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Harvard students call on dean to step down after blocking Roth appointment

“For the sake of academic freedom at Harvard and human rights globally, Dean Elmendorf must resign and Harvard Kennedy School administration must reverse this decision and reconsider Ken Roth,” letter says.

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth. Source: Screenshot.
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth. Source: Screenshot.

Hundreds of students and Harvard-affiliated organizations are calling on Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf to resign after blocking the appointment of former Human Rights Watch (HRW) Executive Director Kenneth Roth as a senior fellow. 

Roth was reportedly offered a position at the Carr Center for Public Policy by Executive Director Shushma Raman but the offer was rescinded by Elmendorf, who accused him of posting tweets with an anti-Israel bias.

“For the sake of academic freedom at Harvard and human rights globally, Dean Elmendorf must resign and Harvard Kennedy School administration must reverse this decision and reconsider Ken Roth as an invited fellow for the 2023-24 academic year,” the letter, given to JNS on Wednesday, reads.

The letter, addressed to Elmendorf along with Harvard President Lawerence Bacow and incoming president Claudine Gay, was signed by 21 student organizations and 791 students. It claims that Elmendorf overruled the appointment because of HRW’s “factual reporting on human rights abuses and practice of apartheid by the State of Israel.” The authors added that Elmendorf’s charges of anti-Israel bias are “ludicrous and dishonest.”

The authors said they stand in solidarity with the HKS Palestinian Alumni Collective who demanded the resignation of Elmendorf in a letter on Tuesday.

“HRW documents Israel’s abuses much as it documents the abuses of other governments, holding it to the same standards of international law as it does states like Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Furthermore, to call attention to Israel’s colonial apartheid system—unconditionally funded by the United States—is the bare minimum expectation of any institution that seeks to uphold human rights,” the Harvard students’ letter stated.

The letter called Elmendorf’s decision an “act of censorship” and a “chilling violation of academic freedom.”

“We are disappointed, but not surprised, that the administration, once again, chose to prioritize the whims of the military industrial complex and peddle an academically dishonest understanding of Israel’s human rights record,” it added.

Roth blames donor reaction

Roth fired back at Harvard in an op-ed accusing Elmendorf of vetoing his appointment because of “donor reaction.” 

“If any academic institution can afford to abide by principle, to refuse to compromise academic freedom under real or presumed donor pressure, it is Harvard, the world’s richest university,” Roth wrote.

Roth claimed that he had a half-hour video conversation with Elmendorf following his nomination in which he was asked if he had any enemies. After mentioning several governments including China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, Roth claimed he mentioned that the Israeli government “detests” him. 

“That turned out to be the kiss of death. Two weeks later, the Carr Center called me up to say sheepishly that Elmendorf had vetoed my fellowship,” he wrote. “He told Professor Kathryn Sikkink, a highly respected human rights scholar affiliated with the Kennedy School, that the reason was my, and Human Rights Watch’s, criticism of Israel.”

Roth also dismissed accusations that he has an anti-Israel bias, claiming “the accusation of ‘bias’ is rich coming from people who themselves never criticize Israel and, typically using neutral sounding organizational names, attack anyone who criticizes Israel.”

Roth’s statements regarding Israel have been controversial for some time, prompting accusations of antisemitism. During Israel’s 2014 conflict with Hamas, Roth retweeted a post saying, “‘Never again’ must mean ‘NEVER AGAIN FOR ANYONE!’” which many criticized as equating Israel with the Nazis. 

In 2006, Roth attacked Israel’s conduct of a war against Hezbollah, stating, “An eye for an eye—or, more accurately in this case, 20 eyes for an eye—may have been the morality of some more primitive moment. But it is not the morality of international humanitarian law.” This was criticized for echoing forms of classic Christian antisemitism that accused Judaism of being a violent and merciless religion.

The Harvard students’ letter did not address these issues, instead saying, “The Kennedy School administration often speaks of the importance of having ‘tough conversations,’ yet this decision—made unilaterally behind closed doors—has denied the Harvard community such an opportunity.”

Kennedy School accused of hosting human rights violators in Israel fellowship

The students’ letter went on to accuse the Kennedy School of having “a long history of anti-Palestinian bias, discrimination and racism” and criticized its Wexner Israel Fellowship that brings 10 Israelis working in the public sector to Harvard, claiming that many of these officials are in the Israeli military, intelligence services and police force. 

“In contrast to Roth, the very individuals responsible for the human rights violations documented by HRW are considered sufficiently unbiased,” the letter claimed.

In 2021, Human Rights Watch published a report accusing Israel of “apartheid.” According to NGO Monitor, in the 217-page report, HRW cited itself 175 times and several NGOs with a long history of anti-Israel bias over 90 times. NGO Monitor found 303 flaws in the report, including the claim that only hundreds of entry permits are awarded to Gaza residents, when the number of permits in 2019 was 127,000; that Palestinian access to water was static, even though it had increased; and that Israel “almost never” demolishes Jewish homes in Jerusalem, when one-third of all homes demolished are Jewish homes.

“This is an act of censorship and a threat to free expression and academic freedom, condemned already by leading watchdogs like the ACLU, PEN America and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression,” the letter claimed. “By choosing to prioritize the political preferences of donors and government officials over truth-telling, Elmendorf has strayed far from the mission of higher education and public policy.”

The letter added that the Harvard community should be “concerned with the chilling precedent this sets for human rights leaders around the globe,” adding that authoritarianism is rising globally and “this institution should be eager to protect dissidents and agitators that speak truth to power, not ostracize them.”

The authors went on to claim that Harvard has “an active complicity in Israel’s apartheid system.”

The letter demanded Harvard “fully disclose and discontinue its investments in companies tied to illegal settlements in occupied Palestine”; hire scholars who “speak to the reality in Palestine”; prohibit administrators “from rejecting fellows solely due to their advocacy or external pressures”; and require “administrators to reject contributions from donors who try to influence the fellowship selection process.”

Roth has since accepted a visiting fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania.

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