is, not so much some mystical attraction to the law among Jews or—again, I’m really pushing back against this idea that there’s some sort of mystical attraction to universalist schemes, because there’s so many different universalist schemes at this point in time. Esperanto is maybe a “Jewish” story. But a tiny, tiny percentage of Jews ever get interested in Esperanto, right? Socialism is an important Jewish story, but only a certain percentage of Jews do it. So, same thing with law.
What is it that draws Jews particularly to international law? And again, I think the answer is, international law is a way to make claims about how to protect your group, if you can’t make claims simply on the basis of having an army that can grab a piece of territory in Europe, if you can’t make it just on the strength of numbers. There’s so many of us here, you have to turn to something else. So in my reading, that explains why many of these different people that that we’re talking about, and others like them, are attracted international law.
In a certain sense, it’s a weapon of the weak. It’s a way to use this lever that allows you to make claims about truth and claims about power, what states should do, how they should behave, without having the bayonet to do it with, or economic power, or something like that. So I do think that’s what it is in a certain sense.
I think these people are actually pragmatists. They’re idealist, but they’re pragmatists who saw law is this new arena, because everyone is now talking about international law at this point in time. The hope is that international law will help prevent another war in Europe. And that’s why there’s a League of Nations, too. The hope is this will be a way to prevent war and to manage the process of Europe’s engagement with the world. And I think Jews are basically, in a certain sense, early adopters. They’re norms entrepreneurs, they’re creating new ideas like genocide, like crimes against humanity, but they’re also kind of like early adopters experimenting with this.
In the second half of the book, I talk a lot about this in terms of interesting stories about, for instance, the role of Israel in creating the international refugee convention. And there’s a very vigorous internal conversation among Israeli diplomats. What are we doing here? Why are we creating this convention? And there are points in time in which they talk about, we do this because we have to, since we just experienced refugeedom, or they do it because they say, we have to because Jews might need it. But there are also points of time in which they say, we do this because we’re a small country and international law is a chance for us to make our mark in the world, to protect our people and the norms we think are important, as well as to punch above our weight-class, actually to do something that otherwise we couldn’t do as a tiny country, as an embattled country that has many challenges and isn’t a position to start doing great power diplomacy. So I think there’s a story there about international law’s attraction for Jews as a way to do diplomacy, to do politics by other means in a certain sense.
Lustig: I want to come back to this question of the relationship between Israel and human rights, because I think it’s an important one, and one of that I think is a major issue in terms of understanding the context of this history in our present day. But I want to go back to something that you were saying before. You were saying that the attraction of Jews to the idea of international law was not due to some kind of mystical connection between Jews and the law, that this could be an idea that you say, Oh, yeah, Halakha and Jewish law sort of primed Jews to say, “well, laws are good, right, create legal frameworks, new legal ideas.” But there’s another idea that we could maybe push back against that, one might argue in kind of a superficial way that—to take the Carl Schmitt angle—that the creation of international laws, human rights, and so on is just a secularization of the prophetic calling for universal justice, that this is just another form of the secularization of the idea of God as the King of Kings. Well, the same idea: that there should be an authority above the state. So one might say that there’s a connection between Judaism, in an essential way, with these ideas. And of course., this is not really exactly what’s going on. But one might perhaps see this here. And the question is, how is it that this history pushes back against that kind of a superficial reading?
Loeffler: Right. No, absolutely. I was waiting for the moment in our conversation where Carl Schmitt’s name would surface, because it’s a really interesting critique. And he’s somebody who played a decisive role in demonizing Jews and Jewish lawyers in Weimar and then with the Nazi rise to power in portraying this Jewish obsession with the law as a negative, a prophetic universalism.
How do we respond to that? For that reason, I put a rabbi in this book. One of the five people I focus on is Maurice Perlzweig, he’s a Polish-born British rabbi who is a very interesting guy who I basically argued invents the modern NGO, the modern human rights organization, through his work with the World Jewish Congress. And he’s an interesting example. Perlzweig on the one hand will tell us in the ‘20s that Zionism is a fulfillment of the Prophets because Zionism is building up the nation of Israel from which will go forth the law again, and the dream of what he calls internationalism. So you could say that that is kind of a theological move. Except that when push comes to shove, Perlzweig actually says, it’s not really about theology. It’s about justice and politics and elemental norms of how to protect people and how to rectify the injustices of history.
