If even Ken Roth can’t criticize Israel, no one can

Kenneth Roth (Anthony Wallace - AFP)

Branko Marcetic

Jacobin  /  Januari 13, 2023

Ken (Kenneth) Roth, the ex-head of Human Rights Watch, recently had his hiring at Harvard vetoed by administrators. Because when it comes to criticism of Israeli apartheid, even a notorious friend of the powerful like Roth can’t get a pass from the establishment.

In American politics, elections come and go, but some things stay the same: criticizing Israel remains the ultimate taboo.

As yet further evidence, take what recently happened to former Human Rights Watch head Kenneth Roth. After resigning from the organization last April, The Nation reported last week, Roth was offered a fellowship at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Someone with a nearly three-decade-long tenure leading a prestigious human rights organization joining an Ivy League human rights research center — what could possibly be controversial about that?

The fact that Roth and his organization had the temerity to treat Israel like every other repressive, rights-violating government they scrutinized, it turned out.

Roth was never explicitly told why, after a round of interviews and being sent a formal proposal to join, the Kennedy School’s dean Douglas Elmendorf decided not to approve his hiring, reportedly an unprecedented situation for the Carr Center. But Elmendorf did tell Kathryn Sikkink, a high-profile human rights professor associated with the center, who relayed to the Nation on the record that Elmendorf claimed Human Rights Watch had an “anti-Israel bias” and that Roth’s tweets about the country’s conduct were a problem.

As the author of The Nation report, Michael Massing, points out, the charges defy credulity. Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians is just one of the many, many instances of human rights abuses around the world that Human Rights Watch regularly documented under Roth, which included abuses by Palestinian groups. And its characterization of Israel’s abuses has not been materially different from other vaunted human rights organizations like Amnesty International, whose alumni the Kennedy School has never had a problem hosting before.

As for Roth’s Twitter feed, it’s presumably his repeated references to Israeli apartheid that drew the ire of whoever intimidated Elmendorf into taking this step. Yet Roth was, at different times, quoting everyone from the late archbishop Desmond Tutu to the UN special rapporteur for Palestinian human rights to Israel’s own former attorney general in using that word. Is one of the leading academic human rights institutions seriously accusing the UN and a former Israeli official of being biased against Israel?

As Katie Halper pointed out last year, that Israel is an apartheid state on account of its treatment of the Palestinians is a view that has been expressed by Amnesty, Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, and prominent Israeli political leaders, including a former education minister, a former environment minister, and even two former prime ministers, to name a few. Halper, by the way, was abruptly fired for daring to point this out.

Roth is just the latest to join the long list of people who have faced censure at the hands of prominent institutions for criticizing Israel. In recent times that list has included, besides Halper, Current Affairs editor Nathan Robinson, who was fired from The Guardian for an offhand joke critical of Israel, Marc Lamont Hill who was fired from CNN for uttering a slogan of Palestinian liberation, and a long list of academics like Steven Salaita who have had their careers ruined for criticizing Israel’s conduct.

What’s novel here are Roth’s impeccable establishment credentials. Roth was dubbed the “godfather” of the human rights movement in a praiseful New York Times tribute to his career last year, and he usually tends to voice conventional wisdom that fits comfortably within the narrow spectrum of Washington foreign policy establishment discourse. He has expressed the view that “the biggest threat to human rights is China” and that “the US government remains the most powerful proponent of human rights.”

He’s backed everything from the coup in Bolivia to regime change in Libya while keeping mum about the US-backed Saudi war on Yemen, and he and Human Rights Watch have been repeatedly criticized for their closeness to the US political and corporate establishment, right down to a well-documented revolving door for alumni of the US state department and even CIA. At one point, Roth signed an agreement with a Saudi real estate magnate agreeing to take his money as long as it wasn’t used for LGBTQ advocacy in the Middle East.

The point here isn’t to run down Roth. It is that, if someone with this record and connections can’t make reasonable, factually accurate criticisms of Israeli policy, then who can?

This isn’t so much a problem of a distorted political climate surrounding Israel as it is of power and money. As Massing points out, it’s the Kennedy School’s own revolving door between government officials, like former CIA director Michael Morell and disgraced former Iraq and Afghanistan commander David Petraeus, and its reliance on funding from pro-Israel donors — including Les Wexner, the oddly generous friend and benefactor of late child-sex-trafficker-for-the-elite Jeffrey Epstein — that ultimately made Roth persona non grata at the Carr Center.

Predictably, the usual, cynical voices are already declaring this piece of reporting an antisemitic “conspiracy theory.” It’s in the interests of even the most establishment-friendly liberals to push back on all of this, beyond the fact that such cynical abuse of that accusation empowers actual antisemites by cheapening it. Such accusations against the Left have been intensely weaponized both in the United States and, to an even more extreme extent, across the pond in the UK, where they have been used to delegitimize and even purge the Left from political power, including Jewish activists.

Liberal voices were silent or even joined in on this shameful display. But the Roth episode shows that it’s only a matter of time before that kind of thing creeps closer to the political center. And when that happens, it undermines everyone’s ability to have a rational debate about foreign policy and human rights.

Branko Marcetic is a Jacobin staff writer and the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden; he lives in Chicago, Illinois