Palestinian alumni call for Harvard Kennedy School dean to step down over Ken Roth fiasco

Harvard Kennedy School’s (HKS) Palestinian Alumni Collective is calling for the resignation of Dean Douglas Elmendorf after he rescinded a fellowship to Ken Roth over his Israel criticisms. The group….

Harvard Kennedy School’s (HKS) Palestinian Alumni Collective is calling for the resignation of Dean Douglas Elmendorf after he rescinded a fellowship to Ken Roth over his Israel criticisms. The group is also calling for Roth, who spent almost thirty years as the executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), to be reinstated at the school.

According to a Jan 5 article by Michael Massing in The Nation, Roth was poised to become a fellow at HKS’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy after leaving HRW in 2022. Kennedy School professor Kathryn Sikkink told Massing that Elmendorf explicitly stated that Roth was denied the position over his criticisms of Israel, particularly his tweets on the subject.

“The Harvard Kennedy School is dear to all of us. Yet, our collective experiences with institutionalized anti-Palestinian discrimination at HKS have included the administration’s support for Israeli state-sponsored violence and apartheid,” reads the statement from the alumni collective. “We are deeply dismayed that this support continues.”

“The various standards applied by Dean Elmendorf are noteworthy,” it continues. “While rescinding Roth’s appointment, the Dean has chosen to host Israeli officials who bear responsibility for war crimes perpetrated against Palestinians, including the crime of apartheid, a crime against humanity.”

A number of other organizations have criticized the move, including PEN America, who expressed “dismay” and said the decision “raises serious questions about the credibility of the Harvard program itself.”

The Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee said they were “disappointed but unsurprised” by the news. “As an organization, we condemn Harvard’s attempt to undermine the world’s leading human rights organization, and call on the university to honor its purported values by providing a platform for voices that bring human rights to the forefront, and divesting from the violations of said rights,” reads their statement.

HRW apartheid report

HRW has faced increased attacks from pro-Israel groups since its 2021 report “A Threshold Crossed.” The 213-page document details how Israel’s responsibility in “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.” It also recommends that the international community alter its approach toward the country.

“While much of the world treats Israel’s half-century occupation as a temporary situation that a decades-long ‘peace process’ will soon cure, the oppression of Palestinians there has reached a threshold and a permanence that meets the definitions of the crimes of apartheid and persecution,” said Roth at the time.

As many have pointed out, HRW consistently criticizes hundreds of countries, and Israel still makes up a small percentage of the group’s work. It took them years to acknowledge that Israel is an apartheid state, but the move also signified the fact that support for Palestinian rights is beginning to permeate the most mainstream of organizations.

Pro-Israel donors

In his article Massing also identifies a number of pro-Israel HKS donors, including Thomas Kaplan, Leslie Wexner, Idan and Batia Ofer, and Robert and Renee Belfer. “A rabbi representing Wexner approached the Kennedy School with the idea of bringing Israeli officials and civic leaders to Cambridge for a year of mid-career study, and the school agreed,” reads one of Massing’s details. “Among the 10 fellows who come annually are ministry officials, local government representatives, policy analysts, and directors of nonprofits, as well as members of the Mossad, the Israel Defense Forces, and the Shin Bet security service.”

Roth is openly acknowledging that donor money could have had an impact on his fate at the school. “The ultimate question here is about donor-driven censorship. Why should any academic institution allow the perception that donor preferences, whether expressed or assumed, can restrict academic inquiry and publication?,” he wrote in an op-ed in The Guardian. “Regardless of what happened in my case, wealthy Harvard should take the lead here.”

This element of the story is already being denounced as a “conspiracy” by pro-Israel individuals like the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt. On Twitter, Greenblatt claimed that Massing had concocted a deception that “implicates Israel and the American Jewish community.”

It’s hard to detect where the conspiracy might begin as Sikkink says that Elmendorf openly admitted the decision was made over Israel.