The Nationalism of Human Rights


Review of A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States, by Eric D. Weitz

Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 2019


Talking politics with cabdrivers is a time-honored ritual for visitors to Jerusalem. Yet from time to time the conversation leaps the bounds of cliché to enter more revealing territory. On one such recent occasion, I found myself riding across the city with a Palestinian taxi driver from East Jerusalem. As we drove, he casually inquired about my work, and I answered that I had just written a book about the history of human rights. At the mention of those last two words, his tone abruptly shifted. “There is no such thing as human rights,” he exclaimed, his voice rising in anger, “Not in this world. They simply don’t exist.”

His cynicism was not hard to fathom. As a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, the half of the city annexed by Israel after the 1967 war, my driver is one of nearly 350,000 people living in Jerusalem under Israeli rule without formal citizenship. Israel considers the land to be sovereign Israeli territory and treats it as a hotbed of national security threats. To the rest of the world, East Jerusalem remains illegally occupied Palestinian territory. On the ground, meanwhile, local Palestinians have long suffered from an array of rights-violations, many related to private property, religious worship, and administrative detention. Despite decades of attention from the international human rights community and scores of UN resolutions, the situation has only worsened in recent years thanks to the Israeli government’s policies, including the construction of a security barrier walling off two Palestinian neighborhoods from the rest of East Jerusalem.

Yet the facts are also more complicated than my driver’s rhetorical bombast might suggest. East Jerusalem Palestinians do in fact possess many basic rights, including government health insurance, welfare benefits, civil liberties, access to Israeli courts, and even the right to vote in municipal elections. What they lack is national citizenship. They are not Palestinian citizens, like the three million Palestinians who live in territorially disconnected enclaves in the West Bank nominally governed by a combination of the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority and the Israeli military government, or the nearly two million residents of the Gaza Strip ruled by Hamas. Nor, however, are they Israeli nationals, like other Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. East Jerusalemites’ permanent resident status can be revoked by the Israeli government if they leave the city for an extended period of time, even to move to a neighboring Jerusalem suburb in the West Bank.

Absent citizenship, then, their rights remain circumscribed, enfeebled, and vulnerable. They are at best perpetual guests of the Israeli legal system without the power to shape or enforce the laws that govern their rights. Hence my driver’s words pointed less to the impossibility of justice than the necessity of political membership. Human rights detached from state citizenship might as well not exist.

The memory of that conversation returned to me recently in light of a new round of proposed solutions for the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last year the right-wing Israeli government floated plans to annex much of the West Bank. Palestinians who fell under permanent Israeli control would receive human rights without Israeli citizenship. At the same time, various activists have re-asserted the idea of a single democratic state encompassing the entire territory. Israelis and Palestinians would shed their former nationalities to form one country with equal rights for all. As different as they are, both of these scenarios aim to replace the conventional model of two nation-states side by side with complex alternative visions of sovereignty, citizenship, and rights. Could either one of these models work to curb the dangers of nationalism and religious extremism? Or would they merely consign more people to the status of the East Jerusalemites, de-nationalized and disempowered?

Any answers to these questions must begin with a critical account of the relationship between human rights and national citizenship. The modern rise of international human rights is often told as a cosmopolitan fable of global humanity finally uniting beyond all differences. After millennia of societies divided by social hierarchies and state borders, the conventional narrative runs, Enlightenment thinkers finally recognized the idea of universal rights belonging to all of humanity, regardless of social, political, or legal status. That universalism expressed itself most vividly in the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and the accompanying body of international law created in its wake. Yet as Eric Weitz reminds us in his important new book, A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States, modern human rights arrived tethered to the nation-state. To be sure, the eighteenth-century transatlantic revolutions broadcast new ideas of egalitarian individualism and universal rights into the world. But the crucial structure for imagining and realizing those rights emerged in the form of state-based national citizenship. It was as humans that people deserved rights, but it was as citizens of a given nation organized in a state that they received them.

In and of itself, this is not a new thesis. Hannah Arendt made the same point in her 1951 classic, The Origins of Totalitarianism. There, she reminded us that moderns acquired the Rights of Man as Americans, Germans, French, and citizens of other nation-states and nationalizing empires. Like the title of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen indicated, the assertion of human rights involved both individual and collective rights. Universal rights rested on the twin foundations of philosophical principle and popular sovereignty. Individual human emancipation went hand in hand with collective national emancipation. Yet the flip side of this reality was that the creation of new nation-states always involved acts of exclusion. Drawing the borderlines of political community led new states to manufacture both internal homogeneity and external enmity. In the process, those with the wrong national, racial, or religious identities found themselves pushed violently outside the bounds of the nation.

