[Kenneth Roth] Silencing dissent

Kenneth Roth - the former Human Rights Watch director (HRW)

Rami G. Khouri & Sara Roy 

LRB Blog  /  January 18, 2023

The Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) decided last year not to offer a fellowship to Kenneth Roth, the former head of Human Rights Watch (HRW). It has recently emerged that he was denied the fellowship because of his and HRW’s criticism of Israel. Roth himself and others have already addressed many of the issues raised by the HKS decision not to appoint him: threats to academic freedom; double standards when it comes to criticism of Israel; and the real or presumed role of donor pressure in determining what can and cannot be discussed in an academic setting.

We are a Palestinian and an American Jew who have been associated with Harvard University for several decades and also know first-hand the political and academic environments in the Middle East and the United States.

Silencing or limiting dissent at a university, on any issue, frays the integrity of the institution and can only hurt it and all who are associated with it. Allowing one side in a political debate or national confrontation to dominate the public sphere carries certain risks. It could move the university closer to the polarising extremes which now dominate more and more of the American and global media, or it could make the intellectual environment simplistic and shallow.

Palestinian voices and their supporters have made significant contributions to public discussion in the US: in Congress, the media, places of worship and universities. This has enriched awareness of all perspectives in the Palestine/Israel crisis, informing how we might move towards a more permanent, peaceful coexistence.

The HKS decision has the unintended effect of singling out Jews as a group. Why do Israel and, by extension, the Jewish people need to be protected from criticism? Isn’t this another way of ‘failing to treat Jews collectively as normal human beings’, as Brian Klug has put it, ‘with dire ramifications for others’? The affirming of Jewish otherness in this way sets Jews apart yet again.

The failure to engage in a critical analysis of Israeli policies presents a triple threat: to Palestinians who are silenced, to Jews who are exceptionalized, and to the integrity of the university.

The Kennedy School’s decision is not representative of Harvard as a whole (or indeed of everyone at the HKS). There have been many important changes, hard fought and ongoing, on campus over the last two decades. The space for a more thoughtful discourse on Israel and Palestine has widened and deepened considerably, as it has at many institutions of learning and research, in the media and in the public domain. While the silencing of dissent is clearly still a problem, it is no longer axiomatic or as easily tolerated as it once was.

Over time, many venues have been established and institutionalised at Harvard not for the advocacy of one political position over another, but for critical and civil discussion from more than one (dominant) perspective. They include the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, the Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs, the Harvard Divinity School, the Harvard School of Public Health and the Harvard Crimson newspaper, among others. While discussion of Israel/Palestine often remains difficult and challenging, it has grown less contentious and more judicious.

This can only benefit everyone, while upholding the mission of any academic institution to promote (rather than restrict) pluralism, inclusion, equality and the quest for historical fact. We would like to see the Harvard Kennedy School respond to the controversy it has sparked by leading the struggle to reaffirm these values in practice, by shielding academia from partisans and extremists, rather than perpetuating an unbalanced debate on a critical global issue.

Rami G. Khouri is co-director of global engagement at the American University of Beirut and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative

Sara Roy is based at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard; the third edition of The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-development was published in 2016