“Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century” by James Loeffler— The Forgotten Jewish Roots of International Human Rights

Loeffler, James. “Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century”, Yale UP, 2018.

The Forgotten Jewish Roots of International Human Rights

Amos Lassen

James Loeffler gives us an original look at the forgotten Jewish political roots of contemporary international human rights, told through the moving stories of five key activists.

2018 marks the seventieth anniversary of two important events in twentieth-century history: the birth of the State of Israel and the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The two are tied together in the ongoing debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, global anti-Semitism, and American foreign policy. However, the surprising connections between Zionism and the origins of international human rights are completely unknown today. In “Rooted Cosmopolitans”, James Loeffler explores this controversial history through the stories of five remarkable Jewish founders of international human rights. He follows them from the prewar shtetls of eastern Europe to the postwar United Nations, a journey that includes the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, the founding of Amnesty International, and the UN resolution of 1975 labeling Zionism as racism.

The five men we follow are:

Peter Berenson, British lawyer, Jewidh youth activist and Holocaust rescuer turned Catholic convert and founder of Amnesty International.

Professor Hersch Lauterpacht, Polish Zionist and founding father of international human rights law and key drafter of the Israeli Declaration of Independence

Dr. Joseph Robinson, leader of the interwar Lithuanian Jewry and legal pioneer behind the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials and the International Refugee Convention

Jacob Blaustein, American Jewish leader and chief human rights booster in postwar American foreign policiy

Rabbi Maurice Perlzweig, British Zionist leader turned UN human rights activist

Here is a book that challenges long-held assumptions about the history of human rights and offers a surprising new perspective on the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are several surprises here and they alone are worth the cost of the book but there is also so much more. I was totally surprised in that I consider myself knowledgeable in Jewish and Israeli history, yet I knew nothing about the five men at the core of the book. I was also somewhat shocked at what the book has to say about Hannah Arendt who, while I do not always agree with her, I have always been stunned by her knowledge and discourse. I believe her to be one of the great mines of the twentieth century.

We see and better understand the complex aspirations for global justice. Here is reshaped Jewish and human rights history. Loeffler’s research reconstructs the forgotten role of Jewish leaders in creating the architecture of human rights and gives us a nuanced account of the common origin of Zionism and human rights organizations “and of their increasingly tortured relationship.”

The book challenges orthodoxies both on the right and on the left and it can transform popular understandings of this critical period of history. Loeffler rewrites our received narratives about human rights and Zionism.




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