One of the worst of these historical episodes was the Holocaust. The Nazis did not merely demonize the Jews. They convinced their fellow Germans and other Europeans that their respective national freedoms depended on uprooting and destroying the alien Jewish presence in their midst. A crucial stage in the Holocaust was the legal process of de-nationalization, Arendt noted. Legally stripped of their citizenship, Jews were left rightless and defenseless as a prelude to their extermination. They became not more, but less human without citizenship.

That experience of de-humanization as de-nationalization convinced Arendt of the crucial tie between nation-states and human rights. For that reason, she recognized the postwar creation of the State of Israel as a vital act of restoration for Jewish human rights. Yet Arendt also worried that even Jewish nation-state-building carried a moral cost. The violent national partition of Israel/Palestine empowered one people’s rights at the expense of another’s. When no Palestinian state surfaced in 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees found themselves homeless and rightless. Despite the appearance of the Universal Declaration in the same year, the moral right to have rights offered little protection compared to state-based citizenship.


A Lesson Re-learned

This lesson of the unavoidable, problematic link between human rights and the nation-state was obvious to Arendt’s post-World War II generation. But it had to be relearned and retaught by historians after the end of the Cold War. In the heady days following the collapse of Communism, many Western observers argued that universal rights could be disconnected from national citizenship via international law. Renewed liberal internationalism would produce a global commitment to international courts. Law would discipline politics, piercing the vale of state sovereignty. Human rights would finally break free from the bonds of nationality.

Still, history did not end as imagined. Episodes of genocide and ethnic cleansing exploded in post-Cold War Europe and Africa. State-failure and stateless migrants returned as key features of the global order. Terrorism and authoritarianism continued to flourish. Democracies expanded their counter-terrorism measures and military interventions in the interests of state security—and in the name of human rights. Less noticed but equally important, liberal superpowers like the United States displayed profound ambivalence about the authority of international law even as their leaders trumpeted their commitment to human rights norms.

The more human rights activists and sympathetic scholars encountered these profound challenges, the more they asserted their faith in the inevitable triumph of human rights in the long run. In her influential 2007 book, Inventing Human Rights, for instance, historian Lynn Hunt ascribed to human rights a “bulldozer force” and inexorable “inner logic” that destined them for ever-expanding conquest of the human moral imagination. After their eighteenth-century debut, they had paused for an era of colonialism and nationalism, only to return triumphantly after World War II. Now, with the Cold War over, human rights could finally fulfill their promise. In the same spirit, other observers reasoned, the trendline for global democracy (and market capitalism) undeniably moved in the direction of liberal progress. The arc of human rights might rise and fall, but surely, finally, it bent toward justice.

One of the important early critiques of this Whiggish view of human rights appeared in a landmark 2008 journal article by Eric Weitz, “From the Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions.” Writing in the American Historical Review, Weitz challenged this orthodoxy through a revisionist account of the period that Hunt and other scholars had largely ignored: the yawning chasm between the late eighteenth-century French and American rights declarations and the post-World War II Universal Declaration. Slowing down to survey Europe’s long nineteenth century more closely, Weitz found a story of human rights fundamentally intertwined with the darker forces of reactionary nationalism and imperial expansion.

As nineteenth-century Western empires extended their reach into the Balkans, the Middle East, and Africa, Weitz explained, they pioneered new kinds of humanitarian and minority rights campaigns in defense of vulnerable local populations. These efforts to prevent global atrocities and extend international protection did presage the rise of liberal internationalism in the World War I era. Yet the same campaigns also justified colonial conquests and violent interventions into supposedly uncivilized countries.

Worse still, the very act of laying claim to the fate of distant minorities exposed those local communities to new dangers. As proof Weitz noted the cruelest of historical ironies. The two European minority groups specially designated for international protection in the late nineteenth century, Armenian Christians and East European Jews, both went on to experience unprecedented genocides in the twentieth. Viewed from this angle, humanitarianism and human rights looked less like Western liberal gifts to the world than failed forms of imperial diplomacy. Despite diplomatic polish and liberal nostalgia, human rights and humanitarian campaigns could not finally be disentangled from the violence that accompanied them in the form of colonial wars, imperial conquests, genocides, and forced migrations.