He speaks, in other words, a very secular language and he doesn’t go off into talking about, I do this because I’m a Jew and the Prophets commanded me or inspired me, even though he’s actually a progressive Jew, which is the British equivalent of the Reform movement in the U.S. He’s a rabbi who acts like a secular activist, and he makes very little reference to also the buzzword that we hear a lot today, which is to tikkun olim. He has very little time for that, perhaps because he’s reacting to Schmitt and those people who have said, oh the Jews do this because they want to tear down the state. But I think it’s because he just lives in an intensely political moment where political ideologies of nationhood are really the way in which Jews are defining themselves and arguing about what politics and what justice can be.
I just don’t think it’s really there, despite what some other enemies say, and despite what people today might imagine. I wanted to write this book because I thought there’s two myths about Jews and human rights that really remain with us: one is that it’s because of some ancient theological tradition, betselem elohim [the idea that humans are made in the image of god], that this is basically pulsating through Jewish consciousness. The reality is the people that I write about, some of them know an awful lot about traditional Judaism and Halakha, but they made no reference to it, because that’s understood to be just a totally different sphere. And the second myth that we have is that this is all because of the Holocaust, that Jews because they suffered, they and the world decided to do something. And I wanted to show that, actually, it’s a story that begins a generation before, and has a lot to do with antisemitism, but it has to do with World War I and, as you mentioned earlier in our conversation, the larger question of what the world will look like. What kind of world we will have when empires (fall) and we’re left with states and peoples that wish to have states and people spread across states.
I think that that’s an interesting challenge for us today, because many Jews interested in social ethics and in human rights do take inspiration from Prophetic traditions, or from Halakha or from the rabbinic world and tradition. But these folks didn’t. They didn’t attack it, they just thought of it as something which was an abstract set of ideals and principles, a little bit removed from the real drama of rethinking the world in terms of order, harmony, protection.
Individual Rights, Minority Rights, Human Rights
Lustig: In the book, you sketch out a trajectory of the debate about human rights, how the ideas emerged from the ferment over minority rights in the aftermath of World War I, how they became enshrined in the post-World War II international order, how they have been transformed since then, especially in terms of the Cold War and in terms of the context of Israel. How do we understand what’s going on here in terms of these shifts from, for instance, minority rights to human rights or from minority rights to statism? What does this narrative arc tell us about human rights and the changing place of Jews in the twentieth century?
Loeffler: I think, first of all, we have to remember that the place of Jews is always a double one. On the one hand, Jews are inside these stories, testing the options, trying to convince the world and the great powers to let them have the full promise of minority rights during the interwar period, pushing for human rights after World War II, pushing to make them something that will be a system that can really deliver the promise of protection and justice to Jews and others. As I talked about, they’re really looking for ways to do that and figuring out what that means given the context of the Cold War, given the Arab-Israeli conflict. They’re not doing one or the other, they’re often doing more than one thing at once. So that’s one place of Jews in the story, and we see basically that all along Jews are at the center of the mix because they’re invested in it, because they are still a vulnerable population at the core of the western world.
But there’s a second place to it, and this becomes more important as we get to the second half of the story, in the second half of the twentieth century. And that’s that all along Jews occupy a singularly place in the imagination of many of the other people, diplomats, legal activists, lawyers, politicians thinking about rights, justice, nationalism, and the international order. If in a certain sense before World War II many other countries use the Jews as kind of a political pawn and as a symbol of the minority and what the League of Nations should do or shouldn’t do, what the what the world owes the Jews vis-à-vis a homeland, after World War II Jews continue to be a symbol of something.
And that’s where the optics change. I think increasingly in the ‘60s and ‘70s, what happens is that Jews, particularly Israel, become a symbol of the challenge of human rights against state sovereignty. We begin to see this already in the early ‘60s when the Soviet Union begins to say that anytime Israel or Diaspora Jewish groups speak out about antisemitism or about human rights, they’re really just advancing a “Jewish agenda,” it’s really just a cover for Jewish aims or the government of Israel, and we see this intensify in dramatic ways. Once you have the rise of a new kind of human rights movement and Amnesty international, which basically begins to focus increased attention on Israel in ways that continue to be patterned out and debated today, for allegations of human rights violations.
