‘Criticize Israel, and you may be ostracized’: Former HRW chief speaks out on rejection of Harvard scholarship

Harvard University’s decision to refuse a fellowship to the former director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) sparked outrage and concern over the restriction of academic freedom when it comes to criticizing how Palestinians are processed by Israel.

Roth, who left the human rights NGO last year, explains in an interview with Middle East Eye that the decision by the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, which he says is linked to his criticism of Israel, “shows that [celle-ci] is still very difficult to do in large universities”.

“It truly undermines respectable diverse discourse, especially in a faculty – the Kennedy School – that claims to pride itself on a diversity of viewpoints, on willingness to tackle difficult topics and debate. And apparently, this is valid for everything except Israel,” he laments.

Roth entrusts to MEE that while he was shocked by the decision, his main concern is about the effects it might have on lesser-known scholars as well as Palestinians in American universities.

“It really undermines the various respectable discourses, especially in a faculty […] who claims to be proud of a diversity of viewpoints, a willingness to tackle difficult topics and debate. And apparently that goes for everything but Israel.”

– Kenneth Roth, former CEO of HRW

“Personally, the fact that I was refused this scholarship will not prevent me from speaking. But I worry for young academics watching this sad episode and learning the lesson that if you criticize Israel you can be ostracized, your career can be hampered,” he said.

The decision has already provoked strong reactions, hundreds of people calling for the resignation of Doug Elmendorf, dean of the Kennedy School at Harvard, located in Cambridge (Massachusetts).

In statement sent to the Associated Press (AP), the Harvard Kennedy School assures that Doug Elmendorf “has decided not to grant this scholarship […] based on an assessment of the candidate’s potential contributions to the Kennedy School”.

But faculty professor Kathryn Sikkink told the AP that when she went to the latter for an explanation, he informed her that Roth’s scholarship would not be approved “because they considered HRW and Roth as having an anti-Israel bias.”

On Tuesday, the Palestinian Harvard Kennedy School Alumni Collective, which represents 45 Palestinian alumni of the faculty, has published a statement demanding Elmendorf’s resignation and Roth’s acceptance as a researcher.

“It is egregious that Dean Elmendorf’s decision to deny Roth’s appointment to the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy is due to his criticism of Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians,” the statement said.

The Harvard Student Newspaper, The Crimsonas well as the Boston Globe reported that another letter from more than 350 affiliates and co-sponsored by more than a dozen student groups had been sent to the president of Harvard also calling for the removal of the dean of the Kennedy School.

“In the interests of academic freedom at Harvard and human rights worldwide, Dean Elmendorf must resign and the Harvard Kennedy School administration must reverse this decision and reconsider welcoming Ken Roth. as a Visiting Scholar for the 2023-2024 academic year,” the open letter states, quoted par The Crimson.

Middle East Eye repeatedly solicited a response from the Kennedy School, but had not received a response at the time of publication.

“Do you have any enemies? »

Kenneth Roth says that after announcing his resignation from HRW in April 2022, the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy contacted him to discuss a scholarship.

After some back and forth, an agreement in principle was reached and he was told to submit a CV with a proposal of what he would do during the scholarship period. He had planned to work on a book he is writing about his time at HRW.

The scholarship proposal was then sent for approval to Kennedy School Dean Doug Elmendorf, a step in the process considered a mere formality by Roth and members of the Carr Center.

Roth reports having had a July 12 meeting with Elmendorf, who asked a question that struck him as odd: “Do you have any enemies?” »

Cornel West: Black Lives Matter and the fight against US imperialism are one and the same fight


“That question struck me as really odd because obviously you can’t run Human Rights Watch without making enemies left and right. And so I sort of brushed it off by explaining that yes, I was personally named as having been sanctioned by both the Chinese government and the Russian government,” he continues.

“But I thought I knew what he meant, so I added, ‘and the Israeli government is not happy with me.’ We didn’t quibble about it. But he was clearly focused on Israel, as later became apparent. »

Two weeks later, Roth recounts that Kathryn Sikkink, a professor at the Kennedy School, told him that he was denied the scholarship because of HRW’s criticism of Israel.

Roth is an outspoken critic of the Israeli government, and it was under his leadership that HRW published its rapport 2021 calling Israel’s practices a form of apartheid.

But Israel has been just one of the rights defender’s targets, and HRW reports on human rights issues in around 100 countries.

The news of the rejection of the research grant was reported initially by The Nation last week. The newspaper reported that several major donors to the Kennedy School were also ardent supporters of Israel.

“We don’t know for sure if Elmendorf discussed my scholarship with [les donateurs] or whether he anticipated their possible reaction. But I find it hard to think of another explanation,” Roth says.

“Because it’s not like I wasn’t qualified for the fellowship and Elmendorf wasn’t known to have strong opinions about Israel – he has no public record on that. So I don’t think there’s a question of personal animosity here. »

After the stories about the denial of the scholarship, several pro-Israel groups welcomed the news, and Roth was also targeted with allegations of anti-Semitism. Gerald Steinberg, founder of the Israel-based organization NGO Monitor, wrote on Twitter that Roth was using “(thin) Jewish roots as a shield to shed responsibility for 30 years of demonizing Israel.”

“God only knows what he was talking about. My father was Jewish and fled the Nazis. My mother was Jewish. I am 100% Jewish,” Kenneth Roth retorts to MEE.

The muffled Palestinian discourse

The Harvard incident sparked a deeper conversation about the extent to which criticism of Israel was allowed on college campuses.

Last year, the activist, philosopher and academic Cornel West resigned from Harvard Divinity School, and in his letter he cited the institution’s “deference to anti-Palestinian bias” as one of the reasons.

Laila el-Haddad, who is from Gaza and attended Harvard Kennedy School in 2002, explains to MEE that Roth’s refusal is one of many incidents showing bias towards Israel, as well as a troubling precedent for Palestinian scholars speaking out against Israel.

For Human Rights Watch, Israel is committing “crimes of apartheid” against the Palestinians


“It feels like a bit of the icing on the cake, and it’s kind of indicative of a broader anti-Palestinian climate that we’ve seen develop over the years that has kind of come full circle under this particular dean,” she tells MEE.

“This is, I would say, one of the dangerous precedents that have already been set in academia to completely silence any voice on Palestine. »

Laila el-Haddad is one of the organizers of the Palestinian Collective of Harvard Kennedy School Alumni, which wrote the statement calling for the dean’s removal.

Roth says he understands the sentiment of Harvard’s Palestinian affiliates, especially since there are other academics who are even more critical of Israel than he is.

“I can understand their feelings because it’s not like my criticism of Israel is marginal. »

“If donor objections, real or anticipated, are behind this denial, it impoverishes the discourse at the Kennedy School, and naturally leads Palestinians, or frankly anyone willing to look at the Israeli situation objectively, to think that their views are not welcome. »

Nancy Murray, a Cambridge-based activist who attended Harvard for her bachelor’s degree, hopes students will continue to press for answers from the administration and that outrage will hold and result in a turning point for the crackdown issue. criticism of Israel.

Co-founder of the Gaza Mental Health Foundation, she notes that in Massachusetts, freedom of speech is a right of major importance.

Unlike dozens of other US states, Massachusetts does not have passed legislation against BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) after opposition from local activist groups.

“I think it may be a turning point because the trend that is developing in this country is really visible, namely censorship and silence behind the scenes at all levels”, laments Nancy Murray.

“If it was in another institution, I would say ok, it will disappear without a trace. But I think people here are going to keep putting the pressure on. »

Translated from English (original) par VECTranslation.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.