Weitz’s provocative thesis sharpened historians’ inquiries into more critical accounts of human rights and humanitarianism. Yet it remained a story of European empire. Many therefore questioned whether the entire rights-project of global cosmopolitanism need be sullied by the sordid underbelly of European liberal imperialism. Others pointed out the wide range of internationalist legal creativity and political experimentation that flourished in the first half of the twentieth century. That powerful global actors subsequently foreclosed on this moment of possibility did not invalidate their historical legitimacy. Nor did the troubled Western origins of human rights automatically compromise their potential value as a postcolonial language of universal emancipation.

In his new book, Weitz responds to those critiques by widening his historical gaze to provide a truly global narrative of human rights and nation-state building. Now, alongside Europe, the United States, Brazil, Namibia, Korea, the Soviet Union, Israel and Palestine, Rwanda and Burundi all receive fascinating case study treatments. Around the world, he demonstrates, remarkably different societies embraced the rhetoric of intrinsic rights as they sought to build modern nation-states of their own, some but by no means all of them democratic. Indeed, it is one of the best features of Weitz’s book that he accounts for how and why the Soviet Union, a brutally repressive authoritarian regime, nevertheless played a key role as an exporter of select human rights norms in the global arena.

That even-handedness is of course the point of Weitz’s sweeping account. Following Arendt, he reminds us that every act of modern nation-building, from the Greek kingdom in the Balkans to the American North Country in the present-day Upper Midwest, involved a violent demarcation of the rights of one people counterposed to the rightlessness of another, be it an indigenous people, a racialized slave population, or a religious or cultural minority caste. Rights-claims always and everywhere relied on political membership. Drawing national boundaries proved to be a precondition for building the polity necessary to realize individual rights in the first place.

Even in the post-World War II era of decolonization and expanding international human rights law, Weitz observes, the same dynamic prevailed. The global rise of self-determination for colonized peoples unquestionably represented a victory for historical justice. Yet national sovereignty in the postcolonial world was premised just as much on national exclusion as on anti-imperial independence. No step forward came without a step backwards for some other community, ranging from legalized discrimination to outright expulsion and genocidal warfare.

Without question re-dividing the world after World War II yielded rights for billions of people, but the same process triggered devastating patterns of violence and discrimination within many of those same societies. Empowerment and dispossession turned out to be inseparable processes. The “nation-state,” Weitz concludes, has proven to be both our greatest “protector” and “our greatest threat” in modern times (429).


A Book Divided

This, then, is a deflationary account of the history of human rights. Weitz rejects utopian approaches in favor of clear-eyed historical reconstruction. He counsels us to see the good and the bad aspects of human rights side by side to make proper sense of our global history. Still, like the world he describes, his book ends up divided against itself. Alongside his withering critique of straight-line narratives of progress, Weitz continually falls back on a message of measured optimism. In spite of their limitations, he writes, “human rights remain our best hope for the future” (429). How so? Though nation-states invariably exclude, they can be stretched to include more from among their citizens. The authority of international legal agencies and global governance can be reinforced, tempering the exclusive power of the sovereign nation-state. “Anything that moves the conception and enforcement of human rights to the international level,” he writes, “moves us beyond the nation-state as the sole enforcer (and violator) of rights, and that is progress” (429).

Yet it remains unclear what mysterious force drives human rights forward in Weitz’s estimation. Indeed, at times his otherwise crystalline prose lapses into vague invocations of the magical power of human rights. “[O]nce pronounced,” he writes, “the genie’s bottle [of human rights] is open” and the “escaping scents cannot be easily recaptured, the bottle resealed” (284). Like a secret potion, the invisible force of human rights simply seeps out into the world. History does move in the right direction after all. These recurring passages prove jarring each time they appear. It is not merely the unconfirmed assertion that any leap to the international level automatically improves the situation. Rather, the apologetic tone clashes with his own thesis that across time and space human rights remained inseparable from their delivery mechanism: individual citizenship inside nation-states.

To imagine a hopeful future for human rights is no sin. But that faith must be reconciled with Weitz’s own account of how the rights of humanity entered the world through nation-states which remain both their chief guarantors and their principal violators today. To escape that conundrum would require radically rethinking the shape of national citizenship as it currently exists. It would necessitate dismantling the model of nation-states upon which our human rights are premised. Is there a way to do so?


The No-State Solution

At the end of my Jerusalem taxi ride, my driver made one more comment that stuck with me. “The reason human rights cannot exist,” he insisted, “is that the only thing that matters in the world is power.” His comment could be interpreted as a tacit condemnation of the Israeli military occupation. Or he might equally have had in mind the Palestinian regime that claims to speak in his name without the ability to protect him. But the problem of power also speaks directly to the paradoxical relationship between human rights and the nation-state. The power to grant and enforce rights remains embedded in the nation-states that routinely violate them. Therein lies a challenge for any attempts to re-imagine the future of rights.

