The Francophone Greek Jewish Novelist Who Wrote the International Law on Refugees, Identified Rising Anti-Semitism, and Mocked the League of Nations

August 21, 2019 | Matt Alexander Hanson
About the author:

Born Avraham Coen in the Greek island of Corfu in 1895, the writer later known as Albert Cohen spoke only the local Jewish dialect for the first five ears of his life. His family moved to Marseille when he was a child, and he went on to pursue a career as a lawyer. Before publishing his first book, a collection of poetry titled Paroles Juives (Jewish Words) in 1921, he had already publicly embraced Zionism, as Matt Alexander Hanson notes:

In the wake of the Balfour Declaration, . . . Cohen met Chaim Weizmann, whose support granted him the editorship of La Revue Juive. His writers included Martin Buber, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein. [Yet] Cohen never visited Israel, despite serving as a liaison for the Jewish Agency for Palestine and rallying for [Jewish] statehood in the prime of his diplomatic career.

That diplomatic career involved international law as it pertains to refugees and stateless persons. Cohen wrote a protocol on the subject that became Article 28 of the 1951 Geneva Convention, and he worked for many years at international organizations based in Geneva. Hanson notes:

Cohen’s contribution to international refugee law was his attempt to save Jews [deprived of ] citizenship. As early as 1929, he saw it coming. In his debut [novel], Solal, published in 1930, anti-Semitic crows in Geneva croak of danger in a xenophobic country where Jews were demonized . . . as an incomprehensible race of worms.

Cohen also used his fiction, including his most celebrated work, Belle du Seigneur, to expose

the emasculated sham of international organizations, whose art-deco opulence and chauvinistic classism he mocked in indisputably perfect French. . . . Cohen [depicts] League of Nations employees boasting of earning more than Mozart, making anti-Semitic jokes, and seducing compliant women in decadent halls on the way to sterile hearings.

In other words, not unlike the League’s successor, the United Nations.

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