Harvard changed its mind on Ken Roth – not on allowing free speech about Palestine

Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Nadine Bahour & Shraddha Joshi

The Nation  /  January 24, 2023

 If even a highly respected establishment figure like Ken [Kenneth] Roth can be targeted for speaking out against Israel’s abuse of Palestinian human rights, where does that leave student organizers like us?

 CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—Over the past several weeks, Harvard University has been at the center of a national debate on bias, censorship, and academic freedom. As first reported in these pages, Dean Douglas Elmendorf of the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) blocked longtime director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Kenneth Roth from a fellowship at the Carr Center for Human Rights. Why? Alleged “anti-Israel bias.” The Kennedy School’s rejection was a part of broader backlash against HRW’s work documenting Israel’s abuses of Palestinian rights, invoking the all-too-familiar rhetoric used against any who dare criticize the Israeli government. For an institution supposedly committed to veritas—a motto displayed prominently across the Harvard campus—it seems the truth of Israeli apartheid is not welcome. While HKS claims to value difficult conversations and openly opines about topical issues such as the war in Ukraine, the unwillingness to engage the reality of Israeli apartheid reveals intellectual strong-arming against Palestinian narratives.

Following organizing efforts from alumni and students across Harvard—including a petition signed by over a thousand affiliates, bringing unwanted media attention—HKS has since changed course and offered Roth the fellowship. However, as organizers with the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC), we maintain that this reversal—though welcome—falls short. The conversation at hand is not just about one human rights icon or the legitimacy of HKS’s purported commitments to justice; rather, it is about all the cases of censorship and institutional racism that prevent students, faculty, and scholars from speaking openly on issues relevant to Palestine and Palestinians.

It is exciting that Roth will now be a part of Harvard’s academic community. However, without acknowledging the specific biases that led to his initial denial, the core issue remains: Harvard’s institutional bias in favor of Israel’s apartheid system and the hostile campus environment it creates for Palestinians and their allies. In responding to Harvard’s reversal, Roth himself emphasized the scale of the situation, calling on the university to take a stronger stance in support of academic freedom with regard to criticism of Israel—particularly for those who do not have the public profile he does. After all, if Roth—a highly respected establishment figure with a global platform—can be targeted this way for speaking out against Israel’s abuses of Palestinian human rights, where does that leave Palestinian and allied student organizers like us? What about the censorship that goes unnoticed, without garnering pages of signatories and international attention?

Regretfully, many of us are used to being let down by our academic home. Harvard—a self-proclaimed bastion of progressivism—has a poor track record when it comes to Israel. We members of the PSC have a tradition, before the start of every semester, of scrolling through the hundreds of courses and study groups offered across schools, looking for any title related to Palestine, in the hope of taking a class that centers Palestinians and their struggle for human rights. Yet each semester, without fail, our search inadvertently turns into a list of all the fellows, instructors, and government officials teaching about Israeli politics, economics, and “security” with no mention of Palestinians, the injustices they endure, or Israel’s well-documented crime of apartheid. For this reason, the recent controversy about Roth’s fellowship is yet another example to add to the list of Harvard’s attempts to censor Palestinian narratives. Roth’s treatment by HKS is sadly the rule for Palestinian rights activists, not the exception.

Harvard’s regular practice of stifling discussions about Palestine under the pretext of avoiding “controversy” has not stopped us from demanding change directly from our professors. In a Global Health and Health Policy class titled “Global Response to Disasters and Refugee Crisis,” professors designed a syllabus featuring a different case study each week, but Palestine, as expected, was omitted from the list. The nearly 6 million Palestinian refugees who have been displaced since 1948, making them the longest-standing refugee community in modern history, were sadly deemed not significant enough to dedicate even a portion of a 120-minute discussion to, let alone a full session. When we asked both professors why Palestine was excluded from the syllabus, they provided the same answer: It is a “controversial” topic and we want to respect all the students in class. For the Palestinian students asking the question, this expressed more than disrespect—it was an outright dismissal of our identity and lived experiences. Exactly whose views were the professors respecting?

In June 2022, when class had ended and after what seemed like endless unfruitful and frustrating conversations, a group of students drafted a detailed case for including Palestine in the curriculum, suggesting reading material modeled after the course structure, including recent groundbreaking reports from Human Rights WatchAmnesty International, and B’Tselem documenting Israel’s apartheid system. The professors responded by saying they would take our proposal into consideration, but that “there are thousands of potential cases to consider.” At the time of writing, the course is scheduled to begin next week, but the syllabus has yet to change.

Examples of Harvard’s censorship range from rejections of funding applications due to our “political” agendas to tacit threats of disciplinary action against acts of protest. It even extends to heavy policing of our events; hours before a recent talk on police and state violence, ironically, the administration notified us of “credible threats of violence,” and forced a number of restrictions for holding the event. While the university acts in the name of “student safety,” it is always the PSC and its audience—not the sources of such “threats”—who bear the consequences: restricted entry, cops at the perimeter, and ID checks.

As organizers, we ask not for sympathy against the pushback but rather for Harvard to stop silencing activism that calls into question its interests. Beyond all of the institutional forces stacked against Palestine advocacy at Harvard lies a truth that the administration can no longer ignore: Student-body opinion is shifting, and there is rising support for Palestinians’ right to freedom and dignity.

Last April, The Harvard Crimson published an editorial titled “In Support of Boycott, Divest, Sanctions and a Free Palestine,” decisively reversing decades of ambivalence on divestment, and citing the progress that advocates for Palestinian rights have achieved on campus. Many first-year students have joined PSC after our demonstration during convocation. Our boycott campaigns are ongoing despite pushback. Numbers at PSC events are consistently growing.

Harvard may try to silence critiques of Israel’s apartheid system now, but it is no match for the rising voices across campus who know that Roth’s reinstatement is just the first, bare-minimum step. Voices that unite under the values of anti-racism, collective freedom, and solidarity. Voices that will never stop demanding academic freedom, divestment, and accountability. Voices that will grow louder as we tell Harvard that we refuse to tolerate our university’s treating Palestine as the exception to human rights and dignity.

Nadine Bahour is a Palestinian from Ramallah; she graduated from Harvard College in 2022 and now works as a research assistant at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Shraddha Joshi is an Indian-American junior at Harvard. She is majoring in social studies with an emphasis on resistance and national identity in India and Palestine, and can be found on Instagram