‘Many careers are destroyed by those seeking to silence any criticism of Israel’s brutality’: Ken Roth’s case is just the tip of iceberg

Michael Arria

Mondoweiss  /  January 26, 2023

Harvard reversed its Ken Roth decisions, but the academic careers of Israel critics are still being consistently threatened. The latest case is Dr. Lara Sheehi at George Washington University.

Last week the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) announced that it would be offering a fellowship to former Human Rights Watch (HRW) executive director Kenneth Roth. The move was a reversal of an earlier decision by Dean Douglas Elmendorf, who had originally vetoed Roth’s appointment.

Elmendorf’s denial of the fellowship began receiving widespread criticism after The Nation published an article by Michael Massing about the situation. According to a HKS professor Elmendorf admitted that the fellowship was nixed over Roth’s “anti-Israel” bias. Massing’s article details HKS’s longstanding connections to the military-industrial complex and its many pro-Israel donors. In April 2021, when Roth was still at HRW, the organization published a report documenting some of Israel’s human rights abuses and accusing the country of apartheid.

In an email to the school community Elmendorf insisted that Roth’s views nor the school’s donors had anything to do with his original decision. However, he offered few details as to why the fellowship was originally denied.

Elmendorf said he decided to reverse course after “consulting with faculty members,” but the Massing piece generated interest from the mainstream media and backlash from human rights organizations. It’s difficult to imagine Roth eventually being offered the position if the fiasco hadn’t received much attention.

Many celebrated HKS’s U-turn while also pointing out that the Roth case should be understood as an outlier. He received an outpouring of support from people and organizations citing academic freedom, but we saw none of that same energy when academics like Steven Salaita and Shahd Abusalama were smeared, suspended, or forced out of their positions over the issue of Israel.

“Harvard reversed because Ken Roth has the platform to tell his story. But for every man at the top of his field who is censored for speaking about Palestine, there are multiple women of color, junior professors, and first-generation scholars who we never hear about,” tweeted the group Palestine Legal after Roth was awarded the fellowship. “Many careers are destroyed by those seeking to silence any criticism of Israel’s brutality. This is the Palestine Exception to free speech, it’s routine and it must be reversed on every campus.”

We see the “Palestine Exception” at work in a current case out of George Washington University, where psychology professor Dr. Lara Sheehi is currently being investigated by the school. Sheehi is the president-elect of the Society for Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic and the co-author of the recently published Psychoanalysis Under Occupation: Practicing Resistance in Palestine (Routledge, 2022). The book documents the tribulations of Palestinian clinicians in working under Israel’s violent repression and apartheid policies.

Sheehi’s situation hits all the usual beats. She was targeted by the anti-Palestinian group StandWithUs, who filed a complaint against her at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The complaint alleges that Sheei discriminated against students based on their “their Jewish and Israeli identities.” It claims that she brought Hebrew University of Jerusalem Professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian in to speak with her class, Shalhoub-Kevorkian advocated stone-throwing as a form of resistance, and Sheehi called the students Islamophobic when they expressed concerns about the talk. The school, the administration, and the program already implemented its own internal processes over the allegations. They found that the accusations were without merit.

However, now that StandWithUs’s smear campaign has gained momentum among other pro-Israel organizations, George Washington is bringing in a third party to open its own probe into the incident. The school made the move despite the fact that the Department of Education has yet to even hear the original complaint.

Smear campaigns against academics like Sheehi are nothing new, but the tools have shifted in recent years.

Smear campaigns against academics like Sheehi are nothing new, but the tools have shifted in recent years. In 2019 former president Donald Trump signed an Executive Order mandating that federal agencies consider the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism while enforcing civil rights requirements. That definition is mired in controversy because it can be used as a means to suppress criticisms of Israel and its policies. It includes a “contemporary examples of antisemitism” and some of these deal specifically with the country, blurring the line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism.

Trump’s move led to an uptick in pro-Israel groups suing schools over alleged discrimination, but the IHRA push is a bipartisan affair. Politicians from both parties have advocated for its adoption and the Biden administration has voiced its support for the definition on multiple occasions. In 2021 Secretary of State Tony Blinken told American Zionist Movement President Richard Heideman that The White House “enthusiastically embraces” adoption of the move.

Despite these public declarations (and consistent pressure from pro-Israel groups) the OCR did not incorporate the definition in a civil rights fact sheet that it released earlier this month. Biden also has yet to implement Trump’s IHRA Executive Order despite signaling that he’d make the move. The administration recently angered pro-Israel advocates by announcing that it wouldn’t revisit the issue until December 2023.

“I remain worried about academic freedom,” said Roth in a statement after being offered the fellowship. “Given my three decades at Human Rights Watch, I was able to shine an intense spotlight on Dean Elmendorf, but what about the others?”

The Roth situation symbolized an important battle, but the suppression of Palestinian human rights advocacy is a war that continues on college campuses across the country.

Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss