Samuel Moyn: Face the Nations

Roundup: Historians' Take

Samuel Moyn, who teaches history at Columbia University, is the author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History.

It’s further proof of the law of unintended consequences. This week’s showdown over the creation of a Palestinian state is playing out at an institution some of whose most fervent early adherents hoped would be a vehicle for transcending nationalism entirely. Indeed, though the United Nations—a collection of all the world’s nation-states—played a critical role in the establishment of the State of Israel in the late 1940s, a group of Jews committed their lives to building a world organization that would be focused instead on protecting individuals from state power rather than making new states.

Influenced by the state-sponsored barbarism of the Holocaust, these Jewish activists believed that the nation-state should be supplemented by a system of international, not state-based, human rights. And the United Nations would be the body through which this new world order would be birthed.

“I wanted to work for something which was permanent, of universal importance, and indestructible,” Moses Moskowitz, one of the most dogged of these Jewish internationalists, said in an oral history. “I didn’t believe it will bring the redemption, but I believed that we could not proceed unless this principle [of human rights] was established solidly in an international treaty.”

But the international regime of human rights that Moskowitz and others had imagined, he bitterly reported, “died in the process of being born.” Indeed, the very treaty that founded the United Nations, though its preamble references universal human rights, made it clear that the main fulcrum of world order would remain statehood. Ironically for Jewish internationalists, the most significant thing the United Nations would soon do for the Jews would be to abet the creation of the Jewish nation-state—marginalizing Jewish internationalism and paving the way for a cascade of new states that the Palestinian Authority hopes could now result in one more....

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