A Vetoed Harvard Appointment

Kennedy School cancels a planned fellowship for human rights leader Kenneth Roth. Was his designation of Israel as an apartheid state to blame?

January 9, 2023
Kenneth Roth, a middle-aged white man with gray hair and glasses.
Kenneth Roth
(The University of Pennsylvania)

Kenneth Roth, former executive director of Human Rights Watch, expected to follow his nearly 30-year run at the international nonprofit organization with a fellowship at Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. But he and his supporters say the dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government blocked his appointment for political reasons—namely, Roth’s criticism of Israel.

The dean, Doug Elmendorf, wasn’t available for an interview Friday and hasn’t publicly commented on the allegations, which were first reported by The Nation. A spokesperson for the Kennedy School, which houses the Carr Center, did not provide information on how fellows are vetted when asked.

Roth told Inside Higher Ed in an interview that he’s most concerned about what Elmendorf’s decision signals to junior scholars of human rights studying Israel.

“I’m an older figure. I’ve got plenty of opportunities—it’s not a big deal for me,” said Roth, whom the University of Pennsylvania recently named its inaugural Thakore Family Global Justice and Human Rights Visiting Fellow at Perry World House. “I worry more about younger academics. The signal this sends to them is that if you touch Israel, if you criticize Israel, your career may be stymied.”

Mathias Risse, director of the Carr Center, and Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy at Harvard, said via email that he and colleagues recruited Roth “because he is one of the most distinguished human rights leaders of our time and one of the most visible faces of the human rights movement. I continue to stand by that decision, without any hesitation and qualification.”

Elmendorf’s veto of Roth’s appointment, Risse said, was a “profoundly sad moment for me personally, and my subsequent conversation with [Roth] to explain this decision to the extent I could was one of the lowest moments of my professional life.”

Referring to Human Rights Watch, Risse said that Roth has “built Human Rights into a trusted organization of formidable size.” Its reporting “sets standards in the field,” and it’s known by experts for its “fair-mindedness.”

PEN America, a nonprofit dedicated to free expression and human rights, said in a statement last week that it is “the role of a human rights defender to call out governments harshly, to take positions that are unpopular in certain quarters and to antagonize those who hold power and authority. There is no suggestion that Roth’s criticisms of Israel are in any way based on racial or religious animus. 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.”

Not Just ‘Formalities’

Roth said that the Carr Center contacted him about a fellowship in April, shortly after he announced he was stepping down as Human Rights Watch’s executive director. He’d been planning to write a book about how small groups of people can move governments around the world, and he thought the Carr Center could be a good base from which to pursue this project. Roth accepted a fellowship offer in June, he said; only the “formalities” of the arrangement remained.

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On his own, he said, Roth reached out to Elmendorf via a mutual friend and donor to introduce himself and arrange a “perfunctory get-to-know-you” talk. That conversation happened on July 12. Roth said that the first 30 minutes were “nothing exciting.” Then, he said, Elmendorf asked him if he had “any enemies.”

Roth said he told Elmendorf that he’d been sanctioned by the Chinese and Russian governments for his work on human rights in their respective countries, and that the Rwandan and Saudi Arabian governments weren’t fans of his, either. Sensing that Roth might be hinting at the Human Rights Watch’s work on Israel, in particular, Roth said he added, “The Israeli government hates me, too.”

The conversation didn’t progress much from there, Roth recalled. Elmendorf did say something about there being “a lot of fellows” and “taking more control of the process,” Roth added. But he didn’t expect the news he got two weeks later: his yearlong fellowship had been rejected.

Roth said a would-be faculty colleague at the Kennedy School said she’d asked Elmendorf what had gone wrong, and that Elmendorf allegedly cited Roth’s stance on Israel. (That faculty member, Kathryn Sikkink, Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy, didn’t respond to a request for comment but reportedly told The Nation that Elmendorf said Human Rights Watch had an “anti-Israel bias.”)

Undue Criticism?

Human Rights Watch, an international nonprofit organization, has long criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and in 2021 published a 213-page report called “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution.” The gist of the report was that Israel’s once-temporary policies on Palestinians had calcified into a permanent system of apartheid. Human Rights Watch wasn’t the first human rights group to make this claim, but it was controversial: Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, called the apartheid premise a “mendacious” “slur,” one indicative of Roth’s organization’s ongoing, “systemic anti-Israel bias.”

Roth also has tweeted frequent criticisms of Israel, including in a post earlier this year about Israel naming a special envoy for combating antisemitism and the “delegitimization” of Israeli-occupied territories. “Rather than end its apartheid, the Israeli government has appointed an actress to fight ‘delegitimization,’ as if Israel’s darkening reputation because of its repression is just a public-relations problem,” Roth said then.

Asked whether Human Rights Watch is focused more on Israel than elsewhere, Roth said the organization 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.”

Sikkink also reportedly disagreed with Elmendorf’s allegation of anti-Israel bias, and she gathered data suggesting that Human Rights Watch and other respected human rights groups rated Israel’s human rights record similarly.

Amnesty International, for instance, published a report last year called, “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: A Look Into Decades of Oppression and Domination.” Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary general from 2010 to 2018, has served as a senior fellow at the Carr Center.

Risse, of the Carr Center, said that Human Rights Watch “stands for impartial criticism of all uses of power that attack or undermine people’s human rights, and they have applied their reporting standards to countries across the board, including to many governments in the Middle East—specifically also the Palestinian Authority. Their criticisms of Israel over time have been in line with what Amnesty International and the American State Department have also written. Their reporting on Israel is not an outlier in any interesting sense.”

Of Roth, in particular, Risse said he’s “articulate and really quite brilliant and never shies away from debate. He would have been accessible to the [Kennedy School] community to discuss all controversial issues, including their assessment of the human rights situation in Israel.”

Roth, whose Jewish father fled Nazi Germany as a boy, said that it’s “utterly impossible” to avoid the Israeli-Palestinian question in his line of work: “If you’re comporting to deal with human rights, you need to apply them even-handedly. That’s a basic principle. I would have been completely derelict in my duties if I somehow exempted Israel from Human Rights Watch’s scrutiny. That would have been completely the wrong thing to do.”

Nor should an academic center “purport to be studying human rights if it exempts a serious offender,” he said. “And this is not saying Israel is the worst offender. But it has a multidecade occupation that has become apartheid. That’s a big deal.”

Other Kennedy School Fellows

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.”

At the time, Elmendorf said that “we and [Snyder] now believe that having him on campus would not enhance education here in the ways we intended.”

Elmendorf made a similar announcement in 2017 regarding the appointment of convicted Wikileaks source Chelsea Manning as a visiting fellow to the Institute of Politics. Unlike Snyder, who stepped aside, however, Manning’s fellowship was rescinded amid controversy.

Going forward, Elmendorf said at the time, “I think we should weigh, for each potential visitor, what members of the Kennedy School community could learn from that person’s visit against the extent to which that person’s conduct fulfills the values of public service to which we aspire. This balance is not always easy to determine, and reasonable people can disagree about where to strike the balance for specific people.”

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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