U-Va. professor’s new book explores the role of Zionists in early human rights law

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James Loeffler says the early Zionist proponents of universal human rights believed that Jews in the Diaspora would always need protection. Photo courtesy of James Loeffler.

James Loeffler says that despite how important and fraught the idea of human rights is, there isn’t a lot of scholarship on how the modern understanding of it came about. In his book, “Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century,” the University of Virginia professor of Jewish history seeks to correct that, and explore the role that 20th-century Jews played.

Loeffer spoke with WJW about the key takeaways from his book.


Early human rights activists were, in many cases, early Zionists as well.

According to Loeffler, it was in the aftermath of World War I that the concept of universal rights enforced at the international level began to take hold, including in the community of Zionist thinkers. The thinking manifested itself, Loeffler says, in the 1920 creation of the League of Nations, which had a Minority Treatise as a response, in part, to the pogroms against Jews in Russia.

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Loeffler says that there’s a misperception that the early Zionists thought that a Jewish state would ultimately replace the Diaspora. Instead, many of them thought Jews and other ethnic minorities would always need protection from the states they lived in.

“Zionism, at that time, did not only mean securing a homeland and state for Jewish people, it also meant finding ways to protect the Jewish people in the Diaspora in Eastern Europe,” Loeffler says. “Many Zionist leaders never contemplated the idea that the Diaspora would disappear. So they wanted to create mechanisms to protect Jews who were living in large groups, particularly in Eastern Europe. … These activists and leaders thought Zionism meant, first and foremost, that Jews should be recognized with a nation, but not that they would have to sacrifice their homes elsewhere.”


Early in its existence, the United Nations often turned to Israel for leadership on human rights law.

Following World War II, many of the Zionist human rights advocates picked up the work of establishing an international legal framework that protected human rights from before the war, so Israel had a wealth of international legal knowledge and experience.

For the nascent United Nations, it was an invaluable resource.

“One of the surprising things I found was that Israel was actually a leader among small nations at the United Nations, and the U.N. consistently turned to the state of Israel for advice and leadership in establishing human rights law,” Loeffler says. “You have this state that’s full of international lawyers with experience from before the war, so it was really the first port of call for many U.N. initiatives. … That was surprising, given the way we think about the U.N.-Israel relationship today.”

As the concept of human rights became increasingly politicized, Israel quickly became a target.

According to Loeffler, the early 1960s saw an outbreak of the worst anti-Semitism since World War II around the world. Jewish activists turned to the U.N. for help, seeking a resolution targeting anti-Semitism specifically.
What came out of that effort was the 1969 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Ironically, it became one of the conventions used to stymie Israel at the U.N. over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“It’s one of the great ironies in a story that’s full of terrible ironies,” Loeffler says. “But the 1960s and 1970s were a real turning point in setting in motion certain dynamics that exist today. And it’s when Israelis start seeing themselves as locked in a struggle about the issue of bias at the U.N. and proportionality.”

The idea of international human rights has become divisive and politicized with regards to Israel. Some context is needed.

Loeffler realized that the intellectual roots of the notion that the international community should be responsible for protecting human rights from abuses by sovereign governments haven’t been explored all that much.
Today, both that international community and the rights it’s supposed to protect have become divisive when it comes to the Jewish state. Loeffler wants to teach a wider understanding.

“We are in this incredibly polarized moment of thinking about Zionism, and there’s a way in which — on parts of the left — there’s an image of Israel and Zionism as almost the antithesis of human rights,” Loeffler says. “And on the Jewish right, the very words ‘human rights’ have become seen as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. That polarization cries out to be explained. … The goal of the book is to explore the history and see how we got to this point, and challenge us to find a way to talk about it that isn’t so all-or-nothing.”

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