Harvard dean is ‘paralyzed,’ so president needs to make him ‘reverse course’ — Ken Roth

Katryn Sikkink - professor of Human Rights at the Kennedy School (MW)

Philip Weiss

Mondoweiss  /  January 18, 2023

In an interview with the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Ken [Kenneth] Roth shares the details of how Harvard denied him a fellowship following donor pressure over Israel.

The Foundation for Middle East Peace had a podcast last week with Ken Roth, who lost out on a fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School because he had supervised Human Rights Watch’s report accusing Israel of apartheid.

There were several interesting comments/themes:

–HRW took so long to declare apartheid in Palestine (2021) because it was clinging to the idea of a two-state solution that would give Palestinians freedom, even after that idea had lost all credibility. HRW accepted that the “oppression” was therefore “temporary,” Roth said. (What a fig leaf!)

–Harvard’s Kennedy School has long demonstrated bias against Palestinian human rights. Steve Walt lost any chance of becoming dean of the school when he and John Mearsheimer published their groundbreaking 2006 paper on The Israel Lobby, said Walt’s colleague Kathryn Sikkink. And the school gives fellowships to Israeli government officials, rarely Palestinians.

–Kennedy School dean Douglas Elmendorf is “paralyzed” by the terrible publicity of his decision, Roth said. Harvard’s president needs to step in and compel Elmendorf to “reverse course” because the case is causing such damage to Harvard’s reputation.

–The dean’s decision was plainly made because of donor pressure from a Jewish donor or two, but there has been zero transparency about this and the press may shy away from the story because of fears of discussing Jewish influence.

Peter Beinart led the discussion, and Sikkink, a professor of human rights at the Kennedy School, also participated.

Here are the excerpts:

Roth, who had left the directorship of Human Rights Watch last spring, related that Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf had telegraphed his opposition to his appointment at the end of a friendly video meeting last July when he asked “a weird question. Do you have any enemies?” Well of course Roth had enemies: “I have tons of enemies, that’s what I do.” He went down a list of countries, and sensing the question was about Israel, mentioned Israel last. “That turned out to be the kiss of death.” He later got a “sheepish” call from the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School, saying “The dean had vetoed my fellowship because of my criticisms of Israel.”

Roth pointed out that the Kennedy School’s pro-Israel bias is in plain sight. It has ten fellowships for Israeli government officials every year. “On the flip side they have occasionally had a Palestinian.”

Sikkink had helped select Roth for the fellowship and said she had no “clue that it would be controversial” until she got a message from the dean seeking a meeting last July to discuss the appointment with the leaders of the Carr Center. “What are we going to talk about? At that point someone said to me, It could be Israel. I said, Really, why? My initial reaction was disbelief… At that point I actually admit I first read the [2021 Human Rights Watch] report on Israel and apartheid. So little bells started going off in my head.”

Sikkink went to the meeting with a copy of the international apartheid convention and pointed out the ways that Israeli practices meet the definition. But Elmendorf and an aide informed the Carr Center that the fellowship had been rejected because “they believed that Human Rights Watch and therefore Ken Roth had an anti-Israel bias. .. Even though I was a little prepared, I was still kind of deeply shocked by it, because it was just was one of those things that was so obviously false.”

Sikkink said this is not the first time the Kennedy School acted with such bias. When Stephen Walt, then the school’s academic dean, co-authored the “Israel lobby” paper in 2006, it appeared in both the London Review of Books and a Harvard website. Harvard leadership asked that Harvard’s logo be removed from the paper, and that Walt not use his title, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs, when speaking about the paper, because the Belfers are Israel supporters. “Which is absurd.”

For example, Steve was mentioned as possibility for a future dean of the Kennedy school. And I think it’s generally acknowledged that that was probably the point where he was no longer a credible candidate for being dean of the Kennedy School…

It was very badly handled then and you’d think they would have learned a thing or two. But now they’re handling a similar situation equally poorly, they’re just tone-deaf.”

Roth also slammed the Kennedy School’s response to his case.