What I argue in the book is that Jews continue all along through these different stages to be at the center because they are still a vulnerable minority. After World War II there’s millions of Jews in Eastern Europe and then the Arab world who are vulnerable, and other Jews are seeking ways to protect them using, first, minority rights, then human rights to protect them.
At the same time, the world looks at the Jews and looks at Israel and see something onto which they project many of their own images and anxieties and hopes and fears for what rights should be and what a nation should be or shouldn’t be. You see these most dramatically in Amnesty International, where Amnesty is an organization begun in the ‘60s—and it takes them a while to get involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict because they say, well, we don’t deal with conflict zones, we don’t deal human rights when it comes to wars or prisoners who are committing violence or endorsing violence. So that pretty much rules out the Palestinians. But at a certain point, Amnesty begins to say, well, we have to do something to get involved and to take a stand and to be engaged with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as it comes to be called, and we have to be doing something, and the Jews and Israel need an extra level of attention. I’m not someone who stakes out of position and says, it’s all antisemitism, and I’m not someone who stakes out of position and says it’s all because of the events of 1967 and Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians. I think that something else, however, in between, is happening, where the human rights community, as its developing, needs to define itself in terms of what it is and what it isn’t. And it begins to think with the Jews, with the example of the Jews and with the example of Israel, as a way to define its own perception of what human rights are and its own dreams of something we’ve alluded to in our conversation, which is a kind of a pure form of universalism.
Human Rights and the Changing Position of Jews
Lustig: One of the things I think is so interesting about your book and about our conversation is that you’re arguing that, at least at the beginning, there’s this connection between particular Jewish rights on the one hand and universal human rights on the other. But part of what happens over the fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty years since the conclusion of World War I is that the nexus of Jewish rights and human rights begins to break apart. This, to me, is really important because it reflects the shifting place, the shifting position of Jews in the world. I mean, I talk about this with my students, this process of the mainstreaming of Jews over the course of the twentieth century. And this is something we can talk about in the U.S. in particular, the way in which Jews “become white,” right? But this is broadly speaking a shift away from Jews as the paradigmatic persecuted people to the Jews as being more privileged, not having to deal with the kinds of struggles that many other oppressed and persecuted people around the world have to deal with. All this is to say that part of this shift, in a certain way, just has to do not with the changing of human rights, but just the changing position of the Jews.
Loeffler: Right. I do agree with that, I think it’s something I try and convey in the book, that both human rights over the decades after World War II, and the position of Jews, changes. Absolutely. One of the folks in the book, Maurice Perlzweig, who is a human rights activist for decades, touches down in 1967, right after the Six-Day War, walk through Jerusalem east and west. And he is hopeful that there will be a peace deal between Israel and the Arab world, and there will be a peaceful coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians. But he also says, our position has changed, at least for the present, because now Israel is a strong sovereign country, we have to be aware of the optics of what we look like in the world, that we may not appear as vulnerable, and in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict as we once were or as we even think we are, so the world has changed and we’ve changed too.
That’s one of the challenges that that persists from that moment of ‘67 onwards, is making sense of that in ways in which can explain how Jews can still be facing massive antisemitism in the Soviet Union during those years, and after the Soviet Union can still face threats of antisemitism down to the present. And yet, there’s Jewish power, and there are others who can lay claim to being a minority that is uniquely vulnerable and has strong claims to justice—not only the Palestinians, many other groups. So that’s the kind of reversal that does happen. And it is part of what you alluded to, which is this kind of divergence, that I call it in the third part of the book, of the divergence of Jewish and human rights, where it’s much harder to make Jewish rights and human rights synonymous.
And I think, without jumping too much into the present, we see that we see that today. This was something that was manifestly in evidence where I work, at the University of Virginia, when the neo-Nazis came to town in August of 2017. The Nazis were there to do a racist anti-Black agenda and an antisemitic agenda. The debates afterwards about how to respond were somewhat confused, about what was the bigger evil, what was the greater danger? Was antisemitism as much of a danger as anti-Black racism was to the black community of Charlottesville and beyond? It has to do with the ways in which the position of the Jews in American society and Israel and elsewhere has changed.
