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Harvard restores fellowship for human rights advocate critical of Israeli policies

Kenneth Roth, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch.
AFP via Getty Images
Kenneth Roth, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch.

Dean Douglas Elmendorf of Harvard Kennedy School 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 as a Fellow.

"In the case of Mr. Roth, I now believe that I made an error 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 stopped the fellowship because of Roth's previous work on Israel's human rights record at Human Rights Watch. An edited version of the interview aired on Wednesday, January 18th.

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 distaste the Saudi and Rwandan government had for him.

"But, you know, I had an inkling what he was driving at. So I said 'and also the Israeli government doesn't like me.'"

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

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

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

Roth said this wasn't the first time his work documenting human rights issues in Israel had drawn negative attention.

"At Human Rights Watch, I regularly received pushback because of what we said about this or that government, and I would say that 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 fact-based on Israel."

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

Academics who study 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 calling on the college not to grant her tenure because her academic research focused on the bias inherent in the practice of archaeology in Israel.

When asked for comment by NPR before Roth's fellowship was granted, Harvard Kennedy School media relations director James Smith said 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 would go forward, he maintained that donors did not influence his initial decision, but added, "certain aspects of personnel matters should not be publicly discussed."

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

In his own statement accepting the fellowship, Roth said the episode may still discourage research critical of Israel. He wrote, "the problem of people penalized for criticizing Israel is not limited to me, and most scholars and students have no comparable capacity to mobilize public attention."

This digital story was edited by Majd Al-Waheidi. contributed to this story

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Simone Popperl is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and Up First. She joined the network in March 2019, and since then has pitched and edited stories on everything from the legacy of burn pits in Iraq, to never-ending "infrastructure week," to California towns grappling with climate change, to American alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin's ascendance to the top of her sport. She led Noel King's reporting on the early days of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Steve Inskeep's reporting from swing states in the lead up to the 2020 Presidential Election, and Leila Fadel's field reporting from Kentucky on the end of Roe v. Wade.