Media Analysis

‘NYT’ writer who claims Zionism and human rights are intertwined ignores Palestinians

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“Jews are welcome to fight for human rights–as long as they check their Zionism at the door,” laments James Loeffler in his May 14, 2018, op-ed piece in The New York Times.  Loeffler’s essay, The Zionist Founders of the Human Rights Movement,” published on the day the U.S. Embassy moved to Jerusalem–the same day Israel killed 60 Palestinian protesters–argues that Zionism and human rights are historically intertwined.  According to Loeffler, the “modern left” has forgotten “that Zionism and the modern human rights movement share a braided history.”  Loeffler’s essay, however, is a justification of liberal Zionism, and a convenient one, too, leaving out the Palestinian point of view while Israel celebrated the embassy move on its 70th birthday.  

Loeffler, an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia, and author of Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, has written his essay from the familiar perspective of Zionists who claim to be liberal but who do not consider the Palestinian point of view as they shape their political worldview.   He is eager to point out that Zionists were always part of the human rights movement. But, much like the embassy move, his article placates Israel and the notion of Zionism without so much as acknowledging what it means to the very people that Israel occupies–and who continue to be murdered at the Gazan border.

The cover of Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century

Loeffler writes that Zionism is currently “on trial in the court of human rights,” and, citing several examples, calls attention to Zionists who, in his view, have been shunned from human rights activities.  Starbucks, for example, canceled its partnership with the Anti-Defamation League regarding its anti-bias training. Amnesty International U.K. backed out of an event with the Jewish Leadership Council in London due to the Jewish organization’s support of Israel.  And Jewish students in Charlottesville, where Loeffler teaches, were “refused admission to the minority student coalition because of their Israeli ties.”  Zionists are portrayed as victims in these scenarios–a convenient tactic that ignores the Palestinian victims of Zionism.

Of course, the only way Zionism and human rights can coexist is to completely erase Palestinian history. When this happens–and it does, regularly–it becomes easy for someone like Loeffler and other Zionists to make a seamless connection between Zionism and human rights.  For them, Zionism is not oppressive, but is viable and vital movement, and therefore does not enter their consciousness to consider that Palestinians have suffered as a direct result of Zionism.  

Rather than ask the critical question of why so many in the international community feel that Zionism and human rights are incompatible–indeed, why so many feel they are staunchly opposed to each other–he digs his heels into a Zionist history, citing several examples of “Jewish human rights pioneers” who, in his view, embody this “braided” history.  Ultimately, however, each of his examples falls short.  The only way that Loeffler can justify the compatibility of Zionism and human rights is to ignore Palestine completely.  

Take, for example, Hersch Zvi Lauterpacht, the Polish international lawyer who, according to Loeffler, “crafted influential drafts of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.”  The emphasis on the italicized word “and” indicates, for Loeffler, an unopposed, harmonious compatibility in Lauterpacht’s various ventures.  But Loeffler fails to consider that Palestinian history is missing from these treaties. The Israeli Declaration of Independence, proclaimed on May 14, 1948, occurred seven months before the announcement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on December 10, 1948.  Palestinians are totally invisible in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Had Lauterpacht perhaps considered, at the time, Palestinian historical events, he might have understood how a document like the Israeli Declaration of Independence would be incompatible with human rights when it is predicated on an invasion and occupation of another people.

Lauterpacht was, in fact, a staunch Zionist.  According to the 2012 Goettingen Journal of International Law, Lauterpacht attended the 1929 opening ceremony of Hebrew University.  He wished to settle in Palestine. He ultimately remained in England, however, because Hebrew University could only offer him a part-time position.  His involvement with Zionism and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t show a “braided” history; Palestinians simply don’t come up.

The other two “Jewish human rights pioneers” Loeffler mentions are Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer who coined the word “genocide” and initiated the U.N. Genocide Convention.  According to Loeffler, he also fought for a “Jewish homeland in Palestine.” Amnesty International’s founder, Peter Benenson, “spent his childhood in Anglo-Zionist circles in Jerusalem and London,” and rescued Jewish children after Kristallnacht.  Each of these examples show impressive accomplishments, but Loeffler has plucked them out of a history that excludes Palestinians.

Loeffler’s essay falls in line with the tradition of liberal Zionist discourse that supports human rights while ignoring Palestinians.  I experienced this erasure years ago, when I attended a day-long seminar for high school teachers at the Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Illinois.  The topic was “Identifying Genocide,” and we looked at examples of genocides in different countries and were given an impressive list of resources.  Absent from the document, of course, was any mention of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, because, for the Zionists who work at the Holocaust museum, they don’t exist.  

I was in the midst of transitioning from a Zionist to an anti-Zionist way of thinking at the time I attended the “Identifying Genocide” seminar at the Holocaust Museum.  I became upset at the glaringly obvious omission of Palestinians. During the expensive kosher-catered lunch, I asked one of the seminar leaders, “When will we be talking about Gaza?”  The leaders turned to each other, befuddled, not knowing what to say. They said nothing, and went onto the next question. I got funny looks the rest of the afternoon. It didn’t matter, for I was finally undoing Zionism and seeing the existence of Israel–indeed, its very essence that I grew up loving more than anything else–from a Palestinian perspective.

