Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and distinguished fellow at NYU School of Law, is the director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. He is the author of the forthcoming “The High Cost of Free Speech: Rethinking the First Amendment.”

People seek, or claim to possess, a variety of rights: constitutional, civil, political, economic and cultural. Human rights, which many people believe are guaranteed, are arguably the best known and the least understood.

The notion of human rights began to take shape after the Holocaust, so it is not surprising that Jews played an important role in their emergence. In his enlightening new book, “Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century,” James Loeffler, a historian at the University of Virginia, explores how a small group of Jewish lawyers and activists from around the world inspired the human rights movement and the creation of entities such as the United Nations that, sadly, have failed to fulfill the promises of their ideals.

Loeffler’s important insight is that the story of human rights actually begins after World War I. The creation of the League of Nations in 1920 and its adoption of Minority Treaties were motivated largely by Jews who had survived the pogroms of Eastern Europe and realized that minorities needed protection under the emerging principles of international law. Countries wishing to join the League of Nations had to agree to the conditions of Minority Treaties that required them to confer basic rights on their inhabitants regardless of religion, race, nationality or other differences from the majority population. There was uneven compliance among member states, but the concept of mandating special provisions for minorities had been introduced into international law.

The Jewish lawyers and activists in Loeffler’s study pursued universal human rights, but not without a more particular objective. For most of them, human rights coincided with advocacy for a Jewish state, an inseparable idea demonstrated by Israel’s founding in 1948, the same year as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These human rights pioneers included Hersch Lauterpacht, a Polish Zionist who founded international human rights law; Jacob Robinson, a Lithuanian involved in the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials; Jacob Blaustein, a valuable confidante of American presidents; Maurice Perlzweig, a British Zionist and law professor; and Peter Benenson, a British lawyer, Catholic convert and founder of Amnesty International.


“Rooted Cosmopolitans,” by James Loeffler (Yale University Press)

Working as legal advisers within their host governments and heading up organizations such as the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee, they initiated an entirely new concept of global consciousness and human responsibility. At the same time, they were creatures of their origins, profoundly influenced by their Jewish roots as cosmopolitans in foreign lands and forever mindful that a Jewish state did not yet exist.

Each came to realize how human rights exposed a crack in the fantasy of nations united in a common cause. The Enlightenment philosophers of the 18th century produced the concept of natural rights and the social contract, ideas that are today embodied in liberal societies governed by Western democratic principles. These include civil and political freedoms, such as speech and assembly; a free press and an independent judiciary; and popularly elected representatives. These natural rights are the foundation for America’s Bill of Rights.

However, natural rights are not always accorded to noncitizens and to minorities, and they are usually denied to people living outside of liberal societies. That’s why human rights were conceived: as rights owed to humanity itself — hence the name — regardless of where people live and under what manner of governmental rule. But these rights often can exist only with the assistance of and adherence to international law, a relatively new concept itself. Without international organizations such as the United Nations, its member states and human rights groups, there is no one to monitor and, when necessary, intervene to enforce those rights.

What the protagonists of Loeffler’s story tragically came to realize about univeral human rights is that nations have little incentive to interfere in the affairs of other states, and that the United Nations is a largely feckless entity. Absolute sovereignty is the coin of the realm among nations. Each country preserves its right to treat its citizens in whatever way it wishes, regardless of what human rights mean to people living elsewhere. The founders of human rights in “Rooted Cosmopolitans” had naively assumed that nations would exercise sturdier moral leadership in this regard. They most assuredly did not count on global moral failure, with states abdicating their collective duty to watch over humanity.

“Rooted Cosmopolitans” provides a tutorial on how the best intentions may simply not find a willing audience. Repeatedly these men are seen flashing their diplomatic skills, trying to persuade nations to make difficult choices on behalf of a unified humanity. Being Jewish may have inspired their humanistic initiatives, but they were not parochial Zionists, although they were accused of this very thing. They were committed to protecting the citizens of the world as well as their fellow Jews. With each setback, most of these men were drawn closer to Israel as both a model of self-determination and a refuge for a people whose global vulnerability demonstrated why human rights, and a homeland of their own, were urgent priorities.

Zionism always has been a quest for self-determination and human rights. Advocating for both a Jewish homeland and global human rights are not contradictions. Yet the very idea of Jewish nationhood has perpetually infuriated the human rights community. For them, the one Jewish country in the world is deemed a colonialist enterprise rather than a national home for a once-persecuted, stateless people. Israel’s existence, for many, inverts the human rights paradigm: a liberal democracy that simultaneously denies Palestinians basic rights and a homeland of their own.

Loeffler’s book might leave readers to wonder whether nationalism and human rights are somehow identical yet irreconcilable objectives. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict surely stands as evidence of this global conundrum. What is to be done when a minority is not looking for civil rights but rather a country of its own? Must every minority be granted a homeland in order to achieve human rights?

The book neatly weaves seemingly disparate events in the halting march toward human rights, such as Cold War realpolitik and fearmongering, which stalled the development of human rights, and the Swastika Epidemic, a revival of antisemitism that spread swastika graffiti around the world in 1959 and 1960.

This superb book is a homage to visionary cosmopolitans dedicated to the creation of human rights in a world too often lacking in humanity.

Rooted Cosmopolitans
Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century

By James Loeffler

Yale. 362 pp. $32.50