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As part of a seminar convened by the AJC in the early 1970s, Rita Hauser offered a functional explanation for the gulf that had emerged between Jewish internationalism and human rights. “The dream of protection of Jews, so long the victims of abuse, by universal schemes, seems ill-fated,” she wrote. “Jews thrive in free nations; in others, they can only hope for escape to the homeland in Israel. The Zionists of 1945 were probably right.”1 Hauser, an American Jewish lawyer who served as the US representative to the UN Commission on Human Rights in the years it started to become deeply antagonistic to Israel, had a particular viewpoint. She was claiming that the affinity between Jewish internationalism and human rights had been based only on enlightened self-interest. As long as Jews were a minority dispersed throughout the world, she was arguing, they had every reason to back international human rights. Now that Jews were a disappearing minority, increasingly concentrated in the twin pillars of postwar Jewish life, the United States and Israel, there was no longer a compelling rationale for the equation of Jewish with human rights.
This chapter recounts the legislative and political history of the first international debate on antisemitism, which through a convoluted series of events concluded with the introduction into international legal discourse of the notion that Zionism was a form of racial discrimination. Antisemitism came onto the UN’s lawmaking agenda after a series of antisemitic incidents that began in West Germany and spread all over the world, dubbed the Swastika Epidemic. However, the initial political momentum could not be sustained, and a UN inquiry into the events failed to lead to an international convention against antisemitism. Moreover, after five years of negotiations, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination did not even mention antisemitism and only singled out apartheid in South Africa for specific opprobrium. Negotiations over an international antiracism treaty exposed antisemitism’s diminished place in a decolonizing world, previewed the power of an automatic anti-Israel bloc at the UN, and, most crucially, revealed the self-inflicted costs of calling attention to Soviet antisemitism. American and Israeli Cold War hawks managed to transform antisemitism from a problem of incitement against Jewish minorities into a political device meant to embarrass the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
Although many assume it to be one of the paradigmatic human rights movements of the late twentieth century, the Soviet Jewry movement did not begin as an organic manifestation of outrage and only incorporated human rights claims belatedly. Israel set the discursive parameters for the movement, which was initially conceived of in terms of the reunion of families, an idiom consistent with Soviet thinking on emigration. Since the movement sought to make the treatment of Soviet Jews an issue in bilateral American-Soviet relations rather than a matter of international law or global public opinion, grassroots activists operating at the domestic level in the United States sidelined Jewish internationalists to its margins. The post-1968 breakthrough of human rights furnished the campaign with new symbols, strategies, and language, but an insistence on the right to leave rather than a focus on state-sanctioned torture and unlawful imprisonment marked the Soviet Jewry movement as distinct as it began to expand in the 1970s. The chapter also illuminates how both American campaigners and Soviet dissidents more frequently appealed to domestic than international sources of law in their entreaties.
This chapter examines how the onset of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip after 1967 impacted Jewish internationalism. Soviet and Arab diplomats created biased UN committees to investigate Israeli human rights abuses in the territories and waged wars of delegitimization against Israel throughout international organizations. By the time the UN declared Zionism was a form of racial discrimination in 1975, Jewish internationalists dismissed the forum as a new progenitor of antisemitism and a poisoned partner for international human rights. This politicization finally forced them to begin thinking about what human rights beyond law and institutions might look like. But even they tried to broaden their activity beyond the UN, they found the Palestinian question dogged them everywhere they turned. Finally, the chapter argues that while Israel was central to politicized processes within the UN, it was irrelevant and marginal to the expansion of human rights outside international forums in the 1970s. Jewish professionals cared about Israel’s human rights record, but most human rights activists did not – at least not until the First Intifada in 1987 began to cement Israel as the chief enemy of the human rights movement, long after Jews had left its vanguard.
This chapter challenges conventional wisdom about intimate connections between the Holocaust and the birth of international human rights law. Facing a human rights consensus designed around deliberate silence on the Holocaust, Jewish internationalists were unable or unwilling to make Jewish legal enslavement under Nazism a primary rationale for the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international enforcement mechanisms. Speaking for the victims of the Holocaust gave Jewish internationalists little symbolic moral capital at a time most others did not want to discuss the specific fate of Jews under Nazism. The chapter also discusses early Jewish efforts at institutional-legal entrepreneurialism to develop mechanisms to bring human rights complaints to the UN.
