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Kenneth Roth's Harvard saga is a victory over Israel's academic bullying

Harvard’s move to reverse its decision to deny a fellowship to the former head of Human Rights Watch is a defeat for those who attempt to stifle speech critical of Israel
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth poses during a interview with AFP in Geneva on 11 January 2022 (AFP)

Kenneth Roth headed Human Rights Watch (HRW) for the past three decades.

During that time, he spearheaded an organisational expansion that saw its budget and staff increase more than tenfold. It drove much of the world’s human rights agenda. It was an equal opportunity critic, sparing no country from its penetrating gaze.

Ex-HRW chief Kenneth Roth speaks to MEE after being denied Harvard fellowship
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But as with many political debates, Israel was the most fraught issue of all. Not because the issues were confused or opaque - Israel’s gross violations of international law have been clear for decades - but because the pro-Israel lobby groups have done their level best to turn every finding and every criticism into an existential battle.

The most controversial HRW finding in the eyes of its critics was the 2021 report "A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution". 

Along with similar reports from Amnesty International (2022) and the leading Israeli human rights NGO, B’Tselem (2021), it found that Israel was an apartheid regime “from the river to the sea”. These reports were especially notable because, prior to their publication, human rights groups generally distinguished between the Israeli occupation and Israel proper (within the Green Line).

The occupation was readily denounced as system of apartheid and a violation of international law, while Israel itself was viewed by many as a democracy.

Lifelong commitment

These three groundbreaking documents blew the lid off that consensus. They, for the first time, viewed Israel-Palestine as a single entity, rather than two separate ones. Thus, the Israeli occupation became, not an anomaly, but integral to the state itself: not something that one could separate into Good Israel and Bad Occupation.

Though these reports were hailed around the world for their acute analysis of the Israel-Palestine reality, the pro- Israel groups were incensed. Roth and HRW were accused of perpetrating a "blood libel" against the Jewish people.

Roth credits his father, a Jew who barely escaped Hitler’s Germany, to his lifelong commitment to human rights

Though Roth's father was a Jew who barely escaped Hitler’s Germany as a 12-year-old boy in 1938, that didn’t stop the slurs. In fact, Roth himself credits his father’s experience to his lifelong commitment to human rights.

Leading pro-Israel groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee denounced Amnesty's report claiming it 'fuels antisemites". One critic, Bar-Ilan University's Professor Gerald Steinberg, even accused Roth of an "immoral anti-Israel obsession”. Steinberg tallied 400 anti-Israel tweets, which he added to his bill of Roth's indictment.

In the months following Roth's 2022 retirement from HRW, Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy began a process of reviewing candidates for a senior human rights fellowship awarded to distinguished figures in the field.

Roth stood out, both for his reputation as a human rights advocate and also due to his recent retirement. The centre extended him an invitation and he accepted. The only remaining formality was a sign-off from the dean of the Kennedy School, of which Carr is a constituent academic unit.

Academic freedom

Normally, these are pro forma bureaucratic niceties. Deans virtually never second-guess faculty in such decisions.

This case, however, was different. As I noted earlier, apparently Roth had angered not only pro-Israel groups, but their donors, some of whom were also major donors to the Kennedy School. Dean Douglas Elmendorf informed the Carr Center that Roth’s fellowship would not be approved. 

While academics teach about politics, it is a virtual taboo to probe an academic candidate about their personal politics. It may not be illegal, but it is a violation of academic protocol.

Even worse, Elmendorf seemed most disturbed not by any substantive position by HRW, but rather by Roth’s tweets, some of which were critical of Israel. By the way, Roth's tweets were also critical of many other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and others.

Israeli soldiers arrest an elderly Palestinian man taking part in a demonstration against settlements, near Yatta village, south of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, on 15 January 2021 (AFP)
Israeli soldiers arrest an elderly Palestinian man taking part in a demonstration against settlements, near Yatta village, south of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, on 15 January 2021 (AFP)

At that point, Roth knew there were likely other factors influencing the decision to veto his fellowship. 

He wrote in the Guardian that the Harvard imbroglio "leaves the impression major donors [to American universities] might use their contributions to block criticism of certain topics, in violation of academic freedom. Or even that university administrators might anticipate possible donor objections to a faculty member’s views before anyone has to say anything."

About his own experience and Elmendorfs intervention, he wrote: “As best we can tell, donor reaction was his concern … Did Elmendorf consult with these donors or assume that they would object to my appointment? We don’t know. But that is the only plausible explanation that I have heard for his decision."

Human rights win, money loses

Ordinarily, these stories end badly. Justice fails and the powerful win. Not in this case.

Harvard students and faculty rallied against Elmendorf’s decision, demanding it be rescinded and even called for the dean’s resignation, creating a Twitter handle, #deanout. Global media also took up the story.

After this groundswell of opposition, Elmendorf saw no other option than to reverse his decision. He did so in a somewhat contradictory statement, which the New York Times reported:

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“'Donors do not affect our consideration of academic matters," he said in the statement. He did not specify why he had rejected Roth’s fellowship except to say that it was "based on my evaluation of his potential contributions to the school". "As for Roth," Elmendorf said, "I hope that our community will be able to benefit from his deep experience in a wide range of human rights issues."

Apparently, Elmendorf determined at one point that Roth wouldn’t make a serious "contribution to the school". But after the furore, he determined the school would “benefit from his deep experience”.

How’s that for a whipsaw U-turn?

Roth, for his part, was gracious, but would not let the matter rest. He meant to hold Elmendorf’s feet to the fire so that he would learn a lesson from his mistake. “Dean Elmendorf … has not said anything about the people 'who matter to him' [ie donors] whom he said were behind his original veto decision," Roth wrote in a statement on Twitter. "Full transparency is key to ensuring that such influence is not exerted in other cases.”

Happily, this was a win for human rights and academic freedom, and a defeat for those who attempt to stifle speech critical of Israel. May there be many more.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war, A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield) Photo of RS by: (Erika Schultz/Seattle Times)
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