The once mighty Harvard University has been brought to heel. Kenneth Roth, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), has forced Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf to surrender and offer Roth a fellowship.
Roth and the leftist magazine The Nation set the narrative with a story about Harvard’s decision not to grant Roth a fellowship at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy last summer. A Roth ally at Harvard “was told” the fellowship was nixed because HRW “has an ‘anti-Israel bias’; Roth’s tweets on Israel were of particular concern.” The passive voice obscures whether the dean did the telling.
Elmendorf reportedly asked Roth about his enemies. Various countries are listed before Roth states, “I knew what he was driving at. … It’s always Israel.”
Elmendorf hasn’t publicly confirmed this version of events. “To this day,” The Nation observes, “Elmendorf has given no indication of who may have objected to Roth’s presence at the school.”
Roth and The Nation believe the explanation is “the dominant presence of the U.S. national security community and its close ally Israel.” Drawing on classic antisemitism, the Nation article details major Jewish donors to the Kennedy School and ties them to an alleged “military-intelligence complex” that includes prominent professors.
Harvard’s campus, media and social media were soon aflame, claiming Roth was denied a fellowship for “Israel criticism.” The campus paper The Harvard Crimson reported that 360 Harvard “affiliates demanded Elmendorf’s resignation in an open letter addressed to Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow, University President-elect Claudine Gay and Elmendorf.”
Off campus, organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression chastised Harvard for “violat[ing] Roth’s expressive rights by denying him the fellowship because of his views.”
Roth and his allies framed the controversy as a battle over free speech and academic freedom. That’s wrong. It was a public pressure campaign that harnessed anti-Israel sentiment to get Roth a prestigious perch.
A spokesman for the Kennedy School declined to comment beyond Elmendorf’s Thursday statement, which explained, “Donors do not affect our consideration of academic matters. My decision also was not made to limit debate at the Kennedy School about human rights in any country.” Elmendorf said his decision “was based on my evaluation of [Roth’s] potential contributions to the School.”
This could mean that Roth didn’t fit the fellowship requirements or that Elmendorf questioned Roth’s commitment to the Kennedy School’s values.
For example, in 2020, The Intercept reported that Roth was “involved in soliciting” a $470,000 donation “from a Saudi billionaire shortly after [HRW’s] researchers documented labor abuses at one of the man’s companies.” This money—later returned—“came with the caveat that it could not be used to support the group’s LGBT advocacy in the Middle East and North Africa.”
If Elmendorf has a red line, is it more likely to be Israel or labor and LGBTQ rights, as well as financial propriety? In this context, it is worth pointing out that when dozens of Harvard faculty repudiated the Crimson’s endorsement of a boycott of Israel, Elmendorf did not join them.
The entire Roth episode recalls Cornel West’s tenure dispute in 2021. West alleged that Harvard was denying him tenure because of his Israel-related views. The Forward reported that “over 90 organizations and interest groups at Harvard” signed a petition supporting West. However, “West’s appointment … was not a tenure-track role.” Offered “a 10-year contract and an endowed chair,” West still opted to leave. Nonetheless, the antisemitism that had been emboldened at Harvard remained.
Last fall, 24% of Americans told the Anti-Defamation League that “Israel and its supporters are a bad influence on our democracy.” Meanwhile, 18% are “not comfortable spending time with people who openly support Israel.” That group—including some at Harvard—was the Roth campaign’s core constituency.
Having stigmatized Zionists on campus for years, the left’s revolutionaries are now attacking the university itself. But no matter how many anti-Zionists Harvard hires, it will never be enough for them.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein, Harvard Kennedy School Class of 2009, is an independent writer.