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A Small Diaspora's Human Rights Defenders Find Their Limits.

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. His idealism was tempered with realism. He understood that Jews' individual human rights and national rights would only be realized if backed by a great power. His choice was Britain because, with the United States' failure to the join the League and with Britain's mandate over Palestine, Britain was the only country that could take up Jews' national cause in Palestine and their need for minority rights in Eastern Europe.

Like Lauterpacht, Jacob Robinson was an Eastern European Jew who saw in the League of Nations an opportunity to use internationalist means to gain specific Jewish and Zionist ends. After the League's demise, Robinson was one of the founders of the WJC, which was intended to be a parliament-in-exile for the stateless Jewish nation. The WJC would host an ingathering of world Jewry and function as the voice of the Jewish Diaspora in international affairs. Robinson's work took him from the Nuremberg tribunal (where he served as a prosecutor) to the United Nations' Commission on Human Rights to the Eichmann trial. His mentor and colleague, Maurice Perlzweig, likewise worked on behalf of the WJC, engaging in behind-the-scenes diplomacy on behalf of Jews and Israel at the United Nations.

One of Perlzweig's students at Eton was the British Jew Peter Solomon, who had been raised in a prominent Zionist family and who later became a convert to Catholicism and took the name Benenson. Peter Benenson formed the influential nongovernmental organization (NGO) Amnesty International and became, to millions around the world, the secular apostle of the universalist religion of human rights. Loeffler carefully traces Benenson's trajectory and shows how, at each step, his Zionist upbringing and his Catholic universalism were central to his moral and political imagination. For Benenson, however, the tension between rootedness and cosmopolitanism was unsustainable--and he eventually chose the latter, with serious consequences for Amnesty's relations with Israel.

The odd man out in this group portrait is Jacob Blaustein, the only American in the group and the figure most guided by his country's liberal individualism. Unlike the WJC, Blaustein's AJC classified itself, throughout the 1940s and 1950s, as a non-Zionist organization. Blaustein used the AJC's political neutrality as an entree that enabled him to shuttle between US presidents, UN secretaries-general, and Israeli prime ministers, effectively setting himself up as the voice of American Jews in foreign policy. Blaustein's AJC served as a counterweight in many instances to Perlzweig and Robinson's WJC, creating a fertile intra-Jewish contest for influence.

The composite biography of these five men makes visible a pattern of conflict between European Jews and American Jews. Broadly speaking, the Europeans were in favor of group rights, for both the Jewish minorities in the Diaspora and Zionists working on behalf of the Jewish people's right to self-determination. The Americans, however, came out of the tradition of liberal individualism and were often less comfortable when questions of group rights arose, preferring to protect Jews as individuals. At times, these disputes became an obstacle to a Jewish united front.

Loeffler's history succeeds in correcting several myths. It turns out that Raphael Lemkin did not single-handedly push the Genocide Convention through the UN. In fact, as Loeffler shows, the WJC provided critical support to the effort. Loeffler also revises the historical canard that an impassioned speech by Joseph Proskauer, Blaustein's predecessor as president of the AJC, convinced the Americans at the 1945 San Francisco Conference to include human rights in the UN Charter. In fact, Blaustein's deft diplomacy with Isaiah Bowman, an antisemitic senior aide to the secretary of state, was the key.

Loeffler's subtext, which becomes explicit in the epilogue, is that his rooted cosmopolitans might serve as models for how Jews today can understand the relations between the nationalist pull of Zionism and the universalist pull of human rights. The very phrase rooted cosmopolitans suggests that there is really no need to choose. Maybe, but it is doubtful whether the stirring Jewish activism of the 1940s through 1960s offers today's Jews a usable middle ground, because when it comes to a choice between Israeli national interests and human rights, the center is not holding. One side is dominant; the other, seemingly powerless in retreat. Cosmopolitanism is everywhere under attack.

And cosmopolitanism was the weaker side all along. The Jews are a small Diaspora; Israel, a small state. Both are often dependent on their ability to convince a larger power that their needs align with its interests. As Loeffler puts it, prior to the founding of the State of Israel, "the Jewish pursuit of rights... [was] dependent on the largesse of Great Powers," whether Britain or the United States. (6) That remained the case even after Israel's establishment because the state's influence was often diminished in international affairs, due to its geopolitical isolation as a Jewish state surrounded by Arab states and due to the ostracism with which it was increasingly met in international arenas. As Loeffler writes, given the "disappointing reality" that the United Nations quickly devolved from a "community of purpose" into a "battle-ground of particular interests," Jewish cosmopolitanism could only ever succeed to the degree it formed alliances, recognizing that the international order is built on asymmetrical relations among states. (7)

Loeffler offers plenty of examples of how, in the face of the real-politik of statecraft, the idealism of rooted Jewish cosmopolitans failed. Lauterpacht put his faith in the League's Minorities Treaties, but the Minorities Treaties were doomed, first by the predictable unwillingness of signatory states to abide by them and then by the Nazis who abolished the term minority from German law. Similarly, although Lauterpacht drafted the original international bill of rights, when that bill was being debated by the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1947, the British government would not allow him to participate in the debates because, among other things, he was a Zionist and a naturalized alien. Blaustein repeatedly came up against American Jews' powerlessness when the AJC's interests were not aligned with American interests. For the great men of a small Diaspora, getting next to state power has always been essential but perilous.