And I think we’re in a unique moment because of the new developments raising these questions again to the fore. There are some parallels, so we can look back in history and see how Jews have navigated this issue of settling into the majority but still being a minority elsewhere, and their ways in which this is a fundamentally new era and history can’t give us a pattern always, and our job is to show how things are fundamentally different than before.
Lustig: You mentioned what happened in 2017 and it raises these questions, so many challenging and really disheartening questions, that we would have to ask about all of these issues., like how do we encounter, how do we engage with the world in which we live? And whether or not human rights is still a useful term when there are so many threats to rights of all kinds.
Loeffler:, With that I would say, here’s a bright spot, and I think the bright spot consists of the following: these, like many cases for those of us who write about Jewish politics in the past, it’s not always the case where things are easy and line up, and it’s not always the case where things are painful and we see the compromises—moral and political—that Jews have to make to survive. We do see really interesting moments, and I’ve described a number of them in the book, where Jews committed to human rights face choices about, how do we build a coalition? How do we build a partnership with other minority groups, at the UN or elsewhere, at the League of Nations? How does Israel get the international refugee convention passed? How does it deal with the genocide convention? What we see is people in real time thinking through these questions and trying to make strategic assessments for how to hold on to their values and ideals and to protect Jews and to make partnerships. In a certain sense, that’s what history always is, making the best choice based on the bad options in front of you. Some of the people in this book do it very well and they come out with some successes, even if they don’t avert the Holocaust or they don’t stop the Arabs-Israel conflict. They have some concrete achievements of which they can be justly proud, for advancing justice even as it involves having to partner in some cases with great powers that aren’t much interested in the Jews and view them in very utilitarian terms, or with antisemites. This is one of the interesting stories of the book is watching Jews at the UN deal with antisemitic regimes that are willing to work in some cases with the Jews and trying to figure out why that’s the case and when those opportunities are worth taking and when they’re morally and politically repugnant. So I think history isn’t a consolation, but it’s an invitation to think about ways of approaching these questions.
Human Rights and Israel
Lustig: I do want to talk about sort of the big implications of this book and of this history, but before we get there, I think there is this elephant in the room, so to speak, which we’ve touched upon over the course of our conversation but really haven’t delved into, the place of Israel in all of this. What is the relationship between the contemporary state of Israel and what has happened over the past fifty years, and this whole history of human rights—given that you are talking about the way in which there is this convergence between “Jewish” rights and human rights at the beginning of the story and then there’s this divergence, where does the state of Israel fit into all of this, especially considering that so many of the figures who were involved in the creation of the discourse and the idea of human rights were themselves associated with Zionism or Jewish nationalism in one way or another, and in so many ways now Israel and the human rights community have an antagonistic relationship?
Loeffler: Spoiler alert, I don’t have the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the book. nor do I have a one factor explanation for it. But I spend a lot of time in the in the second and third parts of the book talking about how Israel reacts to both the challenge of the politicization of the human rights world, the changing optics as its seen more as the bad guy in the neighborhood, and the reality of the Palestinian question. The goal of the book is to show how those things intersect with the story of Jews and human rights. They do intersect a lot. I think what’s interesting, and some of the unknown history that I that I that bring that surprises even me, is that even after 1967 Israel and Amnesty International enter into a very complicated attempt to partner together to create a model of working between a state and an NGO on how to deal with human rights violations allegations. Try this, and it fails, and when it fails I argue it sets off a pattern of mutual antagonism and recrimination that persists down to the present.
So every time we deal with the question of can a human rights organization appropriately investigate from afar what is happening in the West Bank, we are actually watching a repetition of a debate that began already in the late ‘60s, at a point where it was not at all clear even then what was going to happen with the West Bank and the Palestinians in Israel.
