Some Key Founders of the International Human Rights Movement Were Also Zionists

Like Zionism, the global human rights movement was the product of Jews motivated by the need to find a refuge for their beleaguered people.

Sir Hersch Lauterpacht, back center, in the International Court of Justice. Flickr/Cambridge Law.

Sir Hersch Lauterpacht, back center, in the International Court of Justice. Flickr/Cambridge Law.

May 2 2018
About the author

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the chairman of the Tikvah Fund.

In his 2009 speech in Cairo, President Obama famously tied the “aspiration for a Jewish homeland” to “an unprecedented Holocaust” in Europe—thereby forgetting two millennia of Jewish longing for the restoration of Zion and more than a century of Zionist political activity.

Actually, those many decades of Zionist activity may themselves reflect too narrow a view of modern Jewish political history. So, at any rate, argues the historian James Loeffler in his new book Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century. Zionism, Loeffler reminds us, was but one proposed answer to the “Jewish Question.” Among the other imagined solutions for safeguarding Jewish communities in the early decades of the 20th century were international Communism, Bundism, territorial or political autonomy in places other than the land of Israel, and—to get closer to Loeffler’s own subject here—the movement for human rights and, especially, minority group rights. Proponents of this last cause believed that Jews could survive and indeed thrive as a national or religious minority in Europe if only their fundamental rights were respected.


The struggle between Zionist and non- or anti-Zionist forces in the pre-state era is a familiar tale. But Loeffler tells a different tale: as it turns out, some of the key founders of the international human rights movement, and some key theorists of the role of human rights in international law, were also Zionists. Their search for ways to protect their coreligionists led them to consider nationalism, domestic human rights law, international law—and Zionism. In other words, they did not see Zionism as an either-or proposition:

Jewish nation-building in the homeland went hand in hand with the fight for minority rights abroad. Building a Jewish country would not invalidate Jewish minority status abroad, but rather safeguard it.

And there is another common misconception that Loeffler aims to clear up—namely, that modern human rights law was itself mainly a post-World War II development, or a reaction to the Nazi genocide. Instead, Loeffler writes, it began decades earlier “in the living shtetls of Eastern Europe,” and it began as “a specifically Jewish pursuit of minority rights in the ravaged borderlands of post-World War I Europe.”

In his book, Loeffler proceeds to trace in detail the “deep interdependence of human rights and nationalism”—including especially Zionism—“that is so often overlooked in accounts of the [interwar] period”: a linkage that not only is “often overlooked” but in today’s climate of widespread liberal anti-Zionism might well strike many readers as an outright contradiction in terms. To recover “this unknown history,” Loeffler focuses on the intersecting lives of five remarkable men. This biographical approach embroils him in telling two stories: first, the role played by Zionist Jews in the birth of the international human rights movement; second, inevitably but contrarily, the eventual angry divorce between that movement and the state of Israel. Both are stories well worth telling, but the telling forces Loeffler onto sometimes discomfiting paths.


Who were the five men?

*Hersch Lauterpacht, born near Lvov in 1897, joined Zionist youth groups as a young man, moved to London where in 1924 he helped found the World Union of Jewish Students, and attended the opening of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1925. Characteristically mixing Zionist and international legal activity, he wrote “influential drafts of both the International Bill of Rights and Israel’s declaration of independence.”

Lauterpacht became a highly distinguished professor at Cambridge University, where the Lauterpacht Center for International Law is named for him, and toward the end of his life was appointed a judge on the International Court of Justice in the Hague—a long journey indeed from his shtetl origins. Athough perhaps not long enough: in one of the many personal stories that enliven this book, Loeffler informs us that when in 1947 it was proposed that Lauterpacht represent the United Kingdom on the new UN Commission on Human Rights, the chief legal adviser in the foreign office opined:

Professor Lauterpacht, although a distinguished and industrious international lawyer, is, when all is said and done, a Jew fairly recently come from Vienna. Emphatically, I think that the representative of Her Majesty’s Government on human rights must be a very English Englishman imbued throughout his life and hereditary to the real meaning of human rights as we understand them in this country.

