Nathan A. Kurz. Jewish Internationalism and Human Rights after the Holocaust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021. 310 pp. $39.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-83492-6.
Reviewed by Carole Fink (The Ohio State University) Published on H-Diplo (September, 2021) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56436
In this important new book, Nathan Kurz has analyzed the causes and development of the rupture after World War II between Jewish activists and the cause of international human rights. Previous studies, among them James Loeffler, Rooted Cosmopolitans (2018), Michael Barnett, The Star and Stripes: A History of the Foreign Policies of American Jews (2016), and Michael Galchinsky, Jews and Human Rights: Dancing at Three Weddings (2008), have identified the year 1967 as the key moment in the separation. Once a greatly expanded Israel became the target of partisan Soviet and Arab criticism, the leading Jewish human rights activists were gradually forced out of the international movements and UN institutions they had helped to create.
Kurz, in his meticulously researched and forcefully written monograph, starts earlier and delves deeper. The author’s protagonists—whom he refers to as Jewish internationalists—were a diverse group of British, French, and American Jewish lawyers, communal leaders, and public figures. These internationalists were affiliated with the major Jewish NGOs that had long operated in the international arena on behalf of human rights and minority rights, among them the World Jewish Congress (WJC), the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), and the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BDBJ).
Significantly, before 1945, Jewish human rights advocacy had encompassed two competing strands—the Western-inflected liberal integrationism calling for equal rights for all citizens and the East European/Zionist element advocating the preservation of national cultures as an essential building block in creating international harmony, and this division persisted after World War II. After the Holocaust, however, the outbreak of the Cold War, the creation of the State of Israel, and the decolonization of Europe’s overseas empires radically altered the global environment for Jewish internationalism.
In his seven thematic and generally chronological chapters, Kurz documents the stages and details of the “divorce” (p. 4). Chapter 1, challenging earlier scholars’ assertions of Jewish abandonment of minority rights after 1945, recounts their persistent efforts to revive one of the signal Jewish accomplishments at the Paris Peace Conference: the internationally guaranteed minority treaties imposed upon the new and enlarged states of Eastern Europe. Although the League of Nations’ implementation had been, at best, imperfect—and despite Nazi Germany’s distortion of the principle of minority protection and its slaughter of millions of Jews—Jewish internationalists such as Hersch Lauterpacht and Jacob Robinson continued to champion group rights after World War II. But in the wake of the Allies’ decisions to shift borders in Eastern Europe, permit the expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans, and virtually banish group rights from the “international lexicon” (p. 21), the Jewish internationalists’ efforts to install meaningful minority provisions in the 1947 treaties with Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania were ignored. Moreover, except for the establishment of an almost powerless Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities, officials of the new United Nations showed no inclination to resume its predecessor’s obligation.
Chapter 2 punctures the myth of a connection between the Holocaust and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and details the growing gap between Jewish advocacy and postwar human rights. Kurz pithily states: “If World War II was not to be fought for Jews, then human rights could not be too Jewish either” (p. 49). Thus, despite their active participation in the UN’s NGO system, the WJC and the newly founded Consultative Council of Jewish Organizations (CCJO) and the Coordinating Board of Jewish Organizations (CBJO) were unable to enshrine specific references to the enslavement and murder of their people and the refugees’ inability to gain asylum into the UDHR. Not only were the three Jewish groups ambivalent over the efficacy of international protection, divided within and among themselves between stressing Jewish victimhood and promoting universal norms, and concerned over challenging their own governments’ legal systems; they were also operating in a postwar diplomatic environment where highlighting Jewish suffering challenged the record of the World War II antifascist alliance and were facing a UN officialdom and culture intent on producing a “consensus document” that made no inroads on the sovereignty of the nation-state.
Chapter 3, dealing with two momentous challenges to Jewish internationalists after the founding of the State of Israel, documents another step in the divorce. Having failed to invoke UN protection for the endangered Jewish communities in the Arab lands and link their claims of persecution and dispossession with those of the Palestinians, Jewish internationalists after 1948 faced the even greater challenge of Israel’s harsh policies toward its Arab minority and the exiled Palestinians. They were also stymied by “the norm,” which was the UDHR’s Article 13, calling for the right both to leave and to return that had “helped legitimate Jewish immigration to Israel” but became “the one most invoked by Israel’s enemies” (p. 84).
