Thursday, August 9, 2018

James Loeffler's "Rooted Cosmopolitans"

James Loeffler is Jay Berkowitz Professor of Jewish History at the University of Virginia and former Robert A. Savitt Fellow at the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, and reported the following:
The recent news that the United States has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council alarmed many and pleased others. But it surprised no one. For several decades now, successive American administrations have shared an ambivalent relationship with the UN’s international human rights system. The stated reason is frustration with the explicit politicization of human rights. A UN system intended to be a neutral, apolitical body has morphed in the hands of dictators and autocrats into a propaganda weapon directed against the U.S. and its allies, particularly Israel. Even those who think Israel’s human rights record warrants UN scrutiny generally recognize that the Human Rights Council is highly vulnerable to political bias.

Could it have turned out differently? That is the question I discuss on Page 99 of my book, Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century. The founding father of international human rights law, Hersch Zvi Lauterpacht, thought long and hard in the 1940s about how to build a better system of international law that would transcend the dangers of geopolitics. As a Polish-born Jew who helped build the Zionist movement in interwar England and Palestine, he understood that politics and justice were intimately related. He watched in despair as the elaborate League of Nations legal system designed to protect Jews failed to stop the Holocaust.

Still, Lauterpacht hoped that after World War II further atrocities and other harms could be prevented if the world embraced a truly independent, universal human rights system. To succeed, that UN program would require two things: more power and more impartiality. Its officials would need real legal enforcement authority. Along with that, human rights at the UN must be fully insulated from geopolitics.

On Page 99, I describe Lauterpacht’s impassioned efforts to win the British and the American governments over to this vision. In a way, that theme runs throughout the entire book. Lauterpacht formed part of an activist network of Jewish pragmatic idealists who struggled both to make human rights effective and to shield them from the inevitable geopolitical intrigues and glaring hypocrisies that constitute a permanent feature of international diplomacy. Already in the 1940s they learned to their dismay that this was easier said than done. 70 years later, we still grapple with the same dilemma: How can we reset the balance between law and politics for human rights?
Learn more about Rooted Cosmopolitans at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue