HRW former head denied Harvard fellowship over ‘anti-Israel bias’

Kenneth Roth, the longtime head of Human Rights Watch, had his fellowship offer rescinded because of the organisation’s criticism of Israeli policies, according to The Nation.

Kenneth Roth, former Executive Director of Human Rights Watch
Kenneth Roth has been described as the 'godfather' of human rights [File: Michael Sohn File/AP Photo]

The Harvard Kennedy School in the United States rescinded a fellowship offer to the former head of Human Rights Watch (HRW) over the well-respected organisation’s criticism of Israeli government policies, US magazine The Nation has reported.

Kenneth Roth, who spent nearly three decades as the executive director of HRW before announcing his retirement in April, was offered to join as senior fellow by the executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, a centre he said he had been involved in since its founding in 1999.

While the approval of the Harvard Kennedy School dean, Douglas Elmendorf, should have been a formality, the prominent human rights advocate was informed after a video conversation in July that his fellowship offer had been withdrawn.

Elmendorf allegedly cited an “anti-Israel bias” and Roth’s tweets on Israel, which he said were of particular concern.

In an article published on Friday by The Nation, Roth, who is Jewish and says he was drawn to the human rights cause by his father’s experience living in Nazi Germany, described the incident as “crazy” and said Elmendorf had “no backbone whatsoever”.

The US magazine reported that the Carr Center is among the smallest and poorest of the school’s subdivisions, with an eight-person staff and 32 fellows, and sits uncomfortably among other institutes at the Kennedy School that deal with defence policy, military strategy, and intelligence gathering.

Among them is the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “A look at its activities can help explain why Roth was deemed too hot to handle,” Michael Massing wrote in his piece for The Nation.

The centre counts former CIA Director David Petraeus among a long list of former intelligence brass taking part in its highest-profile initiatives. Among the 16 members of the Dean’s Executive Board is also Idan Ofer, son of Israeli shipping magnate Sammy Ofer, and his wife Batia.

After being vetoed by Harvard, Roth accepted a visiting fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania.

The New York Times dubbed Roth the “godfather” of human rights in an article that noted how he had been “an unrelenting irritant to authoritarian governments, exposing human rights abuses with documented research reports that have become the group’s specialty”.

Under his leadership, HRW grew its budget from $7m to nearly $100m and went from 60 employees to 550, monitoring more than 100 countries.

The human rights watchdog played a prominent role in establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC) and helped secure the convictions of Charles Taylor of Liberia, Alberto Fujimori of Peru, and the Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

In April 2021, HRW issued a report accusing Israel of practising a policy of apartheid towards the Palestinians, whose findings were echoed by Amnesty International in January 2022. The American Jewish Committee claimed that the organisation’s charges “sometimes border on antisemitism”.

The Kennedy School’s decision over Roth was met with outrage among some Harvard staff members, according to The Nation.

Kathryn Sikkink, the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School, sent an email to Elmendorf, detailing how data showed that “Human Rights Watch does not have a bias at all against Israel” and that to conclude otherwise “is misinformation”.

The dean answered that he had read her email but would not reconsider his decision.

Source: Al Jazeera, The Nation