At that point Lauterpacht had lived in the UK for 23 years and been naturalized for fifteen. Still, “when all [was] said and done,” he didn’t get the job.

*Jacob Blaustein, born in Baltimore in 1892 as the son of a penniless Lithuanian immigrant, became a very rich American oilman, president of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), a major Democratic-party donor, and, for most of his life, an anti-Zionist though a qualified supporter of Israel once it came into existence. Blaustein “believed Jews needed to define themselves as an apolitical religious faith rather than as a quarrelsome national minority”—a view that would inform the AJC’s strong backing of the civil-rights movement and the demand for an end to racial and ethnic discrimination in America. Indeed, the whole Jewish role in history, in Blaustein’s eyes, was to struggle for civil rights and religious freedom, and nothing more.

*Peter Benenson, born Peter Solomon in 1922 to a wealthy Anglo-Jewish family, became the founder of Amnesty International. His grandfather, who migrated to England from Russia, had been a friend and supporter of Alexander Kerensky (leader of a non-Marxist Russian party and briefly head of the Provisional Government in 1917 before having to flee the Bolsheviks). His mother Flora was a well-known Zionist activist in London who in 1920 founded the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) and, Loeffler notes, became the exiled Kerensky’s lover.

Benenson himself, who ran unsuccessfully for parliament four times, found his true vocation when he came to see the need for “a global grassroots movement based only on the power of public opinion” rather than on laws or governments. As for his change of name, which he effectuated while serving in the army, he attributed it to anti-Semitism: “Being Solomon was such a burden that it was not worth fighting for.” Later, as Judaism itself seemed a burden, he converted to Catholicism.

Loeffler argues convincingly that Benenson’s spiritual and political lives were closely entwined. Amnesty, “an idea born of the flight from Jewish politics and the cold war into a purer realm of Catholic religious universalism,” was itself a quasi-religious activity:

The path of sanctity, [Benenson] began to think, would come through a new kind of universal human rights organization: a religious group with no ties to any church implementing a global justice campaign that dispensed with law as an international movement that transcended politics.

The last two subjects of Loeffler’s book are less well known:

*Maurice Perlzweig was born in Galicia and raised in London, where he became a famous liberal rabbi. A staunch Zionist whose “academic bona fides, personal charisma, and staunch religious progressivism endeared him to the Anglo-Jewish grandees” despite his Zionism, he later engaged in many diplomatic activities and “worked closely with the UN’s top human rights officials on the drafting and diplomacy of the [Universal Declaration of Human Rights] and the Genocide Convention.”

*Jacob Robinson, born in Russia in 1889, was a leader of the movement for minority rights in Europe. After delivering the keynote speech at the 1925 meeting of the Congress of European National Minorities, Robinson was named to the executive committee of the 1927 International Conference for the Rights of Jewish Minorities; the latter organization was renamed in 1932 as the World Jewish Congress. In these various capacities, Robinson led many efforts—always futile—to persuade the League of Nations to intervene when Jews and other minorities were being persecuted. As he himself would put it, the principle of reciprocal obligation—“I protect your minority, you protect my minority”—always seemed to degenerate into “I hit my Jews, you hit your Jews.”

Coming to the United States in 1940, Robinson worked at the World Jewish Congress, leading its new research institute for contemporary Jewish affairs. After the war, as a living embodiment of the idea that human rights and Zionism were two sides of the same battle to protect Jews, he “shuttled,” Loeffler writes, “between roles as Israel’s top lawyer at the UN and as the first legal adviser to the nascent UN Commission on Human Rights.” In the 1960s, he served on the prosecution team at the Eichmann trial; outraged by Hannah Arendt’s subsequent book on the trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem, he published a devastatingly thorough critique of its many errors and falsehoods, And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight.


