Harvard backtracks after allegedly shunning Israel critic

Kenneth Roth, a middle-aged white man with gray hair and glasses.

A Harvard University dean says he’s reversing course and offering a fellowship to Kenneth Roth, the former longtime Human Rights Watch executive director who said he was initially rejected over his criticism of Israel.

Roth, whose Jewish father fled Nazi Germany as a boy, said Thursday he will accept the John F. Kennedy School of Government fellowship, while also honoring the visiting fellowship the University of Pennsylvania gave him for this academic year.

But he’s not done questioning the initial decision.

“This is about much more than just my fellowship,” Roth said. “This is only going to be victory for academic freedom if the broader threat to academic freedom is addressed. And that means coming clean about who influenced [Dean Doug] Elmendorf and reaffirming that criticism of Israel is not grounds for penalizing scholars.”

The free speech group PEN America is also continuing to ask questions.

“By denying him the fellowship, the university sent an alarming message that champions of human rights could see their academic careers derailed for speaking out against powerful governments,” Jonathan Friedman, the group’s director of free expression and education programs, said in a statement. “It is important for institutions to be able to recognize where they have made an error that encroaches on free speech and academic freedom and to correct it; Harvard deserves credit for that. That said, questions remain about why Roth was denied this fellowship in the first place.”

Roth and his supporters said Doug Elmendorf, dean of the Kennedy School, blocked his appointment over his criticism of Israel. The Nation first reported on the allegations Jan. 5.

“First, let me emphasize that my [rejection] decision was not influenced by donors,” Elmendorf wrote in a letter to the “Harvard Kennedy School Community” Thursday. He and the Kennedy School didn’t comment further Thursday.

“Donors do not affect our consideration of academic matters,” he wrote. “My decision also was not made to limit debate at the Kennedy School about human rights in any country. As a community we are steadfastly committed to free inquiry and including a wide range of views on public policy, and the appointment of a Fellow is never an endorsement of the views of that individual nor a refutation of other views. My decision on Mr. Roth last summer was based on my evaluation of his potential contributions to the school.”

Roth said the fellowship is unpaid. Elmendorf’s letter doesn’t explain why he found Roth’s “potential contributions” unworthy of the honor.

“I now believe that I made an error in my decision not to appoint him as a fellow at our Carr Center for Human Rights [Policy],” Elmendorf wrote. “I am sorry that the decision inadvertently cast doubt on the mission of the school and our commitment to open debate in ways I had not intended and do not believe to be true. The broader faculty input I have now sought and received has persuaded me that my decision was not the best one for the School.”

Mathias Risse, director of the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, initially proposed Roth as a fellow.

“There was an enormous amount of [Kennedy School] faculty mobilization in support of having Ken Roth here as a fellow, and in fact, the faculty spoke pretty much unanimously in this matter (and this would include many who disagree with him on certain things),” Risse wrote in an email Thursday. “From where I stand, it is because of this faculty input that the dean changed his mind, to the point of acknowledging that he had made an error earlier.”

Elmendorf wrote that “In recent days, I have spent a great deal of time consulting with faculty members” and “discussing a path forward on this specific appointment and on broader issues around the appointment of fellows.”

He said, “We need clearer and better processes that draw more on the insights of the Kennedy School faculty as a whole,” and he will ask a faculty committee to develop a process “for evaluating fellow appointments—a process that I expect will bring greater rigor and wider consultation.”

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 organizations 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. 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, Snyder cited the “current political environment and its lack of civility.”

Thursday’s reversal comes as Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges in his own country, has been making headlines for his government’s plans to increase its power over judicial appointments and reduce the Israeli Supreme Court’s ability to overturn the parliament’s laws.

“Regardless of how far-right the Israeli government of the moment is, I don’t think the current direction of the Israeli government was decisive here,” Roth said. “I think the blatant disregard for academic freedom is what outraged people.”

Roth previously told Inside Higher Ed that Human Rights Watch 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.”

Near the end of his letter on Roth, Elmendorf wrote, “I hope that our community will be able to benefit from his deep experience in a wide range of human rights issues.”

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