Top lawyer’s Harvard fellowship ‘cancelled over Israel criticism’

Outcry over cancellation of planned post for former Human Rights Watch director

January 9, 2023
Al-Masara, Occupied Palestinian Territories - January 27, 2012 A Palestinian youth waves a flag while confronting Israeli soldiers in a protest against the Israeli separation barrier in the West Bank down of Al-Masara.
Source: iStock

Kenneth Roth, former executive director of Human Rights Watch, expected to follow his nearly 30-year run at the international non-profit organisation with a fellowship at Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. But he and his supporters say the dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government blocked his appointment for political reasons – namely, Mr Roth’s criticism of Israel.

The dean, Doug Elmendorf, wasn’t available for an interview and hasn’t publicly commented on the allegations, which were first reported by The Nation. A spokesperson for the Kennedy School, which houses the Carr Center, did not provide information on how fellows are vetted when asked.

Mr Roth told Inside Higher Ed in an interview that he is most concerned about what Professor Elmendorf’s decision signals to junior scholars of human rights studying Israel.

“I’m an older figure. I’ve got plenty of opportunities – it’s not a big deal for me,” said Mr Roth, whom the University of Pennsylvania recently named its inaugural Thakore family global justice and human rights visiting fellow at Perry World House. “I worry more about younger academics. The signal this sends to them is that if you touch Israel, if you criticise Israel, your career may be stymied.”

Mathias Risse, director of the Carr Center; and Berthold Beitz, professor in human rights, global affairs and philosophy at Harvard, said via email that they recruited Mr Roth “because he is one of the most distinguished human rights leaders of our time and one of the most visible faces of the human rights movement. I continue to stand by that decision, without any hesitation and qualification.”

Professor Elmendorf’s veto of Mr Roth’s appointment, Professor Risse said, was a “profoundly sad moment for me personally, and my subsequent conversation with [Mr Roth] to explain this decision to the extent I could was one of the lowest moments of my professional life”.

Referring to Human Rights Watch, Professor Risse said that Mr Roth had “built Human Rights into a trusted organization of formidable size”. Its reporting “sets standards in the field”, and it is known by experts for its “fair-mindedness”.

PEN America, a non-profit dedicated to free expression and human rights, said in a statement that 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 antagonise 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. Withholding Roth’s participation in a human rights program due to his own staunch critiques of human rights abuses by governments worldwide raises serious questions about the credibility of the Harvard programme itself.”

Mr Roth said that the Carr Center contacted him about a fellowship in April, shortly after he had announced he was stepping down as executive director of Human Rights Watch. He had been planning to write a book about how small groups of people can move governments around the world, and he thought the Carr Center could be a good base from which to pursue this project. Mr Roth accepted a fellowship offer in June, he said; only the “formalities” of the arrangement remained.

On his own, he said, Mr Roth reached out to Professor Elmendorf via a mutual friend and donor to introduce himself and arrange a “perfunctory get-to-know-you” talk. That conversation happened on 12 July. Mr Roth said that the first 30 minutes were “nothing exciting”. Then, he said, Professor Elmendorf asked him if he had “any enemies”.

Mr Roth said he told Professor Elmendorf that he had been sanctioned by the Chinese and Russian governments for his work on human rights in their respective countries, and that the Rwandan and Saudi Arabian governments weren’t fans of his, either. Sensing that Mr Roth might be hinting at Human Rights Watch’s work on Israel, in particular, Mr Roth said he added: “The Israeli government hates me, too.”

The conversation didn’t progress much from there, Mr Roth recalled. Professor Elmendorf did say something about there being “a lot of fellows” and “taking more control of the process”, Mr Roth added. But he didn’t expect the news he got two weeks later: his year-long fellowship had been rejected.

‘Anti-Israel bias’

According to Mr Roth, a would-be colleague at the Kennedy School said she had asked Professor Elmendorf what had gone wrong, and that Professor Elmendorf allegedly cited Mr Roth’s stance on Israel. That faculty member, Kathryn Sikkink, Ryan family professor of human rights policy, did not respond to a request for comment but reportedly told The Nation that Professor Elmendorf said Human Rights Watch had an “anti-Israel bias”.

