Promise and Peril: Reflections on Jewish International Legal Biography

Émigré Lawyers and International Law, eds. Annette Weinke and Leora Bilsky, Forthcoming

15 Pages Posted: 25 Sep 2019 Last revised: 2 Oct 2020

See all articles by James Loeffler

James Loeffler

University of Virginia - Corcoran Department of History

Date Written: September 16, 2019


The burgeoning field of Jewish legal biography has produced a profusion of new studies of Jewish lawyers, lawyering, and legal thought in the international arena. This biographicalization of legal history promises obvious rewards. Biography can unlock deeper chains of influence and forgotten acts of invention. It possesses the moral potential to restore lives displaced or disrupted by the Holocaust to their rightful places in the history of the law and law’s memory. In our own fraught moment of historical reckoning, the European Jewish experience beckons as a rich historical resource with which to rethink transnational activism and individual agency, migration and statelessness, antisemitism and fascism. Yet biography is never a neutral art. The very choice of which life to deem worthy of attention depends on an often implicit set of assumptions about relevance and uniqueness that risk historical essentialism.

In this chapter, I explore these challenges by discussing the specter of “interest” in the writing of Jewish legal biography, past and present. I take “interest” in a variety of senses: the reasons why so many Jews gravitated in disproportionate numbers to international law as a profession; the biographer’s underlying motivation for choosing which specific Jewish legal lives to chronicle; and international law’s own image of itself as a neutral sphere of human action transcending political interests. Reviewing assorted key moments in the past century of attempts at Jewish legal biography, I posit that two different approaches have governed these biographical efforts vis-à-vis the concept of interest: a liberal cosmopolitan meta-narrative that frames international Jewish lawyering as a form of legalist anti-politics; and a liberal nationalist meta-narrative that hails Jewish politics as the proper starting point for a necessary legal reordering of the world. As we shall see, the links and tensions between these different kinds of interest are crucial to questions of method and meaning. They come together in the challenge at the root of all contemporary legal biography: How do we relate the one to the many without flattening individual lives into essentialist fables in the process?

Keywords: legal history, legal biography, religion, international law, antisemitism, lawyering, historical method

Suggested Citation

Loeffler, James, Promise and Peril: Reflections on Jewish International Legal Biography (September 16, 2019). Émigré Lawyers and International Law, eds. Annette Weinke and Leora Bilsky, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

James Loeffler (Contact Author)

University of Virginia - Corcoran Department of History ( email )

236 Nau Hall
Charlottesville, VA 22904
United States
6468727105 (Phone)


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