Kenneth Roth, the outgoing heard of Human Rights Watch, was offered a fellowship by Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy school of government but that offer was vetoed by the school’s dean Doug Elmendorf for what became clear was uneasiness with Roth’s role in HRW’s criticisms of Israel’s human rights record, which included a scathing report that accused Israel of practicing a form of apartheid in the occupied Palestinian territories. It joined an Amnesty International report that described Israel’s policies in those same terms. That apartheid description has become widely accepted but is opposed by the Israel lobby in the US.
The rejection of Roth was widely condemned, including by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Pen America, and other free speech advocates, and hundreds of Harvard faculty and students. As a result, Elmendorf reversed his decision
Roth had accused Elmendorf of withdrawing the fellowship under pressure, direct or implied, from donors who are strong supporters of Israel. The dean denied it.
“Donors do not affect our consideration of academic matters,” he said in his statement. “My decision was also not made to limit debate at the Kennedy School about human rights in any country.”
The 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. Kathryn Sikkink, a professor of human rights policy at the Kennedy School, told the Nation that Elmendorf said to her that Roth would not be permitted to take up the position because HRW had an “anti-Israel bias” and its former director had written tweets critical of Israel.
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, 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”.
Roth is a very well-known and respected figure and so this decision provoked great anger and scrutiny. But similar actions take place all the time and are much less publicized. As Ross said,
But Roth said that Elmendorf failed to say anything “about the people ‘who matter to him’ whom he said were behind his original veto decision”.
“Full transparency is key to ensuring that such influence is not exerted in other cases,” Roth said.
“Secondly, I remain worried about academic freedom. Given my three decades leading Human Rights Watch, I was able to shine an intense spotlight on Dean Elmendorf’s decision, but what about others? The problem of people penalized for criticising Israel is not limited to me.”
Elmendorf’s claim that “Donors do not affect our consideration of academic matters” is utterly disingenuous and he knows it. Anyone who has the remotest understanding of how US universities work knows that the people in positions such as deans, provosts, and presidents are constantly engaged in fund-raising and are acutely sensitive to what makes wealthy donors happy or unhappy. Whenever there is a chance of any faculty body making a decision that might make any donor segment upset, they go to great lengths to either veto the decision entirely or try to neutralize it in some way. And criticism of Israel is one of the hottest of hot potatoes.
I saw it time and time again and it is an open secret among faculty, which definitely puts a chill on anyone who thinks of making any similar criticism.