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Kenneth Roth on Harvard fellowship controversy: “My biggest concern is for academic freedom”

Although the university has reversed its block against the former head of Human Rights Watch, concerns over freedom of speech and donor influence remain.

By Alona Ferber

In spring last year, mere weeks after announcing that he was stepping down as leader of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Kenneth Roth was offered a fellowship at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. The veteran rights advocate had spent nearly 30 years building one of the world’s foremost rights advocacy groups.

The then-66-year-old, who lives between his native New York and Geneva, accepted. He was working on a book, and the Carr Center, where he had taken part in events previously, seemed like a good place to do it. So Roth was “shocked”, he told me via video call on 16 January, when the fellowship was blocked by Douglas Elmendorf, the Kennedy School dean. The offer had been conditional on the dean’s approval, but Roth, and staff at the Center, he said, had understood this was a mere formality.

“It was early August when the Carr Center sheepishly called me up and said, ‘He [Elmendorf] vetoed the fellowship because of your criticism of Israel,’” Roth recalled. “And to be honest I was shocked, I mean I’ve encountered pushback by pro-Israel partisans many, many times – that was not unusual – but I never thought that Harvard University would succumb to that kind of censorship of academic freedom.”

The US magazine, the Nation, was the first to report the debacle, putting the story on its front cover in early January. “The godfather of human rights is not welcome at Harvard”, it wrote. Since then, the public backlash against the veto has been considerable: Harvard faculty and free speech advocates described it as an attack on academic freedom, and students called on Elmendorf to resign. The backlash was so considerable, in fact, that on 19 January – three days after my initial conversation with Roth – Elmendorf U-turned on the decision. 

“I now believe that I made an error in my decision not to appoint him as a fellow,” the dean said in a statement. “I am sorry that the decision inadvertently cast doubt on the mission of the school and our commitment to open debate in ways I had not intended and do not believe to be true.” 

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Roth, an outspoken activist with more than half a million followers on Twitter, went public about the retracted offer once the Nation’s story was published, rejecting claims that he and HRW are biased against Israel or anti-Semitic in their criticism. The Nation’s story claimed that Elmendorf may have blocked the fellowship because major donors to the Kennedy School are pro-Israel, including some who are Jewish and Israeli. A report in the Higher Education Chronicle cites an email from Mathias Risse, director of the Carr Center, quoting what the dean initially told staff about his decision: “The point wasn’t so much that Doug Elmendorf thought that [Roth was anti-Israel], but that ‘some people in the university’ who mattered to him did.”

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Yet in the statement released on 19 January, Elmendorf denied the role of donors in his original decision. “Donors do not affect our consideration of academic matters,” he wrote. “My decision on Mr Roth last summer was based on my evaluation of his potential contributions to the school.”

The enormous amount of media attention Roth’s case garnered clearly helped shift the dean’s evaluation. It is still unclear who the “some people in the university” who objected to Roth, which Risse referred to, were, or why Elmendorf vetoed the fellowship. In his statement, the dean cites confidentiality over “personnel matters” for not being more open and public about the thinking behind his original decision.  

When I first spoke to Roth, he said that if donors had any part in the decision-making, the blame lay with the Kennedy School leadership, not donors. “Donors always try to exert influence,” he said. “The role of a leader is to resist that influence when it’s inappropriate.” When I talked with Roth again, after the dean’s U-turn statement, he clarified that he doesn’t “know for sure that it was donors behind this”, but that this “remains the most likely explanation”. He said: “Elmendorf hasn’t dispelled these concerns, but he has been un-transparent.” Roth added that the dean has not contacted him directly since reversing the decision.

Roth, who is Jewish and whose father fled Nazi Germany in 1938, has been accused of anti-Israel bias and of turning HRW into “a platform for targeting Israel” throughout his career. In 2019, Israel deported the organisation’s Israel and Palestine representative, a US citizen called Omar Shakir, for supporting a campaign to boycott Israel. Roth rejects such claims as “ridiculous”. HRW applies “the exact same investigative standards to Israel and the exact same human rights rules to 100 other countries”.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the director of the US Jewish NGO Anti-Defamation League, described the Nation’s allegations of donor influence, which Roth has echoed, as “a textbook case of classic anti-Semitism”.

But Roth said he believes that “partisan defenders of the Israeli government are using the charge of anti-Semitism to try to silence criticism of Israel”. This “cheapens a very important concept of anti-Semitism, because if people begin to think of anti-Semitism as just a word thrown at critics of Israel, they are going to take this very serious problem less seriously”. The outcome, he said, is “long-term harm to Jewish people around the world”.

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A particularly controversial charge against Israel is that the country commits the crime of apartheid against Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. In 2021, HRW released a 200-page report laying out evidence for that accusation. Roth was quick to note that this was not intended as a historical analogy of South Africa, but an analysis of Israeli rights persecutions under two instruments of international law – the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the Convention on Apartheid.

HRW pursued the legal analysis of whether Israel is committing the crime of apartheid, Roth explained, because the “oppressive discrimination” of Palestinians had long been explained as a result of a temporary occupation. But now “the peace process is endless, it’s going nowhere. The Israeli government is moving backwards from any feasible two-state solution, and so we’ve just stopped accepting the excuse.” The new government, he said, “is making it harder and harder to defend Israeli persecution.”

Pro-Israeli opponents say this is nothing but anti-Semitism in a new guise. But Roth contended the apartheid argument is now “completely mainstream within the human rights community… any serious international group adopts it and a growing number of governments are adopting it”. Is using the apartheid paradigm counterproductive to improving Palestinian lives, given the controversy over its application? “There are certain people for whom the concept is anathema when applied to Israel,” Roth admitted, “but I think we were obliged to point out that reality.”

Though Roth has accepted the fellowship, no one should be under any illusions that he will rein in his criticism of Israeli rights violations. Of course, his case – with its happy ending – is unique. He has a massive public platform and can be outspoken with little fear of career-ending repercussions. Most academics, and certainly students, wouldn’t be able to gather as much momentum behind their cause.

“The fact that the Harvard Kennedy School reversed course in my case, given my ability to attract broad public attention, says nothing for what it would do to a scholar or student who faced a similar penalty for criticism of Israel, without the ability to attract comparable public attention,” said Roth. The rights veteran “would like to see a clear statement from Harvard that they uphold academic freedom, even when Israel is criticised, even when the critic is a student”.

“My biggest concern,” he added, “is for academic freedom.”

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