Harvard offers fellowship to Israel critic Ken Roth after controversy

Harvard initially vetoed the decision to offer Roth the fellowship, allegedly because of Roth’s 'anti-Israel bias.'

 Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, attends an interview with Reuters in Geneva, Switzerland, January 12, 2021.  (photo credit: REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE)
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, attends an interview with Reuters in Geneva, Switzerland, January 12, 2021.
(photo credit: REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE)

Harvard University will extend a fellowship offer to former Human Rights Watch Director Ken Roth after previously rejecting him over his past comments on Israel, capping weeks of controversy that ensnared the Ivy League school in a global debate about academic freedom and criticism of Israel.

In an open letter Thursday, Harvard Kennedy School dean Douglas Elmendorf said his previous decision not to offer the fellowship to Roth had been an “error,” and that “the broader faculty input I have now sought and received has persuaded me that my decision was not the best one for the School.” 

Weeks of controversy

The school’s Carr Center for Human Rights had been in talks with Roth to take a fellowship shortly after he resigned from his position as Human Rights Watch’s director last year. Roth had held the role since 1993. Elmendorf initially vetoed the Carr Center’s decision to offer Roth the fellowship, and an affiliated professor told The Nation, the progressive magazine, that she had been told Roth’s “anti-Israel bias” was the reason.

Human Rights Watch tracks human rights abuses around the world. Roth’s critics — including Human Rights Watch’s Jewish co-founder, Robert Bernstein — alleged that the group was spending a disproportionate amount of its time and resources on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians under his leadership. A year before Roth left, the organization released a landmark report condemning Israel as an “apartheid” state for the first time. 

Roth, whose father was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, also frequently tweets criticism of Israel that his critics say sometimes veers into antisemitism.

 Omar Shakir, a U.S. citizen representing New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Israel and the Palestinian territories, stands next to Kenneth Roth executive director of HRW, while speaking before departing Israel at Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, Israel November 25, 2019. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS) Omar Shakir, a U.S. citizen representing New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Israel and the Palestinian territories, stands next to Kenneth Roth executive director of HRW, while speaking before departing Israel at Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, Israel November 25, 2019. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

The report in The Nation, and Roth’s own account of the incident in The Guardian, set off a firestorm as the Harvard community, alongside pro-Palestinian groups and academic free-speech organizations, strongly opposed the school’s decision and called on it to reverse course. 

“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,” PEN America said in a statement. The group’s CEO was an executive at HRW under Roth.

Calls for resignation

More than 1,000 Harvard students, faculty and alumni signed an open letter calling for Elmendorf’s resignation. 

Meanwhile, some pro-Israel figures, including an executive at Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and a student activist at Harvard, had defended the dean’s decision to turn down Roth. 

In one notable comment, Lawrence Summers, the Jewish former Harvard president and former U.S. treasury secretary with strongly pro-Israel views, also criticized the school’s decision. 

“I loathe Ken Roth’s views on Israel and think some of his statements border on antisemitic,” Summers wrote in a series of tweets. But, he added, “preventing a human rights center from having the fmr head of a leading human rights center as a visiting fellow on grounds of the person’s views/modes of expression is not consistent w/profound commitment to intellectual diversity that should be a bedrock value in universities.” 

Meanwhile, Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, objected to another element of The Nation’s report. The story, Greenblatt said, “concocts a conspiracy theory” that the dean’s decision had been swayed by a number of Israeli donors to the Kennedy School. 

“It’s a textbook case of classic antisemitism: It’s not the leadership of the Kennedy School that made this decision, oh no,” Greenblatt wrote in an op-ed. “It’s the powerful and monied Jewish elite that really influences things behind the scenes.”

Through a spokesperson, Elmendorf declined an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency this week. In his letter to the school Thursday, he said his decision on Roth “was based on my evaluation of his potential contributions to the School.”

In a statement Thursday responding to the decision, Roth seemed to indicate he would accept the fellowship offer. “I have long felt that the Carr Center, and the Kennedy School, would be a congenial place for me to work on the book that I am writing. I look forward to spending time there with colleagues and students,” he wrote.

But Roth continued to criticize Elmendorf and said “I remain worried about academic freedom… The problem of people penalized for criticizing Israel is not limited to me, and most scholars and students have no comparable capacity to mobilize public attention.”

NGO Monitor, an Israeli nonprofit that acts as a watchdog of Israel criticism among NGOs, condemned Harvard’s reversal.

“In 30 years as head of Human Rights Watch, Roth has consistently singled out Israel uniquely for demonization and delegitimization, using numerous false and distorted claims. These campaigns contributed significantly to antisemitism, and added to the targeting of Jewish students on university campuses,” the group wrote in a statement on Thursday.