Kenneth Roth, who was the executive director of Human Rights Watch, or HRW, until last year, was recruited by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy to become a fellow and he accepted. But a few weeks later, in July, Roth said the center called and told him that the dean of the school, Douglas Elmendorf, had not approved it.
Roth said he wasn’t given a reason but believes it was due to his and his group’s criticism of Israel.
In a statement Thursday, Elmendorf said he “made an error in his decision" not to appoint Roth and would now offer him the fellowship. He said his initial decision was not influenced by donors or to limit debate at the Kennedy School but based on “my evaluation of his potential contributions to the School.”
A son of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Roth has acknowledged that his work has made him enemies around the world. In a brief conversation with Elmendorf before his fellowship was denied, Roth said he told the dean that he had been sanctioned by the Russian and Chinese governments and “was pretty sure the Israeli government detests me."
"That turned out to be the kiss of death,” he said.
Over the years, the group has issued a number of reports saying that Israel appears to have committed war crimes against the Palestinians.
And in 2019, Israel expelled the group’s local director, accusing him of boycott activity. Roth, who at the time was HRW’s executive director, said Israel was joining a “fairly ugly group of governments” that have barred the group’s researchers. Two years later, HRW said Israeli policies toward the Palestinians amounted to apartheid. Israel vehemently denies the label and comparisons to apartheid-era South Africa.
The Harvard decision drew a quick response from one pro-Israel group.
In a statement, NGO Monitor said it was it was disappointed by Harvard's decision. The group declared that "during 30 years as head of Human Rights Watch, Roth has consistently singled out Israel uniquely for demonization and delegitimization, which contributed to the rise in antisemitism and discrimination, including against Jewish students on university campuses.”
The Israel-Palestinian conflict is an extremely fraught subject on college campuses these days.
A boycott movement against Israel has made great inroads on many campuses. Israel’s supporters, meanwhile, say the country is unfairly singled out and that the boycott movement masks a deeper agenda to delegitimize and even destroy Israel.