Chapter 4 probes the Jewish internationalists’ responses in the 1950s to the challenge of decolonization in North Africa and their efforts to protect its ancient Jewish communities, which had been somewhat shielded by the imperial powers. Performing a delicate balancing act, Western Jewish negotiators called for equal citizenship rights in the newly independent states but also invoked the right for Jewish people to emigrate if they wished. However, by disregarding the Jewish inhabitants’ political and personal goals, these Western Jewish inhabitants also risked the ire of the newly independent nations over outside intervention. Kurz concludes that the internationalists’ incapacity to secure Jewish rights in place weakened these communities, making emigration their only choice. Although Libya and Tunisia allowed their Jewish inhabitants to leave for Israel and elsewhere, Morocco’s emigration ban (lifted only in 1961) represented a major setback to Jewish human rights diplomacy.
Moving on to the 1960s, in chapter 5 Kurz documents another major setback: the omission of antisemitism from the UN’s 1965 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the stirring of anti-Zionism in the world organization. In the wake of a “swastika epidemic” five years earlier, the UN General Assembly had authorized an investigation, but its Soviet and non-Western majority broadened the inquiry’s compass to include “racial, religious, and national hatred” (p. 114). Israeli efforts to reintroduce antisemitism were countered by Soviet and Arab charges of Israeli colonialism and racism; the resulting convention marked the near erasure of antisemitism from “the human rights scene” (p. 114).
Chapter 6 takes up the crusade for Soviet Jewry. Unlike earlier writers, Kurz regards the campaign not as a traditional human rights initiative calling for equality for all USSR citizens and protection against discrimination, imprisonment, and torture but as movement to promote Jewish emigration in which Jewish internationalists played a minor role. Launched secretly by Israel in the 1950s, reinforced by Soviet Jewish activists in the 1960s, and entering US Cold War politics in the 1970s, the Soviet Jewry movement, according to Kurz, although borrowing the language of human rights, “owed much more to the politics of the Cold War than to the triumph of universalist values” (p. 163).
Turning to the fraught issue of post-1967 Israel, Kurz in chapter 7 details the final acts of the divorce. Western Jewish internationalists, now facing an anti-Western UN majority as well as global support for self-determination, were stymied by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. The UN, transformed into an “anti-Israel circus” (p. 172), linked Israel with South Africa as the two sole targets for investigations of human rights violations, admitted the Palestine Liberation Organization to observer status, and in 1975 passed a resolution equating Zionism with racism. Finally, Kurz notes, although the burgeoning international human rights movements of the 1970s did not focus on Israel, Jewish internationalists were remarkably hesitant to lend their support to Israeli NGOs advocating human rights, “defer[ing] to Israeli security concerns in public and pursu[ing] quiet initiatives that addressed the root causes of discrimination in Israeli society” (p. 183).
Kurz’s book makes several valuable contributions. It places Jewish internationalism within the context of other human rights movements, each, after all, based on a “prior ideological agenda” (p. 187). It casts a critical eye on the actors, functioning, and alleged political independence of Jewish and non-Jewish international NGOs. And it also underlines two significant human rights contributions by postwar Jewish internationalists, achieved only after the end of the Cold War: the UN’s 1992 Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities and the establishment of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1993.
But when did the divorce between Jewish internationalism and human rights become inevitable? According to Kurz, it occurred at the time of Israel’s birth, when a dispersed people that had long sought to “constrain the power of nation-states” (p. 5) acquired sovereignty. By the 1980s, a new generation of beleaguered Jewish internationalists were ready to acknowledge that the prolonged nonsolution of the Palestinian problem and the deterioration of their relations with the UN had separated them from the cause their forebears had championed.
Although centered on male communal leaders operating within a rarified world of Jewish, national, and global politics, Jewish Internationalism expands our understanding of the key human rights protagonists, deliberations, and debates after World War II and of the evolution of human rights ideas and institutions over four tumultuous Cold War decades.
Carole Fink, Humanities Distinguished Professor of History Emerita at The Ohio State University, is currently writing a global history of the 1980s. She is the author of Cold War: An International History (Routledge, 2021), West Germany and Israel: Foreign Relations, Domestic Politics, and the Cold War, 1965-1974 (Cambridge University Press, 2019), Writing 20th Century International History: Explorations and Examples (Wallstein, 2017), Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, the Jews, and International Minority Protection, 1878-1938 (Cambridge University Press, 2004), The Genoa Conference: European Diplomacy 1921-1922 (Syracuse University Press, 1993), and Marc Bloch: A Life in History (Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Citation: Carole Fink. Review of Nathan A. Kurz, Jewish Internationalism and Human Rights after the Holocaust. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. September, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56436This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.