For 30 years, as the head of the powerful Human Rights Watch organization, Ken Roth was a leading source of anti-Israel demonization—often crossing the threshold into antisemitism. As a result, the campaign he is orchestrating to condemn Harvard University’s rejection of his application for a fellowship at the Kennedy School of Government is an important issue for the Jewish community and beyond.
According to the version of events put out by Roth and his supporters, and echoed in numerous media reports, the school’s dean—professor Douglas Elmendorf—vetoed the recommendation of Roth’s allies in the human rights program, citing his “criticisms of Israel’s human rights record.” The refusal to give Roth, who has no scholarly credentials, a prestigious title at Harvard, is falsely labeled “a dangerous violation of academic freedom.” In addition, and without producing any evidence, they imagine a conspiracy involving nefarious Jewish donors. Following standard procedures, Elmendorf and the university have not commented, leaving room for rumors and speculation.
Details of Roth’s actual history of intense hostility towards Israel, Zionists and the mainstream American Jewish community are deliberately ignored and erased, in order to support the myth that he merely “criticizes” the Jewish state, in a manner no different than other countries.
In fact, under the facade of human rights and an invented or imagined form of international law, Roth repeatedly singled out Israel, using uniquely poisonous language regarding everything related to self-determination and sovereignty for the Jewish people. The extreme disproportionality, and abuse of labels such as “apartheid,” “war crimes” and “collective punishment” are obvious in even a cursory examination of this record. The millions that he raised (including from a corrupt Saudi billionaire) to pump into the BDS movement and to hire a team of proven Israel haters contributed significantly to the antisemitic atmosphere, particularly on university campuses.
A listing of Roth’s vituperous attacks, including HRW publications for which he is accountable, and the lies, distortions and unverifiable accusations would fill volumes. But a small sample provides more than enough to demonstrate the deep hostility.
Roth and HRW are among the instigators of the renewed campaign to single out and target Israel by attaching the apartheid label, picking up from the Soviet and Arab League propaganda of the 1960s and ‘70s, including the U.N.’s infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution. In 2001, HRW was a core participant in the antisemitic UN Durban conference where this theme was revived, and under Roth’s active leadership, continue to push the smear. In 2021, they marketed a 217 page propaganda publication under the heading “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution,” and consisting of blatant falsehoods and distortions.
On a parallel front, Roth often displays a deep and personal hostility to Judaism and the Jewish people. In 2006, after HRW was criticized for a campaign demonizing the IDF’s response to a gruesome Hezbollah attack from Lebanon, Roth wrote: “An eye for an eye—or, more accurately in this case, twenty eyes for an eye—may have been the morality of some more primitive moment.” As Abraham Foxman, head of the ADL at the time, observed, Roth’s comments repeated a classic antisemitic stereotype about Jews.
In parallel, Roth repeatedly blames Jews and Israel for the dangerous increase in antisemitic and at times deadly violence. In 2014, he attributed violent attacks against Jews and synagogues in Germany and Europe to Israel’s so-called war crimes during the Gaza war that year. In the context of the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Roth endorsed a propaganda piece published by a platform reportedly linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, and headlined “Birds of a feather: White supremacy and Zionism.” Roth included a picture depicting a Confederate and Israeli flag, commenting, “Many rights activists condemn Israeli abuse and antisemitism. Some white supremacists embrace Israel and antisemitism.” And in 2021, Roth tweeted, “The surge in U.K. antisemitic incidents during the recent Gaza conflict gives the lie to those who pretend that the Israeli government’s conduct doesn’t affect antisemitism.”
After intense criticism, Roth later deleted this last tweet, claiming he was “misunderstood.” But given the extensive track record of abusing and exploiting human rights for antisemitism, this excuse wears thin. Instead, Roth uses his Jewish roots as a shield, and odiously seeks to use the Holocaust—specifically his father’s experience growing up in Nazi Germany, as a means to justify his hostility to Israel. Adding to the indictment is the fact that in the 30 years during which Roth ran HRW, the organization’s reporting on and acknowledgement of antisemitism is largely non-existent.
Regardless of the reasons for Harvard’s rejection of Roth’s fellowship application—and in the absence of an official statement from the school, the accuracy of the claims cannot be assessed—it is important to counter the vilification of the dean and efforts to portray a catalog of antisemitism as “benign criticism.” Human rights and hate are at opposite ends of any moral spectrum, and the attempts to conflate them must not be tolerated.
Gerald M. Steinberg heads NGO Monitor and is emeritus professor of political science at Bar Ilan University.
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal.