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  • Zionism and International Law:A Forgotten Synthesis
  • Noam Pianko (bio)

The current government of Israel tends to perceive human-rights organizations, international legal bodies, and demands for minority rights as political forces that unfairly target the Jewish state in the hopes of eroding its legitimacy. A recent nongovernmental-organization law, for example, demands that Israeli nonprofit organizations that receive the majority of their funds from foreign sources publicly disclose the sources of their funding. The fact that twenty-five of the twenty-seven not-for-profit organizations affected by this legislation are international human-rights organizations strongly suggests that the primary goal of this legislation is to marginalize human-rights organizations operating in Israel.1 In another high-profile example, the "nation-state bill" now under consideration in the Knesset identifies Israel as the "nation-state of the Jewish people"—a significant shift from the state's founding documents, which define the state as fostering "the development of the country for all of its inhabitants."2 By aligning the state's mission with the Jewish people rather than its citizens, this bill leaves less room for the Palestinian Israeli minority to advocate for additional civil and national rights. These laws indicate that many Israelis view the collection of international laws and institutions developed in the second half of the twentieth century to protect individual and collective rights as a weapon in the enduring efforts by international actors to attack the Jewish state and undermine Zionism's goals.

Today's adversarial relationship between Zionism and international human rights, James Loeffler argues in Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, belies the close historical link between these twentieth-century movements. The mainstream Zionist theorists and activists whom Loeffler explores in this book viewed Jewish nationalism as a model for protecting minority national communities, [End Page 156] promoting human rights, and investing in the creation of international law. As the best historical research tends to do, Loeffler demonstrates how drastically contemporary ideologies framed as historical continuities actually represent radical ruptures from their historical antecedents. Israel's criticism of international human rights, ambivalence about the minority rights of its own citizens, and lack of trust in international law erases Zionism's far more capacious past as an ideological engine for rethinking the relationship between nation, state, and the international order.

To better understand the far more fluid historical relationship between particular Jewish and universal human political ideologies, Rooted Cosmopolitans develops a new methodological paradigm for the historical study of Jewish politics. The history of Jewish politics (exemplified by classic texts such as Ezra Mendelson's On Modern Jewish Politics) focuses internally on Jewish thinkers who dedicated themselves to developing political ideologies and leading Jewish movements. More recently, Yuri Slezkine's The Jewish Century challenged this approach by universalizing Jewish politics as representing ideological options available to everyone in the modern age. For Slezkine, modern Jewish movements are far less important than viewing Jews as symbolic of the major shifts transforming Western political life.

Loeffler deftly navigates between these historiographical poles of reading modern Jewish politics as either about Jewish or about universal concerns, movements, and actors. Loeffler's juxtaposition of Zionism, internationalism, and human rights dissolves this dichotomy by focusing on theorists deeply invested in Jewish collective life and also dedicated to solving universal political questions. Through the lens of the history of international and human-rights law, Loeffler focuses on a subject that has been ignored by both approaches to Jewish political thought precisely because it inherently bridges the ideologies—Jewish national rights and universal human rights—positioned on opposite sides of the historiographical divide. Studying the close link between Zionist activists and the progenitors of international law integrates figures into the history of Jewish political thought, such as Hersch Lauterpacht and Jacob [End Page 157] Robinson, whose conscious efforts to subtly navigate between Jewish and universal concerns have marginalized them from Jewish political history and from the history of international law as Jewish Zionists.

This innovative approach toward a middle ground of Jewish politics does present methodological challenges. The danger of overessentializing a thinker's Jewish commitments solely because of their Jewish lineage or underestimating an intellectual's Jewish...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 156-161
Launched on MUSE
2019-03-15
Open Access
No
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