Today the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ground-zero for much new thinking about rights and states. Despair over unending conflict has inspired a variety of schemes from across the political spectrum. They range from ideas of a single binational democratic state across the entire territory in question to a plan for Israeli unilateral annexation of large swathes of West Bank Palestine. Despite their differences, at root all of these scenarios propose to sever the traditional ties between human rights and national citizenship. They reject the conventional program of two nation-states for complex political alternatives. Would any of them work?

It is worth thinking through them with the example of my Jerusalem cabdriver. Trapped between Israel and Palestine, he possesses human rights without national citizenship. Two million other Israeli citizens of Palestinian Arab origin can vote in parliamentary elections and hold public office. To be sure, they face widespread discrimination and exclusion, but they can also lay claim to a tangible measure of power as part of the Israeli polity. Five million other West Bank and Gaza Palestinians at least in theory can select their own leaders, even if neither territory can be called democratic and any Palestinian self-governance remains severely compromised by Israeli control.

Remarkably, however, Israeli annexationists point to East Jerusalemites to suggest that it may be possible to substitute human rights for full citizenship on a larger scale should Israel pursue annexation. To preempt criticism, Israeli conservatives insist that they would respect the basic rights of Palestinians who fell under their sovereignty. Political self-determination might be ignored if essential basic needs were met. Yet without Israeli citizenship or Palestinian nationality, it is not hard to see how my driver could view this Zionist proffer of basic human rights as little more than a cynical proposal for domination in disguise.

What of the one-state solution? One-state proponents, often but not exclusively identified with the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions movement, propose to create combined Israeli/Palestinian democratic citizenship without the conventional nation-state. A multi-national state could in theory recognize national identities without privileging one over another. Earlier models of federation or minority rights might be retrieved for today’s post-national moment. Securing rights via full democratic citizenship would certainly improve things for East Jerusalemites. It would also recognize the country’s Arab population as fully equal partners in Israeli democracy. In theory every national community might possess the same human rights.

There is something attractive about this vision of post-sectarian, post-ethnic politics. If South Africa transcended its profound divisions to become a multi-racial democracy, why not Israel/Palestine? Yet that analogy falls apart when one examines the specific features of the conflict in question. A radical post-national reconfiguration would risk exposing Israel’s Jewish citizens to a ruinous degradation in their own status. Given the demography involved, a single democratic state in Israel/Palestine would simply devolve to an Arab-majority nation-state. That scenario would produce a mirror image of the current situation, in which the Jewish national minority would assume the vulnerable role as the lesser party. Such a wild swing in power would generate a new hazardous political imbalance and would likely be preceded by violence and civil war. It is precisely the kind of utopian thinking against which Weitz cautions us in our pursuit of global justice.

Moreover, a one-state scenario ignores how tightly nation and state have fused together in the respective identities of both Israelis and Palestinians. These two peoples have spent over a century building their respective national identities by defining themselves against one another. Since World War II, the prize of sovereignty has become the defining mark of each nation’s self-understanding. This should come as no surprise. All states are in some form nation-states, reliant on common national identities and external opponents. Prying apart nationhood and state while fusing two distinct national political entities into a single state framework promises a recipe for disaster. Alternatives to conventional national citizenship always leave people weaker, not stronger.

Where, then, lies the future? Until the nation-state is replaced with a new model of sovereign polity, human rights will remain tethered to national citizenship. If human rights rely on a world divided, then the most logical conclusion to draw from Weitz’s work is that Israel and Palestine must be decisively divided. East Jerusalem and its people must be fully integrated into either Israel or Palestine. A just, secure border must be built to disentangle the one and a half states that exist on top of the same land. A fully sovereign state must rise next door to Israel in Palestine. Israel must retreat from its legal policies that clearly delegitimize Arab citizens, and it must acknowledge their claims to a share in the evolving project of Israeli nationhood. These outcomes will not fully resolve the historical disputes or ongoing injustices. Some forms of exclusion are certain to remain. New problems will inevitably arise. Yet without the power of national citizenship, human rights will remain powerless in East Jerusalem and beyond.



Posted on 25 March 2021

JAMES LOEFFLER is Jay Berkowitz Professor of Jewish History at the University of Virginia, where he also directs the UVA Jewish Studies Program. His books include Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (Yale, 2018) and The Law of Strangers: Jewish Lawyers and International Law in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 2020).