The Jewish Perspective in International Law

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Cambridge University Press




Let me start with two qualifications.

First, this question: is defining the term "Jewish" essential to an exploration of a Jewish vision of international law? The historian Jacob Talmon recalls an exchange between a Gentile and a Jew:

"I thought you were Jewish," said the Gentile.

"Well," answered the Jew, "by a biological standard I am Jewish, since both of my parents were Jewish, but it is 20 years since I sent a letter of resignation to the Jewish community."

"I see," answered the Gentile, "you mean that Jewishness is like a club."

The anecdote captures the evasive quality of Jewishness well; biological and yet like membership in a club. Clearly Talmon thought it was neither. I shall not try to define Jewishness. I feel comfortable thinking of it as a continuum between a strong religious or nationalist Jewish identity on the one hand, and rejection of or indifference to Jewishness on the other. In my paper, I explore neither pole of this continuum. Rather, I intend to focus on something I call a "post-enlightenment, secular Jewish vision" - a vision developed by Jewish individuals or different nationalities toward certain issues of international law. I would suggest that in the twentieth century, this vision has been informed by three important events: Jewish history, particularly the Holocaust; the rise of Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel; and the complex relationship between Israel and the international community following the Eichmann trial and the 1967 war. In taking this position, I reject an essentialist understanding of Jewishness. Rather, I suggest that Jewishness is socially constructed. I will discuss some ways in which Jewishness shaped a vision of international law, but I do not claim to hold the key to predicting how a Jewish person might interpret this or that legal construct.

My second qualification has two parts: (1) international law is not my field; and (2) this study is in a preliminary stage and admittedly suffers from overgeneralization and insufficient empirical support.

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