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Harvard Faces Outcry for Rescinding Post to Ex-Head of Human Rights Watch over Criticism of Israel

StoryJanuary 09, 2023
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We speak with the longtime former head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, about losing a prestigious position at Harvard over his criticism of Israeli human rights abuses. Roth was set to begin as a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy after he retired as director of the renowned human rights organization in April. But the school’s dean, Douglas Elmendorf, vetoed the move over Roth’s and Human Rights Watch’s “anti-Israel bias,” The Nation reports. “We hold Israel to the same standards as everybody else,” Roth says of Human Rights Watch’s work. He adds that while it’s unclear what pressure the Kennedy School may have faced in its decision, reporting truthfully on Israel’s rights record often brings down the ire of pro-Israel groups who want to shut down all criticism. “They want us to exempt Israel from human rights scrutiny, and no credible human rights group could possibly do that.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “All Over Again” by Esperanza Spalding and Stanley Clarke. Spalding has announced she is leaving Harvard, saying, quote, “Sadly, what I aspire to cultivate and activate in organized learning spaces is not (yet) aligned with Harvard’s priorities.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government is facing growing outcry for rescinding a fellowship for the former head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, over his criticism and the group’s criticism of Israel’s human rights record. Ken Roth is one of the most recognized human rights defenders in the world. He headed Human Rights Watch from 1993 to 2022. In 2021, Human Rights Watch made headlines when it published a major report accusing Israel of committing crimes against humanity, including apartheid.

In June, Ken Roth agreed to take a fellowship at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy inside Harvard’s Kennedy School. But several weeks later, Roth learned Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf had vetoed the fellowship. Roth was told it was because he criticized Israel.

The American Civil Liberties Union has called Harvard’s decision to rescind the fellowship to Ken Roth, quote, “profoundly troubling.” PEN America has also criticized Harvard’s decision, saying in a statement, quote, “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 program itself,” they said.

Kenneth Roth joins us now from Geneva, Switzerland.

Ken Roth, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about what’s happened, what you understand why it is you are not at Harvard enjoying this fellowship.

KENNETH ROTH: Well, I mean, as you just said, it’s because I and Human Rights Watch criticized Israel. The Carr Center, the human rights center at the Kennedy School, wanted me. They called me up, you know, as soon as I announced that I would be leaving Human Rights Watch. And it made sense for me to go there, because I’m working on a book, and this would be a kind of very logical place for me to try to do that. We thought that that was the end of the story, that the dean’s approval of my fellowship would be, you know, a perfunctory matter. It happens all the time. And I was shocked when he vetoed it because of our criticism of Israel.

I had a slight inkling of this when I spoke to the dean in July. He asked me, after about a half-hour of very, you know, pleasant, normal conversation, he said, “Do you have any enemies?” I thought it was a bit of a weird question, because, you know, as head of Human Rights Watch, I have a lot of enemies. I mentioned to him that the Chinese government and the Russian government have both personally sanctioned me. Governments like the Saudi government or the Rwandan government hate me. But, you know, I knew what he was driving at, so I mentioned, “Yes, and, of course, the Israeli government hates me, too.” That was the end of the matter. Two weeks later, I learned, through the very respected professor at the Kennedy School, Kathryn Sikkink, that Elmendorf, the dean, had told her that it was our criticism of Israel that was the death knell for my fellowship.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been at Human Rights Watch for close to, what, 30 years. Talk about Human Rights Watch’s stand on Israel, how it compares to Amnesty International’s — also did a big report on Israel as an apartheid state — but also your reports on Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East.

KENNETH ROTH: Well, Human Rights Watch applies the exact same standards to Israel as we do to a hundred other countries that we regularly monitor. That is to say, we insist on scrupulous, factual objectivity, and then we apply those facts under international human rights and humanitarian law — so the exact same process we use everyplace else. Because there is an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we also, as a matter of principle, scrutinize the other players in that conflict. So, Human Rights Watch reports critically on the Palestinian Authority, on Hamas, on Hezbollah. And this is what we do in every other conflict around the world, as well. So, there’s really no difference between what Human Rights Watch does on Israel and everyplace else.

The big difference is that there are a group of, you know, organized supporters of the Israeli government, often masquerading around — you know, behind sort of civic groups with very neutral-sounding names, who attack anybody who criticizes Israel. And Human Rights Watch, and me personally, we tend to be at the forefront of their attacks.

Now, I don’t think that’s what was going on directly with the Kennedy School dean, but he easily could have read their material. Certainly since this decision was announced, these same groups have been saying, “Oh, Human Rights Watch is biased.” But, you know, what they really mean is we hold Israel to the same standards as everybody else. They don’t want, you know, a few — somewhat fewer reports or maybe fewer tweets by me. They want no criticism of Israel. They want us to exempt Israel from human rights scrutiny. And no credible human rights group could possibly do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Who do you believe is behind the pressure for you, for example, not to be a fellow at the Kennedy School? Do you believe it’s donors to Harvard? And what kind of role do they play there?

KENNETH ROTH: I’m not hearing you, if you’re —

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, can you hear me now? I’m saying: Do you believe donors to Harvard played a role in your rejection as a fellow?

KENNETH ROTH: OK. Now you’re coming back. Hello?

AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe your role as a fellow — do you believe that donors’ roles to Harvard are a factor in your denial, the rescinding of your fellowship?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, I mean, I have no direct evidence of that, but I think it’s the only plausible explanation. In other words, Elmendorf, the dean, he doesn’t have a history of defending Israel. I don’t think he personally cares. But as Michael Massing showed in his excellent exposé in The Nation on this issue, the Kennedy School has a few big donors who are big supporters of Israel. And I think the real fear here is that, you know, either he consulted with them or he feared what they would say, but he allowed their preferences to yield to his censorship. In other words, he, apparently, allowed donors to violate the principle of academic freedom.

And this is a very serious problem. I mean, it’s not just a problem for me personally. This is not, you know, impeding my career in a significant way. But I think about, you know, first of all, the younger academics, who don’t have the visibility that I do, who are going to take from this lesson the view that if you touch Israel, if you criticize Israel, that can be a career-killing move. You’ll get canceled. And that’s a disastrous signal to send.

But the other, I think, big issue here is that if there is any institution in the world, any academic institution, that could resist this kind of donor pressure, it’s Harvard. Harvard is, you know, the richest university in the world. Harvard should be saying, “We, as a matter of principle, will not accept contributions from donors who insist on violating academic freedom.” They are not making that statement. Right now they’re just lying low and leaving us to have to surmise that it was the kind of donor pressure that led to this cancellation of my fellowship and this effort to really undermine academic freedom. I hope that Harvard takes this as an opportunity to clarify that donor preferences never will be allowed to violate academic freedom. But their silence so far says the opposite.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Beinart had an interesting op-ed in The New York Times in August headlined, “Has the Fight Against Antisemitism Lost Its Way?” He said, quote, “Over the past 18 months, America’s most prominent Jewish organizations have done something extraordinary. They have accused the world’s leading human rights organizations of promoting hatred of Jews,” Peter Beinart wrote. Talk about who these Jewish organizations are — do you think they had anything to do with what happened to you? — and your own background, your family, in relation to the Holocaust.

KENNETH ROTH: Well, I mean, first of all, me personally, I’m Jewish. My father grew up in Nazi Germany and fled in July 1938 to the United States. You know, I grew up hearing Hitler stories. That’s a lot of why I went into the effort to defend human rights. It was sort of what I brought from that experience. So, you know, the accusation that I’m antisemitic is just ridiculous.

But there is a real effort to redefine antisemitism to mean, essentially, criticism of Israel. Now, they don’t say that explicitly. They say, “Oh, you’re demonizing Israel.” But, you know, of course, human rights advocacy is about demonizing abusive governments. When Human Rights Watch reports on abuses and publicizes them, we are trying to demonize governments around the world. That’s what we do. That’s how we shame governments and pressure them into changing. So, to say, oh, we’re demonizing Israel, therefore we’re antisemitic, is basically saying, “Don’t criticize Israel.” And, you know, we’re not going to fall for that ploy.

But it worries me, because it’s cheapening the very important concept of antisemitism. Antisemitism is a real, vibrant threat. But if it is dumbed down to mean just any criticism of Israel, people are going to stop getting outraged about antisemitism and think, “Oh, this is just the abusive Israel government or its supporters trying to defend Israel.” That would be a shame for the effort to combat antisemitism.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the Belfer Center and who is behind the Belfer Center, and the role that it has played in shaping the discourse or trying to limit criticism of Israel?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, Michael Massing in The Nation talks about the Belfer Center, which is, I think, the biggest part of the Kennedy School. It has many, many fellowships of the sort that I was just denied, including an Israeli general was given one last year. It is filled with national security types. Now, you know, Michael wonders: Were these national security types behind the veto of my fellowship? Personally, I don’t think that was it, because Human Rights Watch deals with national security types all around the world. They recognize us as, you know, a respected institution. We’re fact-based. We’re principled. They may not like our criticisms, but, you know, we’re just an accepted interlocutor. So, the idea that they would deal with us every day in Washington, in London, in Brussels, but suddenly veto my fellowship at Harvard, I don’t think that’s feasible.

But, you know, there are some donors behind the Belfer Center who are big supporters of Israel. And, you know, that, I think, is probably the more likely explanation, not necessarily that they insisted on this, but that the Kennedy School dean, Elmendorf, feared that they might object to my appointment. God knows why, because, you know, frankly, my counterparts from Amnesty, from Human Rights Watch, have had prior fellowships there, and nobody seemed to care. But Elmendorf seems suddenly ultrasensitive to the possibility that he might be criticized for appointing me, because Israel is among the hundred governments that I and Human Rights Watch criticized.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Ken Roth, this is —

KENNETH ROTH: Now, this is something that, you know, has been a problem in other places, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: This is particularly significant now, given that Israel now has perhaps the most far-right government in its history. We have about 30 seconds. If you could respond?

KENNETH ROTH: I mean, what I worry about is that this new Netanyahu government, which has clearly had to placate the far right in order to secure power, is going to be more repressive than even the Israeli government under him previously had been. And so, you know, this apartheid treatment of the Palestinians, I fear, is only going to get worse.

AMY GOODMAN: And where do you end up, Kenneth Roth?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, I am writing my book this year. I took a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m currently looking at a few possibilities to begin a professorship starting in September. I’ll probably decide that soon. So, I’m going to continue writing about human rights, speaking about human rights, and being part of the cause, just no longer a formal part of Human Rights Watch.

AMY GOODMAN: Kenneth Roth, former longtime executive director at Human Rights Watch.

And that does it for our show. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Mary Conlon. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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