Another example of how Zionism can appear to fuse with human rights–by omitting any mention of Palestine–can be seen in the current exhibit at the museum, “Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing the World,” based on Kerry Kennedy’s book.  According to the website, the exhibit “highlights over 40 human rights defenders from over 40 countries, spanning 6 continents.”  One of the contributors is Palestinian lawyer Raji Sourani, who writes in the book that “never before has the overall human rights situation deteriorated as dramatically” as in Gaza.  

I was curious how the museum is reconciling this support of human rights with Palestinian rights, so I called them to inquire.  I asked the Chief Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, Arielle Weininger, if the exhibit includes Palestinians. She answered, “There is more in the book than in our exhibit.”  Like Loeffler’s essay, human rights and Zionism are compatible at the Holocaust Museum, too, only when Palestinians are omitted.

Loeffler’s essay actually obfuscates the issue of ever considering that the very essence of Zionism could possibly be opposed to Palestinian human rights.   Instead, Loeffler justifies the success of Zionism and the Jewish nation, falling in line with typical liberal Zionist discourse:

Israel rightly claims with pride its status as a vibrant if imperfect democracy up to the green line. Across that nonborder, however, the Israeli occupation presents an ongoing challenge to Jewish democracy. That ethical dilemma cannot be wished away by demonizing human rights organizations as enemies of the Jewish nation.

Here, at least, Loeffler acknowledges the occupation, which is more than some Zionists will do.  But it’s not enough. Loeffler is making the Israeli occupation about the survival of Israeli identity and not about Palestinians.  The worst part of the occupation, for Loeffler, is its threat to a Jewish democracy, not the displacement and expulsion of Palestinians that paved the way for this supposed democracy.  

Loeffler also applies the familiar liberal Zionist rhetoric to point out that Israel is criticized more than other countries.  He chastises the U.N. Human Rights Council, “a body that has condemned Israel more than any other country combined, including Syria, North Korea and Iran.”  And he reduces the notion that “Zionism is racism” to a “horrible meme” that began when “Jewish leaders raised the subject of anti-Semitism at the United Nations in the 1970s.”  Loeffler’s essay misses the opportunity to consider a point of view different from a liberal Zionist perspective.  Instead, he defends Zionism, suggesting that it’s the human rights community who needs to “recalibrate its moral compass” to include the “braided” contributions of Zionism and human rights.  This is easy to do, of course, when all of Palestinian history is excluded.

Of course, an entire world of writers have long been talking about Palestine, but have been excluded from Zionist discourse.  Edward Said wrote about this directly, in his 1979 essay “Zionism From the Standpoint of its Victims:”

Very little is said about what Zionism entailed for non-Jews who happened to have encountered it…To the Palestinian, for whom Zionism was somebody else’s idea imported into Palestine and for which in a very concrete way he or she was made to pay and suffer, these forgotten things about Zionism are the very things that are centrally important.

But Said goes even further, acknowledging the Zionist point of view despite his having been displaced as a direct result of Zionism:

I can understand the intertwined terror and the exultation out of which Zionism has been nourished, and I think I can at least grasp the meaning of Israel for Jews.

Said understood what Israel meant to the Jews, but his point of reference–the Palestinian consciousness–continues to be absent from Zionist discourse.  

Ultimately, liberal Zionists like Loeffler need to decide if they will ever be willing to let go of their Zionism and embrace the human rights community that includes all people.  The Palestinians remain invisible in Loeffler’s account of a history that actually cannot exist without them: the 700,000 expelled and ethnically cleansed in 1948, the ongoing occupation of 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, the 1.8 million in Gaza, the recent murder of over 100 Palestinians at the Gaza border who posed no threat, and a full-scale erasure of a people’s land and culture.  Loeffler’s history of Zionism and human rights simply cannot be credible when his version of this history refuses to acknowledge all of its participants.

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Loeffler is an unconscious racist. It is necessary to go into the details as you have done to show why, but it boils down to this— Palestinians don’t matter if their rights conflict with liberal Zionist ideals. That is racism and it should be labeled as such.

For years Jim has selflessly volunteered to work with the homeless and underprivileged in his community.

For years Jim has also kidnapped women, chained them in his basement and raped them.

Jim is a criminal has a “braided” history.

“Ultimately, liberal Zionists like Loeffler need to decide if they will ever be willing to let go of their Zionism and embrace the human rights community that includes all people.” Zionists — regardless of what they may profess, at times — do not recognize universal human rights. Myths of common… Read more »

I have never consider Zionism to equal racism: to my mind Zionism is an exponent of racism. Moreover, given the deeply engrained chosen-tribal nature of Zionism it is folly to think Zionists will ever come to their senses and chose to fold themselves into the global community. Stanley M. Elkins,… Read more »