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  • On Writing and Routing Rights
  • James B. Loeffler (bio)

The history of human rights is often told either as a timeless myth of Judeo-Christian religious principles or a modern fable about Holocaust-inspired universal justice. Individual Jews figure prominently in these metanarratives, as do casual claims about Jewish ethics, but Jewishness, in the form of specific Jewish political commitments, communal attachments, and collective identities, is alternately taken for granted or passed over in silence. In Rooted Cosmopolitans, I went hunting for these missing Jewish contexts and backstories in human-rights history. The result is a different account of the origins of international human rights and the Jewish roles within that story. Shifting the focus from the United Nations immediately after World War II to prewar Eastern Europe, I trace a rising generation of Jewish legal activists who pioneered many of the legal principles and advocacy techniques that turned human rights from a philosophical ideal into a concrete project of international law. Contrary to popular perceptions today, I argue that what mattered most in their Jewish pathways into human-rights activism was neither their shared marginality nor their universalist sensibilities but a conscious engagement with Jewish politics.

This transnational Jewish network spread outward from World War I–era Eastern Europe to encompass the length and breadth of the twentieth-century Jewish world. For that reason, I am very grateful to the editors of Shofar for assembling such a wonderful cohort of scholars to interpret my book from such a variety of geographical and methodological vantage points. These expert commentaries, at once attuned to key historical moments evoked in my narrative and larger historiographical questions, present an embarrassment of riches for my author's response. I cannot do them all the justice that they deserve here. Instead, I offer some brief thoughts, organized roughly by chronology, on the questions they raise about the points of intersection between Jews and human-rights history. [End Page 192]

That history has its own history, Arie Dubnov reminds us, beginning with the earlier work of scholars who charted the career of international minorities' protection from the second half of the nineteenth century through the fracture point of World War I and the rise of the League of Nations. He reads my narrative against that historiographical backdrop and observes some key differences in my choice of historical actors and causal claims. He applauds my determination to push past the contemporary false dichotomy that divides Jewish nationalism from international human rights but wonders whether in my quest to de-essentialize human-rights history, I also risk reifying Zionism as the normative paradigm for early Jewish international legal advocacy. More specifically, he asks, do not non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish rights-defenders deserve a larger place in the interwar story of Jewish minority-rights activism?

This is a crucial question with implications for the entire field of Jewish human-rights history, especially in light of contemporary extracurricular political debates. Emphasizing the conspicuous Zionist presence in the ranks of human-rights activism certainly carries the risk of methodological side-shadowing, obscuring other contemporaneous Jewish voices and historical actors. But in my estimation, the greater danger remains historiographical back-shadowing, that we project back into the past our contemporary assumptions and anxieties about Zionism and Jewish internationalism. The biography of Lucien Wolf is actually a good example of this problem. His diaries and his publicistic work suggest a crucial figure in interwar international rights protection. Yet a closer look reveals a role overinflated in posterity. To be sure, his story is an important one—and a fascinating one at that. But ultimately it belongs more to the equally crucial history of pre-1920s international liberalism rather than to that of interwar legal thought and Jewish minority-rights advocacy.

The same is true of the Austro-Marxists and their East European Jewish followers. For all of the ways in which we might imagine that Bundist national-cultural autonomy must have birthed international minority rights, there is little evidence of that connection. The reasons [End Page 193] are simple. Both Western Jewish liberals and East European Bundists professed a fundamental ambivalence about global Jewish peoplehood. Nonnationalist liberals wished to protect their...


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pp. 192-202
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