The Zionist Founders of the Human Rights Movement

In 1919, Jewish men in Whitechapel, East London, marched to protest the killing of Jews in Poland.CreditTopical Press Agency/Getty Images
In 1919, Jewish men in Whitechapel, East London, marched to protest the killing of Jews in Poland.CreditTopical Press Agency/Getty Images

Seventy years ago today, Israel came into existence — the first Jewish state in more than 2,000 years. But at the United Nations, there won’t be a celebration. Indeed, Palestinian Authority leaders recently lodged their latest complaint at the U.N. Human Rights Council — a body that has condemned Israel more than any other country combined, including Syria, North Korea and Iran — accusing Israel of “racial segregation,” “apartheid” and “colonial occupation.”

With language like this, it is not hard to see Zionism itself on trial in the court of human rights.

This apparent tension between Zionism and progressive values isn’t just playing out at the United Nations. Starbucks recently broke off its anti-bias training partnership with the Anti-Defamation League at the behest of the Women’s March chairwoman, Tamika Mallory, who denounced the organization’s support of Israel as racist. In London earlier this year, Amnesty International backed out of a joint event with a Jewish communal organization because of its support for Israel. In Charlottesville, Va., at the university where I teach, Jewish student activists working to respond to the continued threats from white supremacists have been refused admission to the minority student coalition because of their Israeli ties.

The message in all these cases is clear: Jews are welcome to fight for human rights — as long as they check their Zionism at the door.

To those of us who follow the history of Zionism and the history of human rights, it is both strange and tragic to consider the current state of affairs. What the modern left has forgotten is the fact that Zionism and the modern human rights movement share a braided history. And 2018 — 70 years since Israel’s founding, but also 70 years since the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights — is the perfect moment to reconsider the notion that the two ideas are intrinsically in conflict.

Few today know that the Polish-born jurist Hersch Zvi Lauterpacht, widely regarded as the greatest international lawyer of the 20th century and the founding father of international human rights law, crafted influential drafts of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. He also advised Zionist leaders on their legal strategies for statehood at the same time that he advised the American prosecutors at Nuremberg. Oh, and he coined the term “crimes against humanity.”

Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer responsible for the word “genocide” and the U.N. Genocide Convention, was not only a Holocaust survivor but a Zionist activist who spent two decades before the Holocaust fighting for Jewish legal rights in Poland and a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Then there’s the founder of Amnesty International, Peter Benenson, who spent his childhood in Anglo-Zionist circles in Jerusalem and London, before dropping out of Eton in 1938 to rescue Jewish children in the aftermath of Kristallnacht.

These and other Jewish human rights pioneers saw the rise of a Jewish nation-state as not only compatible with democracy but complementary to the new legal architecture of international human rights that emerged in the 1940s. They believed that two states for two peoples would make the world a safer place for Jews and Palestinians in the postwar era.

If today, Zionism and internationalism seem in tension, for these pioneers Zionism was the starting point for their internationalism. They understood, as Hannah Arendt once wrote, that human rights began with the dignity of difference. “If one is attacked as a Jew,” she said, “one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as a world-citizen, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man.”

Why don’t we know more about these lives lived inside both the worlds of Zionism and human rights? Ready answers supply themselves from across the political spectrum. Left-wing voices point to the enduring post-1967 Israeli occupation, while right-wing critics focus on the Arab and Communist-bred anti-Zionism that bleeds into anti-Semitism. It rings hollow to many in the human rights community to speak about Jewish contributions to international law given the ongoing statelessness of the Palestinians. Just the same, many right-wing Israeli leaders now attack human rights as a thinly veiled globalist shield behind which the enemies of Jewish peoplehood mobilize to undermine Jewish sovereignty and jeopardize Jewish lives.

These mirror-image caricatures distract from a simpler explanation. Both Zionism and international human rights changed over the course of the many decades that separate 1948 and 2018. For Zionism, Israeli wars of survival in 1948, 1967 and 1973 yielded to expansionist dreams of Greater Israel that blur the line between religious ideology and security. Israel rightly claims with pride its status as a vibrant if imperfect democracy up to the green line. Across that nonborder, however, the Israeli occupation presents an ongoing challenge to Jewish democracy. That ethical dilemma cannot be wished away by demonizing human rights organizations as enemies of the Jewish nation.

But if Zionism changed, so too did the human rights movement. Starting in the early 1960s, even before the Six-Day War of 1967, the international human rights community began to parrot the Soviet and Arab propaganda lines about Israeli racism and Zionist fascism. When Jewish leaders raised the subject of anti-Semitism at the United Nations in the 1970s, they were answered with a horrible meme that went viral: “Zionism is Racism.” That same decade, Amnesty International broke with its longstanding policy of not sponsoring prisoners who use or endorse violence and took up the cause of Palestinian Fatah members.

Furthermore, a deeper, insidious logic is also at work for many human-rights organizations. They readily point to the Holocaust as history’s wake-up call that sparked the human rights movement. But they selectively ignore a key fact of that history: it was Zionist activists who gave us so many of the ideals and instruments of modern human rights. They fought for human rights out of their particular experience as Jews — which is the very thing that drove them to embrace Zionism.

The shared anniversary of Israel and the human rights project places in stark relief the double amnesia that ails the world today. The cost of that forgetting is the perpetuation of a false dichotomy between particularism and universalism. By recalling this twinned history, we can help the human-rights movement recalibrate its moral compass and expose the real dangers imperiling the Jewish people.

James Loeffler is an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and the author of Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century.

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