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US: Harvard backtracks after denying fellowship to rights leader over his criticisms of Israel

20th Jan 2023
US: Harvard backtracks after denying fellowship to rights leader over his criticisms of Israel

By Michael Hernandez

WASHINGTON (AA): Harvard University’s Kennedy School reversed course Thursday after initially denying a fellowship to Ken Roth, the man who led Human Rights Watch (HRW) for three decades.

The school’s decision came after Dean Douglas Elmendorf initially blocked Roth from receiving an illustrious one-year fellowship at the school’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Roth led HRW since1993 before recently retiring and has been dubbed the “godfather” of human rights by The New York Times.

Roth had long been involved with the Carr Center, and the organization’s executive director, Sushma Raman, contacted him soon after news of his exit from the rights group became public in April to extend an invitation to join the center.

Roth expressed interest in accepting, which prompted Raman to send the offer to Elmendorf, the Kennedy School dean, in what was supposed to be a formality, according to an in-depth article published in the Nation, a left-leaning bi-weekly magazine .

But two weeks after a video call with Roth, Elmendorf announced that he would not approve the fellowship. At issue for Elmendorf was HRW’s “anti-Israeli bias,” Kathryn Sikkink, the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School, told the Nation.

The disclosure prompted widespread backlash from several corners, including the school’s faculty and academic freedom, rights and Palestine advocates.

Roth, who is Jewish and whose father fled Nazi Germany, lashed out against Elmendorf, saying, “he has no backbone whatsoever,” indicating the decision was primarily driven by the school’s pro-Israel donors.

Elmendorf denied in a letter to the Kennedy School community that his initial decision to block Roth’s fellowship was motivated by donors but did not specify what was behind the decision other than to say that it “was based on my evaluation of his potential contributions to the School ”

He acknowledged, however, that he had been in “error.”

“I am sorry that the decision inadvertently cast doubt on the mission of the School and our commitment to open debate in ways I had not intended and do not believe to be true,” he wrote.

“I have spoken now with a colleague at the Carr Center, and we will extend an offer to Mr. Roth to serve as a Fellow. I hope that our community will be able to benefit from his deep experience in a wide range of human rights issues,” he added.

After being rebuffed by Elmendorf, Roth accepted an offer to become a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House.

Speaking to the MSNBC television network, Roth voiced appreciation for the decision but said “this is about a lot more than me.”

“I am relatively privileged. I was able to shine an intense spotlight on this really misguided decision. But what about those many scholars, those many academics, the students, who rightfully fear that their future could be jeopardized if they criticize Israel?” he said.

“What I hope is that, beyond just reversing the decision on my fellowship, that the Kennedy School and Harvard University more broadly finds some way to reaffirm the principle of academic freedom to make clear that criticizing Israel is never grounds for penalizing scholars.”

Roth said he will “find a way” to accept the Harvard fellowship after also taking the offer from the University of Pennsylvania.

[Map of USA from CIA Factbook/Public Domain]

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