Previously published at Common Dreams
Advocacy groups on Friday denounced a decision by a Harvard dean to deny a research fellowship to former longtime Human Rights Watch head Kenneth Roth, allegedly over the organization’s criticism of Israeli apartheid and other crimes in Palestine.
For 29 years, Roth headed Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of a growing number of international and Israeli mainstream human rights advocates—including Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic—to call Israel’s globally condemned policies and actions against Palestinians apartheid.
After stepping down from his HRW job last April, Roth was offered a position as a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.
“We thought he would be a terrific fellow,” Kathryn Sikkink, a professor of human rights policy at the Kennedy School, told The Nation.
In a statement reacting to Harvard’s decision, ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero said that “few people have done more to advance human rights than Kenneth Roth. If Harvard’s decision was based on HRW’s advocacy under Ken’s leadership, this is profoundly troubling—from both a human rights and an academic freedom standpoint.”
“Scholars and fellows have to be judged on their merits, not whether they please powerful political interests,” Romero added. “We urge Harvard to reverse its decision.”
In an interview with The Guardian, Roth recounted that he and Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf “had a perfectly pleasant chat for about half an hour or so, but toward the end he asked the question, ‘Do you have any enemies?’ And I said: ‘I’ve got many. That’s a hazard of the trade.'”
“But what he was clearly driving at was Israel,” said Roth, who is Jewish. “He didn’t want to hear about how I’ve been sanctioned by China, sanctioned by Russia, or attacked by Rwanda or Saudi Arabia. He wanted to know: what was my position on Israel?”
Roth believes Elmendorf bowed to pressure from staunchly Zionist donors to the Kennedy School and withdrew his fellowship offer.
“I falsely assumed that the dean of the Kennedy School values academic freedom,” he said. “Maybe I’m naïve in retrospect, but I assume that criticism of Israel, as criticism of any other government, is just par for the course. That’s what a leading foreign policy center does.”
Free expression advocate PEN America led criticism of Harvard’s move.
“Over his decadeslong career as a leading global human rights advocate, Ken Roth has excoriated many dozens of governments for their abuses; this goes with the territory of building and leading a human rights organization credited with having advanced respect for rights and freedoms the world over,” the group said in a statement. “It is the role of a human rights defender to call out governments harshly, to take positions that are unpopular in certain quarters, and to antagonize those who hold power and authority.”
“There is no suggestion that Roth’s criticisms of Israel are in any way based on racial or religious animus,” the group added. “Withholding Roth’s participation in a human rights program due to his own staunch critiques of human rights abuses by governments worldwide raises serious questions about the credibility of the Harvard program itself.”
Writing for The Nation, Michael Massing contrasted Roth’s treatment by Harvard with that of former Kennedy School nonresident senior fellow Michael Morrell, an ex-acting director of the CIA who advised then-President George W. Bush during the early years of the War on Terror and supported U.S. torture and drone strikes that killed at least hundreds of civilians.
Facing pressure from CIA officials, Elmendorf in 2017 also rescinded a visiting fellowship offer to Chelsea Manning—who blew the whistle on U.S. war crimes, including torture—by leaking classified documents, after she was released from prison.
Massing wrote that Harvard’s disparate treatment of Morrell, Manning, and Roth suggests a “fundamental reality about the Kennedy School: the dominant presence of the U.S. national security community and its close ally Israel.”
That presence includes people from the military-industrial complex, including former Pentagon officials and executives from weapons manufacturers, whose policies and products have killed hundreds of thousands of people in numerous countries during the 21st century alone.
The Kennedy School has also received tens of millions of dollars from Israel supporters including billionaire Les Wexner, who, asMassingnoted, played a key role in bringing members of Israel’s military and intelligence services to study at the school.
Another major Kennedy School donor, Robert Belfer, “is also closely involved with the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, which have sought to discredit human rights groups over their criticism of Israel,” wrote The Guardian‘s Chris McGreal. “Belfer is a member of the dean’s executive board of major donors who advise Elmendorf.”
As recognition and condemnation of Israeli crimes including occupation, colonization, torture, extrajudicial killing, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid grow around the world, so too does the backlash from U.S. supporters in the form of laws banning boycotts of Israel and firing or refusing to hire academics, journalists, and others for speaking out against the oppression of Palestinians.
“Over the past 18 months, America’s most prominent Jewish organizations have done something extraordinary. They have accused the world’s leading human rights organizations of promoting hatred of Jews,” wrote columnist Peter Beinart in an August 2022 New York Times opinion piece.
While “for most of the 20th century, leading American Jewish organizations argued that the struggle against antisemitism and the struggle for universal human rights were intertwined,” Beinart noted, there was “an ideological transformation” beginning with Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, Egyptian Sinai, and Syria’s Golan Heights in 1967.
The result—”largely as a result of lobbying by Jewish organizations,” wrote Beinart—has been an attempt to redefine antisemitism to include legitimate criticism of Israel.
In a terrible irony, the campaign against “antisemitism,” as waged by influential Jewish groups and the U.S. government, has become a threat to freedom. It is wielded as a weapon against the world’s most respected human rights organizations and a shield for some of the world’s most repressive regimes. We need a different struggle against antisemitism. It should pursue Jewish equality, not Jewish supremacy, and embed the cause of Jewish rights in a movement for the human rights of all. In its effort to defend the indefensible in Israel, the American Jewish establishment has abandoned these principles.
Roth rejected allegations that HRW singles out Israel for criticism, a common charge by Israel supporters against human rights groups.
“Israel is one of 100 countries that we cover. And even within the Israeli Palestinian context, we deal with Hamas, we deal with the Palestinian Authority, we deal with Hezbollah,” he told The Guardian. “We are fair and objective, but we are critical, because the Israeli government deserves to be criticized. It is becoming increasingly repressive, and as we found in the occupied territories it is committing the crime against humanity of apartheid.”