Dr. James Loeffler on Zionism and Human Rights

A Lecture About the Role of Israel and Zionism in Building Modern Human Rights

Dr. Ronnie Perelis and Dr. James Loeffler standing holding Dr. Loeffler's book
(l-r): Dr. Ronnie Perelis, Dr. James Loeffler

On Wednesday, April 3, 2019, the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs hosted a lecture by Dr. James Loeffler, the Jay Berkowitz Professor of Jewish History at the University of Virginia, in the Koch Auditorium at Stern College for Women.

In his opening remarks, Dr. Ronnie Perelis, who, in addition to being the director of the Schneier Program, is Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Abraham and Jelena (Rachel) Alcalay Chair in Sephardic Studies and associate professor of Sephardic studies, noted that lectures like the one by Dr. Loeffler represent the heart and soul of what the Schneier Program hopes to achieve. “YU is situated in one of the most global of cities while also being an intimate community dedicated to the study of Torah and Madda,” said Dr. Perelis. “Like YU, the Schneier Program is committed to bringing together the ethical demands and spiritual power of the Torah with the best that world has to offer from the sciences and cultured society.”

Dr. Selma Botman, provost and vice president for academic affairs, also praised the Schneier Program for its effort to integrate Torah and secular wisdom and was especially excited to hear Dr. Loeffler speak about “the complex effort to balance the particular and universal within the enduring conception of international human rights.”

Titled “Double Anniversary, Double Amnesia: Zionism and Human Rights in 1948 and Today,” Dr. Loeffler drew upon his celebrated book Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, to explain why today, in 2019, the relationship among Zionism, Israel, other nations in the world and international human rights exists in a state of “rancor and controversy.” To do this required going through “the history of Jewish participation in making and building international human rights.”

Over the course of the next hour, Dr. Loeffler detailed the growth of this antagonism from the simultaneous birth in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the state of Israel to the polarized situation today.

One of the primary reasons for this polarization is that international human rights (such as the right of a people to their own land or the right of minorities to be protected from abuse) does not have a strong enough legal structure behind it to enforce justice. Therefore, human rights too often become a cudgel that some use to shame others in lieu of any enforcement mechanism, and those others see the articulation of human rights as a danger to their sovereignty and security.

Shoshana Marder ’19S asks a question of Dr. Loeffler

Is there a way out of this situation? “It depends on what the superpowers of the world do today,” said Dr. Loeffler. “Not the UN but the United States, Germany, China—because they’re the backstops of the system. And it’s quite clear that they have not made up their minds about what they want the world to look like, especially the United States and what role it wants to play in the world. But here’s the rub,” he added. “Without that clarity, there can be no power to put into effect any of these lofty visions of justice and law and order. Power has to have a vision of what it wants to accomplish, and at the moment, that vision is confused and ambiguous.”

In the end, the resolution of this conflict will depend upon “the concrete choices that a country makes in its laws and policies as it builds out the architecture of its worldview.”

The event was co-sponsored by The S. Daniel Abraham Honors Program, The Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program, the Center for Israel Studies and the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.

Dr. Perelis also mentioned the Schneier Global Study Fellowships, worth up to $3,000 in travel funds for Yeshiva University students pursuing original research with an international focus or for intensive language learning abroad. Find more information here.

Schneier Global Scholars Travel Grants