I bring this complicated history to show that there are reasons beyond simply the facts of who’s in control and who’s not that can help explain how we got here, and it’s kind of a mutual antipathy. My personal take on it, as I talked about in the end of the book, is that we’ve gotten to an extremely polarized place which doesn’t really help anyone. From the perspective of the Jewish right, kind of viewing all human rights organizations as the enemy and viewing human rights activists within Israel as somehow traitors, which is some of the rhetoric which is intensified in recent times, I think is a grave error, is not in accordance with what the history actually was. And I think there is a is a danger which shows how much people have forgotten where things were, even after 1967, between Israel and human rights. And on the other side, I think there’s a there’s a growing antagonism in certain parts of human rights world and certain parts of the Jewish world towards Israel and the idea of Israel, because it’s seen as something which could never be at one with the human rights norms, and it’s fundamentally opposed to it. And why those things developed, I think, as I said they, have to do with the unresolved issues of ‘67. They also have to do with the simple fact that there is this pattern of kind of antagonism and recrimination that goes on and on and on again and pushes Israel and human rights further and further apart in the minds of many people and between those two communities, if you will.
So the goal of the book is not to tell you how to solve this conflict, or whether Israel is right or wrong on any one decision. It’s more to say that the way we talk about it is one in which we’ve pushed these two things to extremes. If we do that, then there’s very little hope of getting them back to a balanced in the middle, or can imagine dare I say a partnership in which an Israeli democracy could balance national security and democracy, could resolve questions about human rights in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the occupation with the needs of nationhood and the needs of security. So, I’m not writing this as someone who wants to come and single out an NGO for its sins, nor am I writing this to exonerate Israel or to say that Israel has utterly failed and carrying the mantle of tradition. I don’t think that’s what it is. I think Israel’s been stuck, as many observers have said for a long time, and in that space of impasse has become more and more suspicious of human rights as its kind of alien culture that is at odds with the very notion of Zionism. If anything, this book tries to say that is certainly not the case. What it will mean is it will depend on our capacity to reimagine perhaps both human rights and Zionism going forward.
What We Gain from Historical Context
Lustig: I think that when you’re talking about this kind of polarization, this kind of antagonism between political hardliners on the right and on the left, so to speak, part of the challenge here is a lack of historical context. People might not realize that there used to be this connection, and that might perhaps illuminate or create nuance, when so much of the political polarization that you see across the board around the world is this just kind of this lack of nuance. I think that this really goes back to something you emphasize in the book, in the instruction and then also at the conclusion, that you lament that the debates over human rights lack an awareness of this history of the connection of modern human rights and Jewish political activism. So, what do you think is gained from this kind of historical contextualization, this kind of—what you call in the conclusion—a sense of political proportion? What is the importance of historical perspective, and how does the human rights community on the one hand and society at large, whether you’re talking about in the U.S., Israel, or elsewhere, what are they missing when they’re lacking this kind of historical perspective or context?
Loeffler: One thing missing when I talk about proportion is just a sense of what we’re grappling over here. I do think that we need to learn how to argue without demonization. In certain parts of the human rights world, Zionism has become catchword for rogue state, racism. I mean, those epithets from the 1970s, when Zionism was denounced as racism at the UN, linger, and they’ve (been) revived in certain ways. And as I said, I think, it’s true on the right too. In many parts of the Jewish world, it’s understood that the UN and human rights is just something designed to attack Israel, and doesn’t have any sense of proportion. The goal of proportion is basically learning how to think about these things and hold contradictions and conflicts in values without resorting to a demonization, where we always say that by definition such and such an organization is a traitor or Israel itself is destined to always be, by its very nature, in its very essence, committing some kinds of violations and crimes. So how we talk about it, I think, is the case.
There’s a second thing here, and I would say that I wrote this book about people, and it’s about five people. They don’t agree. They’re not all officially Zionists. Some of them start out antagonistic towards Zionism and become quite Zionists, in one case someone starts out as a Zionist and renounces Zionism, but does not become somebody who denounces Israel and its right to exist. They give us a perspective, I think for many people, particularly young people, who are searching for ways to figure out how their values and politics align with the deeper lines and channels of Jewish history. This is a way for people to find themselves in the past and understand. what did it mean as a progressive former Zionist in 1967 to watch the war play out and to decide what should happen, who’s at fault, and what was possible then? Which may be actually a useful thing for some progressives today. As well as for some realistic conservatives, what did it mean that some of the earliest critics of human rights in the 1950s were Israeli diplomats, nonetheless pressing hard for an international criminal court because they believed that this was actually good for Israel and actually good for the world? Times change, and situations change. But understanding how people think through these questions can help us, because we live in a world that’s obsessed with identity. Understanding how these people wrote their own lives can give us portals for reflection and imagination.