These are uniformly absorbing portraits of significant Jewish figures navigating the turbulent events of 20th-century history. And, as Loeffler rightly says, the lives of the five men did sometimes intersect. That in itself is no surprise. The lives of Jews active in major Jewish organizations, in Zionist activities, and in Jewish religious and political life in the three decades from the end of World War I to the founding of the state of Israel could be expected to intersect, and sometimes to become closely intertwined.

More significantly, their lives also bear out Loeffler’s seemingly counterintuitive thesis that several of the key figures in the international human rights movement were also Zionists who viewed the protection of Jews through the lens of international law, and the protection of Jews by means of a Jewish state, not as clashing but as complementary goals.

But as I hinted at the outset, this approach forces Loeffler into choices that are less than ideal. For example, there is too much here about the Eichmann trial and Hannah Arendt’s critique of it, which would have been appropriate only if hers had been one of the five intertwined biographies. One also has to wonder why Loeffler selected Blaustein for this volume about the interplay of Zionism and human rights advocacy. Blaustein was clearly an important figure, but he would have blanched at being called a Zionist.

A greater distortion arises out of the otherwise entirely appropriate selection of Benenson, which leads Loeffler to exaggerate Amnesty International’s own importance, let alone its interest in protecting the human rights of Jews. Take the international campaign in the 1970s and 80s for Soviet Jewry, which—following the lead of Soviet Jews themselves—explicitly focused not on minority rights behind the Iron Curtain but on a different right entirely: the right to emigrate. About this, Loeffler writes:

After years of debate about how best to help Jews under Communism, the arguments had ended. The Jewish future henceforth depended solely on one right: the right to aliyah. With the UN and Amnesty both closed off as avenues of hope, international human rights seemed to have failed the Jews. Only nationhood, in the form of repatriation to Israel, could truly protect them as Jews.

The idea that “the UN and Amnesty” were once central addresses in Jewish history seems farfetched at best. That Amnesty itself wielded any such influence or was ever a great beacon of hope for persecuted Jews is silly. And even the UN was very early understood as a weak reed when it came to protecting Jews. Loeffler cites a 1950 proposal to allow individuals—and not just states—to petition the UN Human Rights Commission (the predecessor of the current UN Human Rights Council). Much to the dismay of Professor Lauterpacht, the new state of Israel opposed it. But Jacob Robinson thought Lauterpacht naïve, and the legal adviser to Israel’s foreign ministry’s rejected Lauterpacht’s protest:

We felt it would be a mistake to tie the implementation of the human rights provisions too closely to the UN chariot. On the contrary, we regard human rights as something so fundamental to the international order . . . that they could exist independently of the continued existence of the UN.

The UN was not, then, “closed off” as an “avenue of hope”; even back then, it was understood to be more a danger than a guardian. In this case and others, Loeffler’s concentration on Amnesty leads him to overlook the way its own longstanding problem with Jews and Israel was and is shared and replicated by other major human rights organizations, the UN emphatically included.

Especially after the Six-Day War in 1967, Loeffler records, Amnesty had turned actively against the Jewish state, leading the head of its Israel branch to complain of a “pro-Arab attitude.” As the PLO bombed Israeli hospitals and bus stations, Amnesty publications referred blandly to “so-called terrorist organizations.” In time, many Jewish members in the UK left the organization in protest. Even Mark Benenson, a cousin of Peter who headed the U.S. branch of Amnesty, rebelled and took others with him. The intensity of some of Benenson’s own comments, writes Loeffler, caused “some of his close friends in Amnesty [to] conclude that Benenson had become ‘almost anti-Jewish.’”

But Amnesty’s story, which might seem idiosyncratic because tied to Benenson’s personal passions, was not unique. A similar story—but  with a significant twist of its own—could be told of Human Rights Watch (HRW). Indeed, the story of its founder, Robert L. Bernstein, would have made for an illuminating sixth biography. Bernstein, born in 1923, became the head of Random House, where he made a point of publishing the work of Soviet dissidents. This led him to establish Helsinki Watch and then Human Rights Watch, chairing the latter from 1978 to 1998.