Human Rights Watch, an international non-profit organisation, has long criticised Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and in 2021 published a 213-page report called A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution. The gist of the report was that Israel’s once-temporary policies on Palestinians had calcified into a permanent system of apartheid. Human Rights Watch was not the first human rights group to make this claim, but it was controversial: Mark Regev, senior adviser to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, called the apartheid premise a “mendacious slur”, indicative of Mr Roth’s organisation’s ongoing “systemic anti-Israel bias”.

Mr Roth has also tweeted frequent criticisms of Israel, including in a post earlier this year about Israel naming a special envoy for combating antisemitism and the “delegitimisation” of Israeli-occupied territories. “Rather than end its apartheid, the Israeli government has appointed an actress to fight ‘delegitimisation’, as if Israel’s darkening reputation because of its repression is just a public-relations problem,” Mr Roth said then.

Asked whether Human Rights Watch is focused more on Israel than elsewhere, Mr Roth said the organisation works in 100 countries, “including every country in the Middle East, and Israel is a tiny percentage of our work. And even within the Israeli-Palestinian context, we address Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, Hezbollah – not just the Israeli government. So nobody can seriously say that we give undue focus to Israel. Israel is one of scores of countries that we address.”

‘Not an outlier in Israel reporting’

Professor Sikkink also reportedly disagreed with Professor Elmendorf’s allegation of anti-Israel bias, and she gathered data suggesting that Human Rights Watch and other respected human rights groups rated Israel’s human rights record similarly.

Amnesty International, for instance, published a report last year called Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: A Look Into Decades of Oppression and Domination. Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary general from 2010 to 2018, has served as a senior fellow at the Carr Center.

The Carr Center’s Professor Risse said Human Rights Watch “stands for impartial criticism of all uses of power that attack or undermine people’s human rights, and they have applied their reporting standards to countries across the board, including to many governments in the Middle East – specifically also the Palestinian Authority. Their criticisms of Israel over time have been in line with what Amnesty International and the American State Department have also written. Their reporting on Israel is not an outlier in any interesting sense.”

Of Mr Roth, in particular, Professor Risse said he was “articulate and really quite brilliant and never shies away from debate. He would have been accessible to the [Kennedy School] community to discuss all controversial issues, including their assessment of the human rights situation in Israel.”

Mr Roth, whose Jewish father fled Nazi Germany as a boy, said that it was “utterly impossible” to avoid the Israeli-Palestinian question in his line of work: “If you’re comporting to deal with human rights, you need to apply them even-handedly. That’s a basic principle. I would have been completely derelict in my duties if I somehow exempted Israel from Human Rights Watch’s scrutiny. That would have been completely the wrong thing to do.”

Nor should an academic centre “purport to be studying human rights if it exempts a serious offender”, he said. “And this is not saying Israel is the worst offender. But it has a multidecade occupation that has become apartheid. That’s a big deal.”

Controversial fellowships

The Carr Center is a small part of the Kennedy School, whose much larger Robert and Renée Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs includes more than 250 fellows and scholars, many of whom are affiliated with national security organisations and the military. A student group at Harvard last year protested the appointment of a retired Israeli military general, Amos Yadlin, to a Belfer Center fellowship.

Other Kennedy School fellowships have proved controversial, including those for Sean Spicer, a former Trump administration press secretary; and Rick Snyder, the former Republican governor of Michigan who was in office during the Flint water crisis. Mr Spicer completed his limited visiting fellowship at the Institute of Politics during the 2017-18 academic year, but Snyder backed out of his senior research fellowship appointment to the Taubman Center for State and Local Government in 2019. In so doing, Mr Snyder cited the “current political environment and its lack of civility”.

At the time, Professor Elmendorf said that “we and [Mr Snyder] now believe that having him on campus would not enhance education here in the ways we intended”.

Professor Elmendorf made a similar announcement in 2017 regarding the appointment of convicted Wikileaks source Chelsea Manning as a visiting fellow to the Institute of Politics. Unlike Mr Snyder, who stepped aside, however, Ms Manning’s fellowship was rescinded amid controversy.

Going forward, Professor Elmendorf said at the time, “I think we should weigh, for each potential visitor, what members of the Kennedy School community could learn from that person’s visit against the extent to which that person’s conduct fulfils the values of public service to which we aspire. This balance is not always easy to determine, and reasonable people can disagree about where to strike the balance for specific people.”

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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