“I’ve actually been surprised by how poor the Kennedy School’s public relations strategy has been. It’s basically been Elmendorf burying his head in the sand and hoping that the storm passes. That is such an unviable approach to this. [Referring to Boston Globe lead editorial and front page article on the matter] This is Harvard’s hometown paper. It is not sustainable in the face of that kind of public pressure to just refuse to comment…It’s not my privacy they need to protect, they just don’t want to defend what they did…

My sense of [Elmendorf] is he seems paralyzed and I am not sure that he is capable at this point of resolving this. It probably is going to take intervention from the Harvard president. And that would be appropriate, because this is Harvard’s credibility that is at stake. While we don’t know for sure, the signal being sent is that major donors have enough clout at Harvard to compromise intellectual independence, and that’s just a terrible message… It suggests to young scholars that if you criticize Israel this could be a career killing move. It’s not affecting my future, but it’s a terrible signal to send to other people who are in a much more vulnerable position… The amount of publicity this is getting is good as a way of pressuring Harvard but bad if they don’t reverse course because it just magnifies the message.

Roth says that the Chronicle on Higher Education reported of Elmendorf’s decision, that “people who mattered to him” objected to the appointment. “I always assumed he didn’t have deep personal feelings about Israel,” Roth says, and the CHE article confirmed that. “It’s clear that he actually did consult with people… Who are those people?”

All this righteousness about accountability/transparency from public intellectuals; and Roth is now on the warpath, as he should be. Yet the story did not come out for six months, thanks to the diligence of Michael Massing at the Nation!

Roth said that Massing was wrong to suggest that Harvard’s dean may have acted out of deference to the national security community. “I don’t find that credible. Human Rights Watch deals with national security types all the time and we are completely seen as credible interlocutors.” Roth said he’d spoken to Jake Sullivan and Antony Blinken in the last year, and Blinken actually wrote him a note when he left his job. “There is no way that the national security institutions have the kind of animosity that they would try and block me. I don’t think that was the rationale here… The only credible explanation left.. is that this was [pro-Israel] donor pressure in some form.” (Yes, this is a story about the Israel lobby; the press needs to be direct and not evasive.)

The FMEP panel then went round and round about what evidence exists for the allegation of donor interference. When really– it’s obvious. And Israel lobbyists have even bragged about their influence (like Alan Dershowitz, former Harvard professor).

Roth explained that at Human Rights Watch, governments fought him all the time, but when his donors complained, “90 percent of the time, it’s Israel. Every once in a while it’s another country. Ethiopia came up recently. But it’s mostly Israel. I think that’s a product of the fact that there are many progressive Jews who are donors.”

There are many progressive Jews who are donors. Well-put. Though Roth claimed these donors had no influence over HRW’s findings.

Beinart asked, why’d it take so long for Human Rights Watch to detect apartheid in Palestine “when Palestinians had been saying this for so long?” HRW called that 2021 report “A Threshold Crossed,” but look at the history– ethnic cleansing in 1948-49, martial law, capture of the territories in ’67 followed by more ethnic cleansing. “When was [the country] not in this situation of Jewish legal domination and repression?”


There was no question that we were documenting systematic oppression over the years. The facile answer, but not one you could completely dismiss, was that this is a temporary problem, there is a peace process. When there’s peace, these problems will go away. That [view] had credibility for a while . It probably stopped having credibility before we acted.

We recognized ultimately that this is not an acceptable answer any more. The peace process is moribund everything is moving against the possibility of having a Palestinian state. So We have to assess this oppression under existing law and not just hope that it goes away with a peace process. So that’s what we did.

OK let’s assume one or more Jewish donors acted, Beinart said, and the press publishes a story saying Elmendorf was pressured by Joe Schmo who is Jewish. “That gets accused of playing into antisemitic tropes of malevolent Jewish power. But actually it is a story about the malevolent power of one Jewish person or maybe two.”

Let’s hope that this scandal brings daylight to the reality: liberal establishment institutions that deal with Middle East policy are in thrall to pro-Israel donors. And that includes the Democratic Party.

P.S. Some other details. Sikkink said she had argued to Elmendorf that “Human Right Watch is not an outlier.” Scholars had coded three organizations on how critical they were of Israeli human rights, and those scholars put Human Rights Watch in between the State Department– milder– and Amnesty International — harsher. She says Elmendorf said he read her digest of the coding and “he wasn’t going to change his position.” She also sent him a link to a Beinart article saying the antisemitism charge was being used to stifle criticism of Israel, and Elmendorf did not respond. Beinart interjected, “I haven’t convinced many of my own relatives.”

Sikkink then resigned her position as member of an executive leadership team at the Kennedy School. “I said, I’m the member of your leadership team who has expertise on human rights. I shared that with you and it has been ignored.”

Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-2006