Roth says the Harvard episode could still discourage research critical of Israel : NPR

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Kenneth Roth, former executive director of Human Rights Watch.

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AFP via Getty Images

Kenneth Roth, former executive director of Human Rights Watch.

AFP via Getty Images

Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf reversed course on Thursday and decided to allow former Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth to join the Kennedy School Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Man as Fellow.

“In the case of Mr. Roth, I now believe I made a mistake in my decision not to appoint him as a Fellow at our Carr Center for Human Rights,” Elmendorf said in a statement.

Roth told NPR’s Leila Fadel in a Morning Edition interview that Elmendorf established the fellowship because of Roth’s previous work on Israel’s human rights record at Human Rights Watch. An edited version of the interview was broadcast on Wednesday, January 18.

In the interview with NPR, Roth appealed to Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow to “clarify, where does Harvard stand on this?”

He recalled an initial meeting with Elmendorf on Zoom.

“He said, ‘do you have any enemies’? Now, I mean, that’s hard because I have tons of enemies.”

Roth explained that both the Chinese and Russian governments had personally sanctioned him. He told Elmendorf about the displeasure the Saudi and Rwandan governments had for him.

“But, you know, I should have thought about what he was driving at. So I said ‘and I also don’t like the Israeli government’.”

Roth told NPR that mentioning Israel was “the kiss of death.”

He said that the Carr Center later informed him that his fellowship was vetoed by the Dean because of his criticism of Israel. Under Roth’s leadership, Human Rights Watch emerged several reports detailing how Israel appears to have committed war crimes against the Palestinians.

A letter delivered to Harvard on Tuesday and signed by hundreds of Harvard affiliates and at least 19 student organizations called for Elmendorf’s resignation as a result of the decision. Harvard acknowledged receipt of the letter.

Roth said this was not the first time his work documenting human rights issues in Israel had attracted negative attention.

“At Human Rights Watch, I regularly received pushback because of what we said about this or that government, and I’d say Israel was at the top of the list,” he told NPR.

“I got used to the idea that it was fair for people to ask me to be fair and factual about Israel.”

But Roth said he was never asked to exempt Israel from his scrutiny at Human Rights Watch. What worried Roth about his Harvard experience was “younger academics learning the lesson that if you dare to criticize Israel, your career can be compromised.”

Academics studying Israel and the Palestinian territories have often had their careers compromised, especially when they come from marginalized backgrounds. Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropologist and Barnard College professor, is one example. In 2007, Abu El-Haj was the subject of a petition appealed to the college not to grant her mandate because her academic research focused on the bias inherent in the practice of archeology in Israel.

When asked for comment by NPR before Roth’s fellowship was awarded, Harvard Kennedy School media relations director James Smith said that Elmendorf’s initial decision not to offer Roth a fellowship was based on an evaluation of Roth’s potential contributions to the school.

When Harvard Kennedy School Dean Elmendorf announced on Thursday that Roth’s fellowship will go forward, he claimed that donors did not influence his initial decision, but added, “certain aspects of personnel matters should not be discussed publicly.”

Elmendorf also blamed the episode on the lack of criteria for deciding whether to approve a fellowship or not.

In his own declaration that you accept the fellowship, Roth said the episode could still discourage critical research of Israel. He wrote, “the problem of people being penalized for criticizing Israel is not limited to me, and many scholars and students have no comparable ability to mobilize public attention.”

This digital story was edited by Majd Al-Waheidi.

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