Culture Wars/Current Controversies

When human rights advocacy challenges Harvard’s institutional standards

This week, we’re joined by Ken Roth, formerly of Human Rights Watch, about how his criticism of Israel cost him a fellowship at Harvard Kennedy School. Up for discussion in this episode is the question of how elite institutions like Harvard view reporting on Israeli apartheid as a challenge to their political status quo — and how they work to silence dissent. Watch below:

“Do you have any enemies?” Ken was asked this question at the end of an interview with the Harvard Kennedy School dean that he’d thought was a formality. Roth had been offered an HKS fellowship following his departure from Human Rights Watch, where, over three decades of work, he did make enemies. At the helm of an organization investigating and criticizing human rights violations across the world, Roth came under direct fire (and has been met with personal sanctions) from global superpowers.

But he knew what Harvard’s Dean Elmendorf was asking, and shared that the Israeli government doesn’t like him. (HRW has described Israeli abuses of Palestinians as apartheid in a 2021 report, and has regularly reported on the government’s repression and violence.) This was “the kiss of death.” The dean vetoed his fellowship in the name of “anti-Israel bias.” Now, after major backlash against the university for blacklisting a human rights investigator, Roth’s fellowship has been reinstated. But what happened to Roth, the “godfather of human rights,” when the Kennedy School found out about his criticism of Israel is a powerful lesson in the repression of dissent at elite institutions.

Larry Summers, Alan Dershowitz, Steven Pinker: Harvard refuses to remove these people from its payroll regardless of their extremely public links to Jeffrey Epstein, allegations of sexual abuse, the list goes on and on. Students recently walked out of a Harvard classroom to protest the school’s continued employment of John Comaroff, who has been accused of sexual misconduct (accusations that Harvard then failed to do anything about, and is now facing a lawsuit for this mishandling). When it comes to employing people who may put students in danger instead of teaching them, the university doesn’t back down. But when it comes to reporting on human rights abuses, when that reporting challenges the status quo, the school — like so many other powerful organizations — isn’t above blacklisting.

We’re grateful to Ken for coming on the show, talking to us about his story, and helping us understand how those who speak out about human rights abuses in Israel are regularly silenced. Thanks for tuning in for this important conversation. You can listen to this episode as a podcast on Pandora, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and more.

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