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Kenneth Roth had a Harvard fellowship offer. Was it rejected for his view on Israel?


Kenneth Roth was executive director of Human Rights Watch for almost three decades. His job called for him to document human rights violations around the world. When he left that job last year, he says he received a call from the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

KENNETH ROTH: And they wanted to know would I like to come there as a senior fellow to work on a book that I'm writing. And we talked about it back and forth. And within a month or so, I agreed that that would be a nice thing to do.

INSKEEP: Then something went wrong. Roth says he lost the fellowship because he criticized human rights violations in Israel. Leila Fadel spoke with Roth about what happened.

ROTH: We still needed the dean of the Kennedy School to sign off on this. But we thought it would be a mere formality. And, indeed, I was so, you know, certain that I was going to be coming that I actually reached out to the dean to say, look; I'm going to be there in September. Let's get to know each other. And we arranged a Zoom conversation in July and chatted for half an hour. And it was a perfectly pleasant conversation until right at the end. He asked this weird question. He said, do you have any enemies? Now, I mean, that's hard because I have tons of enemies.


Yeah. Your whole job is to criticize very powerful states.

ROTH: Precisely. And they don't like that. So you know, I explained that both the Chinese government and the Russian government had personally sanctioned me. The Saudi government doesn't like me. The Rwandan government doesn't like me. But, you know, I had an inkling what he was driving at. So I said, and also, the Israeli government doesn't like me. And that turned out to be the kiss of death because two weeks later, the Carr Center called me up and sheepishly had to admit that the dean had vetoed my fellowship because of my criticism of Israel.

FADEL: Why did that happen? And did it surprise you?

ROTH: It surprised me because I thought, this is the Kennedy School. I mean, this is the place where domestic policy, foreign policy is taught. You get into all the big issues. And obviously, Israel is a major policy issue. And I thought, being the Kennedy School, being Harvard, that they would allow a broad array of views. So I was pretty shocked that the dean would penalize me because of my commentary on Israel.

FADEL: Have you run into pushback like this before over your criticism of human rights issues in Israel?

ROTH: Well, at Human Rights Watch, you know, 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. And it was because, you know, many progressive donors also were supporters of Israel. And so I was challenged on this. But I got used to the idea that, you know, it was fair for people to ask me to be fair and fact-based on Israel. And I accepted that as just normal.

But no one would ever say, you've got to exempt Israel from your scrutiny. You can't criticize Israel. You know, that would be a violation of the standards that Human Rights Watch abides by, where we, you know, apply international human rights law evenhandedly to some hundred countries around the world. Evidently, in this case - I mean, here, we just don't know exactly what happened. But apparently, what they objected to in my case was that I'm not partial. I'm an impartial critic of Israeli repression. And that seems to have been the stigma that the Israeli government didn't like, that its supporters didn't like. And that was why my fellowship was vetoed.

FADEL: What does this say about freedom of academic expression on campus? This is an Ivy League campus in the United States.

ROTH: This would suggest that Harvard is allowing donors to compromise intellectual independence at the university. And I understand how, you know? Any institution needs funds. But if there is a university any place in the world that could resist this kind of donor pressure, it's Harvard. And so this is, you know, about far more than just my fellowship. I mean, I've been the director of Human Rights Watch for 30 years. This is not going to impede my future. But what I worry about are younger academics who take from this the lesson that if you dare to criticize Israel, your career could be compromised. And so, you know, I've been appealing to the president of Harvard, Lawrence Bacow, to clarify, where does Harvard stand on this? And this is an opportunity to say that Harvard will not allow donors to compromise academic freedom.

FADEL: Kenneth Roth, thank you so much for your time.

ROTH: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: Now, we reached out to Harvard for comment. And Kennedy School media relations director James Smith said the decision not to offer Roth a fellowship was based on an evaluation of his potential contributions to the school. Smith also said the school does not engage with donors or funders in our deliberations or decisions related to fellowship appointments. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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