Unfortunately, Loeffler's history of Jewish human-rights activism ends at just the moment when the tension between Jewish nationalism and Jewish universalism reaches a plateau, with the United Nations' 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism. He describes the conflict between Israel and Amnesty International in the early 1970s, which was part of the lead-up to the Zionism-equals-racism resolution, as the moment in which "human rights and Jewish politics took their final, fateful leave of one another." (8) This assessment is too sweeping; when it comes to global politics, no one is in the position to know or predict a trend with finality. Moreover, by pronouncing the divorce between Jews and human rights final, Loeffler relieves himself from analyzing the remaining quarter of the twentieth century. The hurried final chapters seriously understate the role of Jewish activists in securing Soviet Jews' right to emigrate, with no mention at all of the work done outside the United nations by new grassroots Jewish NGOs such as the National Council for Soviet Jewry. There is little to no consideration of human-rights activism in Israel itself, of the Jewish role in the antiapartheid movement in South Africa, or of Jewish activists' continuing commitment to working as cosmopolitans on behalf of other oppressed groups, such as the Darfuris who became the victims of genocide in Sudan. One limitation of Loeffler's individual focus is that it seems to lead him to conclude that the history of Jewish human-rights activism died with the subjects of his study. It has not.

Rooted Cosmopolitans frames its tale of Jews and human rights as a romance, based on the deeds of great men in the service of a realistic ideal. This version of Jews' entanglement with human rights and state power offers thrilling, sometimes heroic narratives. However, once the historian encounters the stress fracture that Jews experienced between rootedness and cosmopolitanism, the romance frame becomes impossible to sustain. Jewish unity is replaced by intra-Jewish contests between Israeli officials and Diaspora activists, between Israeli officials and Israeli civil-society organizations, between European and American Jews, between American Jewish doves and hawks. Loeffler is right that since the 1970s, the hoped-for synthesis between liberal internationalism and Jewish nationalism has not been made manifest. To me, this means that the recent history of Jews and human rights has to be reframed in a mode other than romance--either as tragedy or farce. And that frame may not be the final one.


(1.) See Fink, Defending the Rights; Korey, NGOs; Cotler, "Jewish NGOs"; Gaer, "Reality Check;" Galchinsky, Jews and Human Rights; and Galchinsky, "Jewish Settlements."

(2.) Loeffler, Rooted Cosmopolitans, 298.

(3.) Loeffler, Rooted Cosmopolitans, 296.

(4.) Loeffler, Rooted Cosmopolitans, 300.

(5.) Loeffler, Rooted Cosmopolitans, 301.

(6.) Loeffler, Rooted Cosmopolitans, 141.

(7.) Loeffler, Rooted Cosmopolitans, 172.

(8.) Loeffler, Rooted Cosmopolitans, 277.


Cotler, Irwin. "Jewish NGOs and Religious Human Rights: A Case Study." In Human Rights in Judaism: Cultural, Religious, and Political Perspectives, edited by Michael J. Broyde and John Witte, Jr., 165-272. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1998.

Fink, Carol. Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, the jews, and International Minority Protection, 1878-1938. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Gaer, Felice D. "Reality Check: Human Rights NGOs Confront Governments at the UN." In NGOs, the UN, and Global Governance, edited by Thomas G. Weiss and Leon Gordenker, 51-66. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1996.

Galchinsky, Michael. "The Jewish Settlements in the West Bank: International Law and Israeli Jurisprudence." Israel Studies 9, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 115-36.

--. Jews and Human Rights: Dancing at Three Weddings. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.

Korey, William. NGOs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "A Curious Grapevine."New York: St. Martin's, 1998.


Michael Galchinsky is the author of Jews and Human Rights: Dancing at Three Weddings (Rowman Littlefield, 2008) and articles dealing with Jewish human-rights activism, international human rights and humanitarian law, and human rights in Israel. He is the author of The Modes of Human Rights Literature: Towards a Culture without borders (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and the coeditor (with David Biale and Susannah Heschel) of Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism (University of California Press, 1998).
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Title Annotation:BOOK FORUM
Author:Galchinsky, Michael
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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