The Last of the Tzaddiks

Ralph Alswang/Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum and others protesting in support of ‘Dreamer’ immigrants, Washington, D.C., January 2018

In the somewhat exotic Jewish home in Iowa where I grew up, it was axiomatic that there was an intimate link between Judaism and universal human rights. Like nearly all Eastern European Jewish families in America, my parents and grandparents were Roosevelt Democrats, to the point of fanaticism. They thought that the Jews had invented the very idea, and also the practice, of social justice; that having started our history as slaves in Egypt, we were always on the side of the underdog and the oppressed; that the core of Judaism as a religious culture was precisely this commitment to human rights, and that all the rest—the 613 commandments, the rituals, the theological assertions—was no more than a superstructure built upon a strong ethical foundation. For me, this comfortable illusion was shattered only when I moved to Israel at the age of eighteen.

There is indeed, as James Loeffler shows in Rooted Cosmopolitans, a strong historical link between European Jews and the struggle for human rights in the twentieth century. Loeffler tells the stories of remarkable people such as Hersch Zvi Lauterpacht, born near Lemberg (Lvov) in 1897, who was one of the first jurists to engage seriously with the idea of a binding international law encompassing universal human rights (he wrote preliminary drafts of both the International Bill of Rights and Israel’s Declaration of Independence); Jacob Robinson, who played an important part in designing the United Nations Commission on Human Rights as well as in the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials; and Peter Benenson, who founded Amnesty International in 1961 (three years after he had converted to Catholicism).

Several of Loeffler’s heroes emerged from the political and cultural matrix of post–World War I Eastern Europe and from the struggle for what was then termed “minority rights.” The Jews of Eastern Europe, always vulnerable to attack by anti-Semitic nationalist majorities, provided the paradigm for this discussion, which, as we know too well, collapsed with the rise of the Nazis. Before that, in the 1920s and early 1930s, Weimar Germany had been the great hope and model for attempts to enshrine national minority rights in political and legal practice in the nations created after World War I.

Surprisingly little of the language of minority rights has survived into our generation, except perhaps when it is given a negative connotation, as in a recent speech by Israel’s current minister of justice, Ayelet Shaked: “There is place to maintain a Jewish majority [in Israel] even at the price of violation of [minority] rights.” In another formulation: “Zionism should not—and I’m saying here that it will not—continue to bow its head to a system of individual rights interpreted in a universalist manner.” To some it might seem strange that Israel’s…


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