The history of a campaign for a universal bill of human rights that generated fierce controversy.
Between 1800 and 1940, argues historian Loeffler (History and Jewish Studies/Univ. of Virginia; The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire, 2010), the term “human rights” hardly appeared in international law. The phrase surfaced in the middle of World War II but had little to do with the Holocaust. As reflected in the 1948 adoption of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the idea was intended “to replace the discredited minority rights ideal” with a broadly applicable manifesto. Despite being “the brainchild of American policy makers and intellectuals,” the pursuit of human rights involved five Jewish leaders whom the author profiles in a thorough, well-grounded, and often surprising history: Polish-born Hersch Zvi Lauterpacht, a lawyer who insisted that any declaration of human rights must be preceded by laws; American philanthropist Jacob Blaustein, a soft-spoken oil tycoon who became chairman of the American Jewish Committee; Rabbi Maurice Perlzweig, a British Zionist leader; Lithuanian lawyer and newspaper publisher Jacob Robinson, “one of Europe’s foremost champions of minority rights” and “the ultimate internationalist”; and Amnesty International founder Peter Benenson, a Zionist youth activist who sympathized with Palestinian Arab refugees, a convert to Catholic mysticism, and a lawyer “disenchanted with the law.” Defining and applying human rights incited vehement debate. At the first session of the Commission on Human Rights, held in 1947, members began by arguing “about the philosophical meaning of rights.” A declaration draft that emerged contained 400 pages of commentary, each revealing “more ideological clashes.” A Saudi representative denounced it “as a forcible imposition of ‘Western civilization’ on the Islamic world” because it advocated freedom of marriage and religion. Inextricably entangled in the ongoing debates was the connection of human rights to anti-Semitism, Zionism, and the Middle East conflict. Zionism, recast as a “symbol of moral parochialism,” was seen “as the singular enemy of international human rights.”
A revealing account of complex aspirations for global justice.