And then I think there’s a third maybe final thing here, which probably a message that I would say is another counterintuitive message. Oftentimes, when people talk about human rights, nationalism, atrocities, we basically say that the goal is to transcend our identities. You hear this on the right, where identity is blamed as the reason we have extremist populism in this country. And you hear it on the left, where we say, it’s Jews being too tribal or too clannish, as why there’s no resolution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or Jews being too quick to defend Israel.
What I want to argue in the book is that there is a moral perspective that these early activists had, which was one of peoplehood, and one of embracing the thick national Jewish identity as a way to act in the world. And I think that’s something that that ought to be recovered today. Not all nationalism is bad nationalism. Certainly Israelis understand that, on the right and the left, and I’m not sure American Jews quite get that yet. There’s a certain sense that we may identify with Israel in different ways, but we’re very scared at the language of nationhood.
I think the more we can grapple with it and wrestle with it the more we can become better engaged to grapple with Palestinian claims and trying to make sense of them as well as understand the Israeli experience. That’s another meta message of this book, that it’s not either/or, that kind of nationhood and internationalism. It’s also an opportunity to rethink exactly what it means to act out in the world as Jews, for those where that happened, and frankly for other groups and other peoples in terms of thinking about their identities and their activism.
Why the History of Human Rights Matters
Lustig: I wanted to conclude by stepping back perhaps even further and thinking about why this history matters. How does the history of human rights make a larger contribution to the way in which we see the world today, or our understanding of in Jewish history over the course of the twentieth century? What is it about this history that you are telling and that you’ve been exploring, what kind of contribution does it present in a broad social and political context?
Loeffler: You’ve ended with the doozy. I think when we take the biggest step backwards from this history, particularly human rights history with the Jews in it and beyond the Jews, it forces us to think really about what it means to do politics. We live in an intensely political, politicized world. But there’s also a lot of skepticism and cynicism about what’s possible with politics. Will the courts save us? Will they save democracy? Should people be turning away? Is it worth voting? All these debates.
Ultimately, it might seem odd to make the Jews the centerpiece of a story about political activism and change, given that this is a story which involves so many failures, and successes that turn into failures, in terms of the ways in which Jews get sucked into the dramas of the Holocaust and then the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sucks in Jewish human rights activism. It might seem strange, but I think ultimately studying the past gives us a sense of people’s possibilities and their agency and their belief that they can actually make massive changes. With words, they can change the way people think about law. And with laws they can change the way people think about territory. And, with names they can change the way people think about justice and rights.
I think that’s something very powerful, and that idealism rooted in kind of a pragmatism and rooted in political activism and political thought is something that’s important for us today. Human rights, as I as I said earlier in our conversation, is all around us, and we use it. But often times it’s in terms of clicks, or it’s a campaign, or it’s a rally. But I do think that one of the inspiring legacies of this history we’ve talked about is that these are people who really understood that political change in society was possible, and idealistic change was possible if it was grounded in a really strong engagement with the world and a strong perspective on most of all actually the kind of international system, where the world was going internationally. I do think that’s a that’s a powerful legacy. We often tell the story of Jews as the people who gave so much to the world and didn’t see it, were blindsided by the Holocaust or got stuck with the realities of Middle Eastern politics and the bad neighborhood Jews ended up in. But I do think that many other Jews were looking ahead, were looking broadly, were trying to understand the way which the world was going as a whole and tried to take advantage of that to push forward visions of justice. So, I think that kind of idealism is something that we can always use more of. My conviction in writing the book was that that something that’s worth recovering and reflect on.
Lustig: If there’s one word we can go back to, something that you used a couple minutes ago, you talked about “imagination.” I think that part of what’s so exciting about this project and generally speaking any of the work that’s being done about the history of human rights, the history of international law, is that it really illustrates the possibility of our ability to imagine a better world.
Loeffler: I definitely agree with that. That’s the hope, I think, for many people who do this kind of work. But again, it first leads us down the road of really understanding what actually happened, so we can really have a clear-eyed view of it, and then use that to, as you said, imagine what could come next and what should come next.