The recent Harvard brouhaha over Kenneth Roth’s human rights fellowship at the Kennedy School, has the anti-Israel crowd falsely proclaiming a victory for academic freedom. They bullied the Kennedy School dean, Douglas Elmendorf, after he vetoed Roth’s appointment, by claiming that the dean succumbed to a mysterious pro-Israel pressure campaign, which Roth himself could not directly confirm. Since Dean Elmendorf most cravenly caved to the anti-Israel forces, it seems we can agree on one thing: somewhere in the process, partisanship won, which means that academic freedom — and Harvard — lost, yet again.
The controversy began when Ken Roth retired after nearly three decades at Human Rights Watch. For decades, he led his organization on its anti-Israel vendetta, singling out the Jewish State for special opprobrium. His obsession with Israel was so great that in 2009, the legendary Robert Bernstein disassociated himself from Human Rights Watch because the organization he founded, “has been issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.”
Nevertheless, last April, the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights proposed offering Roth a fellowship. Dean Elmendorf overrode the decision — without an explanation. Roth survived. He ended up with a University of Pennsylvania fellowship instead.
Months later, a lengthy article in The Nation of January 5, 2023, claimed that Roth lost the fellowship for one reason — “Israel.” In an article so insidious that the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt accused the writer of plunging “into the realm of conspiracy theories about Jewish control, power, and financial influence,” The Nation simply assumed various Jewish donors to the Kennedy School nixed the appointment.
Roth joined the pile-on in The Guardian on January 10. In a symphony of weasel-wording, Roth wrote that the anti-Israel veto “seems to be what happened” at Harvard’s Kennedy school. Two sentences later, his assumption escalated into an accusation: that Elmendorf “vetoed a human rights fellowship that had been offered to me because of my criticism of Israel.” Although, he did hastily add, “As best we can tell, donor reaction was his concern.”
Even The New York Times acknowledged that Roth “has described it as a case of ‘donor-driven censorship,’ though he said he had no proof.”
What followed had no ambiguity. After students, donors, and some professors bombarded Harvard, Elmendorf about-faced.
Of course, the Dean insisted “my decision was not influenced by donors. Donors do not affect our consideration of academic matters.” Now, somehow, mysteriously Elmendorf concluded that “I made an error in my decision.”
Oops. Deans rarely override faculty decisions — and only for really compelling reasons. For a dean to then veto his own veto is even rarer. What new information about Roth did he uncover in his hasty second-look under an ear-splitting drumbeat of criticism from all the Right-Thinking Lefties? What new perspective did he gain? Did he rush into the first decision? The second decision? Both? The whole embarrassing debacle makes a mockery of academic freedom.
The controversy should never have pivoted around Roth’s stance on Israel — it’s not like academia or Harvard lacks obsessive Bash-Israel-Firsters. One anti-Zionist more here or there won’t really make a difference. The real problem is that Roth would be a negative role model for aspiring activists who should learn to get their facts right as a precursor to righting wrongs.
Roth’s anti-Israel animus led him to act sloppily and push false accusations in ways that should concern any academic committed to truth. He throws around the “apartheid” word ahistorically, injecting irrelevant but damning race-based questions and false South African analogies into the national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. He promoted a Human Rights Watch analysis that foolishly treated all Arabs as if they are stuck in the same polity — be they Bedouins who aren’t Palestinians, or Israeli citizens who have democratic rights, or Hamas’ mass hostages in Gaza, or the long-suffering subjects of the Palestinian Authority.
And, in January 2021, Roth accused Israel of discriminating against Palestinians by not vaccinating any Palestinians against Covid-19 in the territories — overlooking the inconvenient fact that under the Oslo protocols, the Palestinian Authority is responsible for vaccinations.
In his sustained, decades-long, anti-Israel fury, Roth derailed Human Rights Watch and mis-educated the entire human rights community. Most outrageously, he blurred the important distinction between open and closed societies. Human Rights Watch, Robert Bernstein explained, always “sought to draw a sharp line between the democratic and nondemocratic worlds, in an effort to create clarity in human rights.”
Liberty-loving students committed to defending freedom globally need to understand that democracies like Israel and the United States have corrective mechanisms that dictatorships lack. In rushing to demonize Israel, Roth sacrificed that fundamental tool distinguishing between imperfect but fixable free countries, and perfectly awful regimes.
What serious academic would want some zealot teaching students how to trash facts, ignore subtleties, and eradicate useful distinctions in the name of human rights? Foisting this truth-twister on the Kennedy School undermines its stated mission ‘to improve public policy and leadership, so people can live in societies that are more safe, free, just, and sustainably prosperous.” This dishonorable honor also dishonors Harvard’s motto: “Veritas,” which used to mean “truth.”
Once again, we see how poisoned a sea the academic world has become. Just because Roth bashes Israel, he was hailed as a truth-seeker and defended as a martyr. Meanwhile, the self-appointed guardians of the media-academia complex decided that any criticisms of him could not possibly be rooted in a rigorous concern for Harvard’s integrity; it just had to be all about the kosher Benjamins.
Now, Roth is making the circuit, still whining despite winning, playing the woe-is-me role of the silenced Israel critic — whose spin is featured in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, etc. etc. etc. Rather than falling for his faux martyrdom, intelligent observers should once again note the rot in academia, as universities become propaganda factories rather than truth-seeking centers of critical inquiry.
On second thought, given what Harvard and so many elite universities have become, I withdraw my objections. I can think of no more appropriate a candidate for today’s poisoned Ivy League than that master of human wrongs, Kenneth Roth.
Gil Troy is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American History and four books on Zionism. He is the editor of the new three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People (www.theljp.org).