Harvard Kennedy School condemned for denying fellowship to Israel critic

Kenneth Roth said Harvard's move was a reflection of 'how utterly afraid the Kennedy School has become of any criticism of Israel' (Angela Weiss - AFP)

Chris McGreal

The Guardian  /  January 8, 2023

 ACLU and Pen America back former Human Rights Watch chief Kenneth Roth and say decision ‘raises serious questions’.

Leading civil rights organisations have condemned Harvard Kennedy School’s denial of a position to the former head of Human Rights Watch over the organisation’s criticism of Israel.

The American Civil Liberties Union called the refusal of a fellowship to Kenneth Roth “profoundly troubling”. PEN America, which advocates for freedom of expression, said the move “raises serious questions” about one of the US’s leading schools of government. Roth also received backing from other human rights activists.

But the Kennedy School found support from organisations that have been highly critical of Roth and HRW, particularly over the group’s report two years ago that accused Israel of practising a form of race-based apartheid in the Palestinian occupied territories.

The Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy offered Roth a position as a senior fellow shortly after he retired as director of HRW in April after 29 years. But the school’s dean, Douglas Elmendorf, allegedly vetoed the move.

A professor of human rights policy at the Kennedy School, Kathryn Sikkink, told The Nation that Elmendorf said to her that Roth would not be permitted to take up the position because HRW has an “anti-Israel bias” and its former director had written tweets critical of Israel.

Roth told the Guardian that Harvard’s move was a reflection of “how utterly afraid the Kennedy School has become of any criticism of Israel” under pressure from donors and influential supporters within the school of Israel’s rightwing government.

The director of the ACLU, Anthony Romero, urged the Kennedy School “to reverse its decision”.

“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, he said. “Scholars and fellows have to be judged on their merits, not whether they please powerful political interests.”

PEN America also backed Roth.

“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,” the group said. “There is no suggestion that Roth’s criticisms of Israel are in any way based on racial or religious animus.

“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.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which promotes free speech on college campuses, wrote to Elmendorf saying that the Kennedy School “undermines its laudable commitment to intellectual diversity and free inquiry when it rescinds a fellowship offer based on the candidate’s viewpoint or speech”.

But Harvard found support from organisations that have been highly critical of Roth and HRW over the group’s reports on Israel.

NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based organisation that campaigns against humanitarian groups critical of Israeli government policies, accused HRW under Ross’s leadership of seeking to “delegitimize Israel”.

“The dean at Harvard was not fooled by the moral facade granted to Roth and HRW. He recognized Roth’s central contributions to legitimizing antisemitism,” NGO Monitor’s president, Gerald Steinberg, said.

UN Watch, a pro-Israel lobby group, described the Kennedy School’s move as “good news”.

“Ken Roth had a pathological obsession with singling out Israel for differential and discriminatory treatment, disproportionately to shocking degrees, with the apparent aim to portray the Jewish state in a manner that would evoke repulsion and disgust,” it said.

Roth has long been the target of a personalised campaign of abuse, including charges of antisemitism, even though his father was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. He said HRW faced similar attacks on its motives when it released its report titled A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution, even though leading Israeli politicians have also “warned that the occupation has become a form apartheid”.

“The irony is that when we issued the report, the Israeli government was at a loss to find anything wrong with it. They fell back on the usual arguments of, ‘you must be antisemitic’. I take that as a … victory because if all they can do is name call, they have nothing substantive to say,” he said.

The Kennedy School did not respond to requests for comment.

Chris McGreal writes for Guardian US and is a former Guardian correspondent in Washington, Johannesburg and Jerusalem

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Harvard blocks role for former Human Rights Watch head over Israel criticism

Chris McGreal

The Guardian  /  January 6, 2023

Kennedy School allegedly bowed to donors unhappy with organisation accusing Israel of apartheid in occupied territories.

The dean of one the US’s leading schools of government blocked a position for the former head of Human Rights Watch (HRW) over his organisation’s criticism of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

The Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy offered Kenneth Roth a position as a senior fellow shortly after he retired as director of HRW in April after 29 years. Roth is highly regarded within the human rights community for the part his organisation played in advances such as the creation of the international criminal court and the prosecution of major human rights abusers.

The Harvard Kennedy School dean, Douglas Elmendorf, allegedly bowed to pressure, according to the Nation, which revealed the move, at a time when major donors and prominent Jewish organisations were particularly unhappy that HRW has accused Israel of practicing a form of apartheid in the occupied territories.

Roth told The Guardian that his first inkling that something was wrong came in a video conference call to introduce himself to Elmendorf.

“We 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. 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?” said Roth.

The former HRW director said Elmendorf nonetheless gave no indication that the fellowship was in jeopardy. However, the Nation reported that two weeks later the dean told Kathryn Sikkink, a professor of human rights policy at the Kennedy School, that Roth would not be permitted to take up the position because HRW has an “anti-Israel bias” and its former director had written tweets critical of Israel.

Roth told The Guardian he now believes Elmendorf bowed to pressure from donors who are strong supporters of Israel.

“I falsely assumed that the dean of the Kennedy School values academic freedom. Maybe I’m naive 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 centre does,” he said.

Kennedy School alumni include more former heads of state or government than any similar institution, as well as cabinet ministers, top military officials and parliamentarians.

The Nation noted the “dominant presence of the US national security community and its close ally Israel” at the Kennedy School. These include people in senior positions drawn from weapons manufacturers, the Pentagon and major corporations.

In 2017, Elmendorf bowed to objections from serving and former top CIA officials and withdrew a visiting fellowship offered to Chelsea Manning after her release from prison for violating the Espionage Act by giving WikiLeaks a stash of secret military and diplomatic documents.

The school has received tens of millions of dollars from supporters of Israel such as the billionaire Les Wexner, who, the Nation said, was instrumental in bringing members of Israel’s military and intelligence services to study there.

Another major 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. Belfer is a member of the dean’s executive board of major donors who advise Elmendorf.

The spurning of Roth is part of a broader assault on human rights groups over their criticisms of Israeli policies, which have escalated in recent years as increasingly right-wing governments tighten the grip on the occupied territories and the prospect of an independent Palestinian state has receded.

When Amnesty International released a report last year, making the case that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians amounts to apartheid under international laws, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued a statement accusing Amnesty of seeking to “demonize and delegitimize the Jewish and democratic state of Israel”, a formulation frequently used to imply antisemitism.

Roth said HRW faced similar attacks on its motives when it released its report, A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution, even though leading Israeli politicians, including two former prime ministers, have also said “it is apartheid”.

Roth said that critics accuse HRW of “singling out” Israel, a charge also frequently levelled against the United Nations, news organisations and other 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. We are fair and objective, but we are critical, because the Israeli government deserves to be criticised. It is becoming increasingly repressive, and as we found in the occupied territories it is committing the crime against humanity of apartheid,” he said.

Other major universities have also snubbed critics of Israel including the board of the City University of New York, which blocked an award to the award-winning Jewish playwright Tony Kushner after he was accused of being anti-Israel.

Harvard Kennedy School has been approached for comment.

Chris McGreal writes for Guardian US and is a former Guardian correspondent in Washington, Johannesburg and Jerusalem