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The real reasons Ken Roth was bounced by Harvard’s Kennedy School

It wasn’t rich Jewish donors who did him in, but his weaponized activism and mendacious scholarship.

Then-director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth at the Media Security Conference in Munich, Feb. 19, 2017. Credit: Kuhlmann/MSC via Wikimedia Commons.
Then-director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth at the Media Security Conference in Munich, Feb. 19, 2017. Credit: Kuhlmann/MSC via Wikimedia Commons.
Richard L. Cravatts
Richard L. Cravatts

For three decades under the leadership of Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has obsessively and relentlessly targeted Israel.

Roth’s fixation on libeling the Jewish state was so blatant that even the organization’s founder and chairman, the late Robert L. Bernstein, denounced it. In a revealing 2009 New York Times op-ed, Bernstein said Roth’s obsession was degrading the quality of HRW’s work and jeopardizing its reputation as a credible NGO.

Bernstein noted, “In recent years, Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region,” even though most of those countries are dictatorships that do not recognize human rights at all.

Bernstein stated that HRW’s work was being weaponized and is “helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.” In particular, HRW focused only on Israel’s responses to terrorist attacks, rather than the attacks themselves. As a result, he said, “Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism.”

Roth’s fanatical bias against Israel became news recently when it was announced that Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf had rescinded the offer of a fellowship to Roth at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

The backlash against that decision was immediate and thunderous. Roth himself initiated the pity party, writing in The Guardian that he had been rejected because of “my criticism of Israel.” Roth also asserted without evidence, “As best we can tell, donor reaction was [Elmendorf’s] concern.”

Of course, these were not just random donors to the Kennedy School. They were, unsurprisingly, all wealthy Jews, as outlined in a long essay in the left-wing magazine The Nation that sought to prove Roth’s conspiracy theory.

The claim that Jewish influence and money can force non-Jews to serve the selfish interests of the Jews is, of course, a classic antisemitic trope. In the modern context, this trope usually claims that these Jewish conspirators are doing their dirty work to benefit Israel.

Roth also claimed that Elmendorf’s decision was “a shocking violation of academic freedom.” Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), agreed, saying, “If Harvard’s decision was based on HRW’s advocacy under Ken’s leadership, this is profoundly troubling from both a human rights and an academic freedom standpoint.”

It appears that Roth and Romero do not understand the nature of academic freedom. An applicant for a fellowship or faculty position does not enjoy academic freedom at the institution—in this case, Harvard—where they wish to work. They have freedom of speech to express their ideology and beliefs like all other citizens, but Roth would not have enjoyed the protection of academic freedom, which would allow him to express his views, no matter how corrosive or biased, until he became part of the Harvard community. Obviously, this never took place.

Moreover, hiring committees normally vet applicants during the application process. It appears that in the initial stages of Roth’s application, the committee inadvertently, or perhaps purposely, ignored Roth’s hostility to Israel. So, it is very likely that when the choice of Roth was made public, Harvard stakeholders had the opportunity to inform the dean about the darker aspects of Roth’s career. Dean Elmendorf then did what the hiring committee at the Carr Center should have done in the first place: Examine HRW’s and Roth’s defective scholarship and singular focus on Israel, objectively.

One particularly grotesque example of Roth’s shoddy scholarship and tendency toward outright falsehoods was a 2021 HRW report titled, “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution,” the title of which makes its content clear.

No apartheid exists in Israel, but that did not prevent HRW from presenting the 217-page report as fact, effectively redefining apartheid to make their case. The Israel-based watchdog organization NGO Monitor, however, produced a report of its own that eviscerated HRW’s libels. NGO Monitor concluded that “the HRW publication is fundamentally flawed, using lies, distortions, omissions and blatant double standards to construct a fraudulent and libelous narrative demonizing Israel.”

“A careful examination of the text shows that HRW conducted almost no primary research,” NGO Monitor noted. “Rather, the text is bloated with cut-and-paste phrases, and quotes and conclusions taken from third-party sources—notably, other political NGOs participating in the same ‘apartheid’ campaign against Israel.”

“The omissions are even more egregious than the errors and misrepresentations, rendering HRW’s report as nothing more than propaganda,” the watchdog group asserted.

“Overall,” NGO Monitor observed, “our analysis uncovered 303 total flaws: 105 errors, 136 misrepresentations, 37 omissions and 25 double standards.” Such shoddiness and dishonesty would be unacceptable and unwelcome at Harvard, which is perhaps why Elmendorf made the decision he did.

Why does Roth’s maniacal 30-year assault on Israel matter? Because it arms the enemies of Israel with supposed “proof” that Israel is a racist, colonial enterprise that should not exist.

In May of 2021, for example, while Hamas fired more than 3,000 rockets at Israeli civilians, members of academic communities around the world fell all over themselves to express their solidarity, not with the beleaguered citizens of the Jewish state again under attack, but with the genocidal psychopaths of Hamas.

The ideological enemies of Israel could not have been more pleased. Inside Higher Ed noted that “300 academic departments, program centers, unions and societies worldwide endorsed statements supporting Palestinian rights, and statements from individual scholars, staff, students and alumni have garnered more than 15,000 signatures.” The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel called this “an unprecedented wave of solidarity.”

Kenneth Roth is now being forced to take responsibility for his subpar scholarship and ideological loathing of Israel. Though he tried to deflect blame onto wealthy Jewish donors who dared to fight back when confronted with the lies, slanders and demonization that define Roth’s poisonous campaign, he has no one to blame but himself.

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Jew-Hatred Rising: The Perversities of the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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