But when HRW’s work on Israel became radically unbalanced and unfair, and when, in Bernstein’s later words, it began “issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that [were] helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state,” he became a tough and vocal critic of the organization he had founded. “In recent years,” he charged in 2009, “Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.” Indeed, “Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism.”


If Amnesty was hardly alone in its negative obsession with Israel, neither was or is HRW, or the United Nations Council on Human Rights, or many another “humanitarian” agency. Conceding as much, Loeffler raises the logical question: “What explains the human rights community’s unswerving focus on the state of Israel?”

Unfortunately, he does not quite answer this question, but the answer seems reasonably clear. The “human rights community” is part of the left, and when the left, globally, turned against Israel, so did the human rights community. Loeffler, who seems somewhat allergic to this conclusion, points instead to supposedly extenuating circumstances—mainly, Israel’s controversial 1960 kidnapping and trial of Adolf Eichmann and its victory in the Six-Day War of June 1967, the latter event having transformed it in the view of many from a David into a Goliath and an “occupier” of “Palestinian land.”

In actuality, the Soviet Union and radical leftist groups around the world turned against Israel very soon after its founding, and were followed sequentially by much of the non-Communist left, the human rights agencies, and other left-leaning Western institutions, parties, churches, and media. The short answer stands: in turning against Israel, Amnesty, HRW, and the rest ceased functioning as advocates of human rights and became leftist organizations.


In his Epilogue, Loeffler detours from a frank if gingerly discussion of the global left’s abandonment of the “pragmatic idealism” of the early champions of human rights to confer some blame on today’s “Jewish right”—where, he asserts, “loud voices malign human rights as the very antithesis of Zionism”—and also on “the current Israeli government,” which “treats foreign and local human rights organizations as threats to the national security of the Jewish people.” In Israel, he adds, human rights activists are demonized as “haters of Israel.”

This is, to say the least, exaggerated. Not only are there many thriving and vigorous human rights groups in Israel but, as Loeffler himself acknowledges, some human rights groups, including in Israel, do in fact treat the Jewish state with blatant hostility and terrible unfairness. Perhaps even less defensible is Loeffler’s statement in the book’s Prologue that some “Jewish conservative voices in American politics . . . gleefully brandish [the Stalinist slur ‘rootless cosmopolitans’] against liberal opponents—in a dangerously cynical flirtation with contemporary right-wing anti-Semitism.”

Rooted Cosmopolitans is not improved by these ostensibly evenhanded gestures. To his credit, though, Loeffler does quickly regain his balance, ending the Prologue with a call for regaining the kind of pragmatic idealism for which his five subjects searched. He returns to the same theme in the Epilogue, where he notes: “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.” Unfortunately, he continues, “What is missing, especially on the global left, is a sense of political proportion,” with the result that the cause of human rights itself “no longer live[s] in the realm of the political.”

For at least four of Loeffler’s five subjects (the exception is Benenson), human rights and Jewish interests emphatically did “live in the realm of the political”—as they do now for the Jewish state. Loeffler’s subjects, active in the first half of the 20th century, engaged in the realms of Jewish and world politics at a time when acute Jewish vulnerability was spiraling into horrific Jewish tragedy. They sought in every way possible to protect the populations from whom they and their families emerged, and most of them, at least initially, thought that “human rights and Jewish sovereignty were two sides of the same coin” rather than “paths leading in opposite directions.”

Like Zionism, the global human rights movement was in key respects the product of Jews motivated by the need to find a refuge for their beleaguered people, if not in Zion then under the protection of law. Rooted Cosmopolitans tells a story that is little known—if also one that casts the global human rights movement’s hostility to Israel in an especially sordid light.

More about: History & Ideas, Human Rights, Israel & Zionism