Harvard reverses decision on role for Israel critic after outcry | Harvard University

Following a storm of protest, Harvard’s Kennedy School has reversed its decision to deny a fellowship to the former head of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Kenneth Roth, over criticisms of Israel.

The decision by the Kennedy School dean, Douglas Elmendorf, to refuse Roth a position at the school’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy drew widespread condemnation, including from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other free speech advocates, and hundreds of Harvard faculty and students.

Roth told the Guardian at the time that the move amounted to “donor-driven censorship” over HRW’s exposure of Israel’s human rights abuses and the group’s recent report accusing Israel of practicing a form of apartheid in the occupied Palestinian territories. Roth said he regarded the move as a reflection of “how utterly afraid the Kennedy School has become of any criticism of Israel”.

On Thursday, Elmendorf told Kennedy School staff and students that the decision had been a mistake and that Roth would be accepted after all.

“I now believe that I made an error in my decision not to appoint him,” he said in the email. “I am sorry that the decision inadvertently cast doubt on the mission of the School and our commitment to open debate in ways I had not intended and do not believe to be true.”

Elmendorf said his original decision was “based on my evaluation of [Roth’s] potential contributions to the school” but he had been persuaded to change his mind by hearing from the “broader faculty”.

Roth had accused Elmendorf of withdrawing the fellowship under pressure, direct or implied, from donors who are strong supporters of Israel. The dean denied it.

“Donors do not affect our consideration of academic matters,” he said in his statement. “My decision was also not made to limit debate at the Kennedy School about human rights in any country.”

Roth said he was “thrilled” at the decision to lift the block, and thanked those at “Harvard and around the world for their overwhelming disapproval of Dean Elmendorf’s original decision”.

But Roth said that Elmendorf failed to say anything “about the people ‘who matter to him’ whom he said were behind his original veto decision”.

“Full transparency is key to ensuring that such influence is not exerted in other cases,” Roth said.

“Secondly, I remain worried about academic freedom. Given my three decades leading Human Rights Watch, I was able to shine an intense spotlight on Dean Elmendorf’s decision, but what about others? The problem of people penalized for criticising Israel is not limited to me.”

The Carr Center for Human Rights Policy offered Roth a position as a senior fellow shortly after he retired as director of HRW in April after 29 years. Kathryn Sikkink, a professor of human rights policy at the Kennedy School, told the Nation that Elmendorf said to her that Roth would not be permitted to take up the position because HRW had an “anti-Israel bias” and its former director had written tweets critical of Israel.

The ACLU called Elmendorf’s move “profoundly troubling” and urged the Kennedy School “to reverse its decision”. Pen America, which advocates for freedom of expression, said the move “raises serous questions” about one of the US’s leading schools of government.

“It is the role of a human rights defender to call out governments harshly, to take positions that are unpopular in certain quarters and to antagonize those who hold power and authority. There is no suggestion that Roth’s criticisms of Israel are in any way based on racial or religious animus,” the group said.

Roth is highly regarded within the human rights community for the part his organisation played in advances such as the creation of the international criminal court and the prosecution of major human rights abusers.

Roth has long been the target of a personalised campaign of abuse including charges of antisemitism even though his father was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. He said HRW faced similar attacks on its motives when it released its report, A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution, even though leading Israeli politicians have also “warned that the occupation has become a form apartheid”.

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