In support of the world’s most dispersed minority, Jewish lawyers and advocates had been among the staunchest supporters of the interwar minority rights regime. This support was such a foundational part of Jewish internationalism that it did not subside even as the postwar world abandoned international minority protection. Flying in the face of prevailing trends in international politics that promoted the solution of minority problems through population transfer and domestic assimilation, Jewish advocates abortively sought to rescue minority rights from the historical dustbin. Many found the individualist cast of human rights to be an insufficient shield against potential policies of forced assimilation and sought to salvage some forms of groupist protection in various forums, including during negotiations over the postwar European peace and international treaty-making at the United Nations. Jewish activists developed an associational-inflected critique of human rights that was ahead of its time but ignored altogether in its day.
This chapter examines how Jewish internationalists briefly flirted with constitutional reform and imperial oversight before deploying human rights to encourage Jewish departure from Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia during postcolonial transitions. They showed a profound distrust of the future disposition of Muslim rulers and called for pledges to allow North African Jews the right to leave, a claim that highlighted Jewish liminality in the postcolonial order. To argue that the future rulers of these new states had to pledge in advance to allow Jewish emigration rendered the integration of Jews into new North African states more difficult. Jewish activists ultimately wielded human rights in the service of Zionist aims, a marked contrast from other concurrent human rights activity that seeks to check the excesses of state sovereignty.
In October 1981, two American Jewish professionals talked past one another as they reenacted a routine argument about attitudes in the Jewish world toward the United Nations (UN) and one of its chief projects, international human rights. Playing the role of cynic was thirty-nine-year-old Harris Schoenberg, recently appointed director of UN affairs for B’nai B’rith. His antithesis was seventy-four-year-old Philip Klutznick, a former president of B’nai B’rith and the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and UN envoy for three separate US presidents. The issue Schoenberg put to Klutznick: UN member states were perverting human rights by exaggerating Israeli transgressions in territories it was occupying and passing resolutions decrying Jewish nationalism as racist. Ever the Pollyanna, Klutznick declared his younger colleague’s cynicism went too far. He exhorted Schoenberg to stop “expecting miracles” from an imperfect institution. Instead, Klutznick maintained, what ought to concern them was the parochialism of their ranks: “our principal trouble is that unless it is Soviet Jewry, or Israel connected, or antisemitism, we frequently think the issue is not of importance … human rights, whether they involve Jews or not, is important to all of us.” To Schoenberg, however, clinging to old mantras seemed hopelessly naïve when dealing with an institution that had become the “moral equivalent of a Nuremburg rally.” He waxed poetic about how Jewish history was defined by a creative tension between the universal and the particular, manifest in their own time between balancing support for human rights and for the restoration of Jewish sovereignty. Now, Schoenberg insisted, these “parallel Jewish impulses” were “almost at war.”1
The process of Israel’s birth in 1948 created a set of structural impediments that made impossible a harmonious relationship between Jewish internationalism and human rights. The creation of the Palestinian refugee problem and the absorption of a large Arab minority combined to circumscribe the range of action of Jewish advocates. They found themselves forced to deploy human rights as a counterclaim to neutralize demands for repatriation and compensation, a dynamic that first revealed itself when petitioning the UN to seek redress for embattled Jews in Arab countries. Human rights, often understood as a moral claims-making language, could also function to neutralize the claims of others. The potential of a restless Arab minority appealing to the UN acted as a break on limitless ambitions for capacious enforcement mechanisms. Even more traumatic was discovering the impact of Israeli military actions: the exercise of Jewish sovereignty could undermine the moral status of claims to authority by Jewish internationalists on human rights.
Nathan A. Kurz charts the fraught relationship between Jewish internationalism and international rights protection in the second half of the twentieth century. For nearly a century, Jewish lawyers and advocacy groups in Western Europe and the United States had pioneered forms of international rights protection, tying the defense of Jews to norms and rules that aspired to curb the worst behavior of rapacious nation-states. In the wake of the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel, however, Jewish activists discovered they could no longer promote the same norms, laws and innovations without fear they could soon apply to the Jewish state. Using previously unexamined sources, Nathan Kurz examines the transformation of Jewish internationalism from an effort to constrain the power of nation-states to one focused on cementing Israel's legitimacy and its status as a haven for refugees from across the Jewish diaspora.
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