BOSTON – Harvard University rescinded a fellowship that it had offered to a leading human rights activist over what he said Monday was his group’s criticism of Israel.
Kenneth Roth, who was the executive director of Human Rights Watch, or HRW, until last year, was recruited by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy to become a fellow and he accepted. But a few weeks later, in July, Roth said the center called and told him that the dean of the school, Douglas Elmendorf, had not approved it.
Roth said he wasn't given a reason but believes it was due to his and his group’s criticism of Israel. It is unclear why it took six months for the decision to become public, though The Nation reported on the issue last week.
A son of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Roth acknowledges that his work has made him enemies around the world. In a brief conversation with Elmendorf before his fellowship was denied, Roth said he told the dean that he had been sanctioned by the Russian and Chinese governments and “was pretty sure the Israeli government detests me. That turned out to be the kiss of death.”
Over the years, the group has issued a number of reports saying that Israel appears to have committed war crimes against the Palestinians.
And in 2019, Israel expelled the group’s local director, accusing him of boycott activity. Roth, who at the time was HRW’s executive director, said Israel was joining a “fairly ugly group of governments” that have barred the group’s researchers. Two years later, HRW said Israeli policies toward the Palestinians amounted to apartheid. Israel vehemently denies the label and comparisons to apartheid-era South Africa.
“This is a shocking violation of academic freedom,” Roth told The Associated Press. “I don't understand how an institution that purports to address foreign policy, that even has a human rights policy center, how can it possibly avoid criticism of Israel.”
In a statement, the Harvard Kennedy School didn't say why Roth wasn't chosen for a fellowship, only that Elmendorf “decided not to make this fellowship appointment, as he sometimes decides not to make other proposed academic appointments, based on an evaluation of the candidate’s potential contributions to the Kennedy School.”
The director of the Carr Center, Mathias Risse, called the decision a “profoundly sad moment” for him personally.
“My subsequent conversation with Ken Roth to explain this decision to the extent I could was one of the lowest moments in my professional life,” he said in a statement that was sent to the Carr Center community and shared with the AP.
Kathryn Sikkink, the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School, said she “couldn't understand” the decision so she went to Elmendorf for an explanation. He told her that “they would not approve the fellowship because they considered HRW and Roth to have an anti-Israel bias.”
“I have seen no credible evidence whatsoever that HRW or Ken Roth are biased against Israel. I consider this misinformation, and for people who know better, actual disinformation,” she added.
The move has also angered civil rights and press freedom organizations, many which defended Roth and his work.
“Few people have done more to advance human rights than Kenneth Roth. 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," Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “Scholars and fellows have to be judged on their merits, not whether they please powerful political interests. We urge Harvard to reverse its decision.”
PEN America also criticized the move, saying that withholding the fellowship over Roth's “staunch critiques of human rights abuses by governments worldwide raises serious questions about the credibility of the Harvard program itself.”
But the decision was applauded by some groups supportive of Israel.
Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, a group that reports on alleged anti-Israel bias by international NGOs, welcomed the university’s decision, saying Roth is an “anti-Israel activist far beyond what is called legitimate criticism.”
He said his organization was not directly involved in Harvard’s decision, but that he believes academic articles he has written that are critical of Roth were reviewed as part of the university’s “due diligence.”
“The decision is consistent with academic standards,” he said. He cited “the obsession that he has with Israel, the completely disproportionate focus, the vindictive and vitriolic language that he uses.”
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said it was not involved in the issue.
The Israel-Palestinian conflict is an extremely fraught subject on college campuses these days.
A boycott movement against Israel has made great inroads on many campuses. Israel’s supporters, meanwhile, say the country is unfairly singled out and that the boycott movement masks a deeper agenda to delegitimize and even destroy Israel.
This story was updated to correct two instances in which Roth was referred to as “Ross.”
Associated Press writer Josef Federman contributed to this report from Jerusalem.