Harvard blocks role for former Human Rights Watch head over Israel criticism

Chris McGreal

The dean of one the US’s leading schools of government blocked a position for the former head of Human Rights Watch (HRW) over his organisation’s criticism of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

The Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy offered Kenneth Roth a position as a senior fellow shortly after he retired as director of HRW in April after 29 years. Roth is highly regarded within the human rights community for the part his organisation played in advances such as the creation of the international criminal court and the prosecution of major human rights abusers.

The Harvard Kennedy School dean, Douglas Elmendorf, allegedly bowed to pressure, according to the Nation, which revealed the move, at a time when major donors and prominent Jewish organisations were particularly unhappy that HRW has accused Israel of practicing a form of apartheid in the occupied territories.

Roth told the Guardian that his first inkling that something was wrong came in a video conference call to introduce himself to Elmendorf.

“We had a perfectly pleasant chat for about half an hour or so, but toward the end he asked the question, ‘Do you have any enemies?’ And I said, ‘I’ve got many. That’s a hazard of the trade.’ But what he was clearly driving at was Israel. He didn’t want to hear about how I’ve been sanctioned by China, sanctioned by Russia or attacked by Rwanda or Saudi Arabia. He wanted to know: what was my position on Israel?” said Roth.

The former HRW director said Elmendorf nonetheless gave no indication that the fellowship was in jeopardy. However, the Nation reported that two weeks later the dean told Kathryn Sikkink, a professor of human rights policy at the Kennedy School, that Roth would not be permitted to take up the position because HRW has an “anti-Israel bias” and its former director had written tweets critical of Israel.

Roth told the Guardian he now believes Elmendorf bowed to pressure from donors who are strong supporters of Israel.

“I falsely assumed that the dean of the Kennedy School values academic freedom. Maybe I’m naive in retrospect, but I assume that criticism of Israel, as criticism of any other government, is just par for the course. That’s what a leading foreign policy centre does,” he said.

Kennedy School alumni include more former heads of state or government than any similar institution, as well as cabinet ministers, top military officials and parliamentarians.

The Nation noted the “dominant presence of the US national security community and its close ally Israel” at the Kennedy School. These include people in senior positions drawn from weapons manufacturers, the Pentagon and major corporations.

In 2017, Elmendorf bowed to objections from serving and former top CIA officials and withdrew a visiting fellowship offered to Chelsea Manning after her release from prison for violating the Espionage Act by giving WikiLeaks a stash of secret military and diplomatic documents.

The school has received tens of millions of dollars from supporters of Israel such as the billionaire Les Wexner, who, the Nation said, was instrumental in bringing members of Israel’s military and intelligence services to study there.

Another major donor, Robert Belfer, is also closely involved with the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, which have sought to discredit human rights groups over their criticism of Israel. Belfer is a member of the dean’s executive board of major donors who advise Elmendorf.

The spurning of Roth is part of a broader assault on human rights groups over their criticisms of Israeli policies, which have escalated in recent years as increasingly rightwing governments tighten the grip on the occupied territories and the prospect of an independent Palestinian state has receded.

When Amnesty International released a report last year, making the case that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians amounts to apartheid under international laws, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued a statement accusing Amnesty of seeking to “demonize and delegitimize the Jewish and democratic state of Israel”, a formulation frequently used to imply antisemitism.

Source: The Guardian