JONATHAN S. TOBIN
Then-director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth at the Media Security Conference in Munich, Feb. 19, 2017. Credit: Kuhlmann/MSC via Wikimedia Commons.
Denying a fellowship to the man who transformed Human Rights Watch into an anti-Zionist propaganda machine is justified, not a blow to free speech.
(January 13, 2023 / JNS) Cancel culture in academia is a serious problem. There is no sector of American society in which dissent is so routinely crushed, or where free speech is most endangered, as the country’s leading institutions of higher learning. So, the story that someone was supposedly denied a fellowship at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government because of his political beliefs seems to fit into a familiar pattern of shunning and silencing those who don’t adhere to the orthodoxies worshipped by the elites.
That’s what leading outlets of liberal opinion, and even a group well-known for its battle for free speech on college campuses, are claiming has happened to Kenneth Roth. According to the former head of Human Rights Watch (HRW) and his influential supporters, he was snubbed by Harvard because of his “criticism” of Israel.
The conceit of his whiny lament in The Guardian and a dishonest editorial in The Boston Globe lies not only in the assertion that Harvard treated Roth unjustly. More outrageous are the claims by both pieces that the university’s behavior is a symptom of the way criticism of Israel and other left-wing causes are shut down by “wealthy donors”—a thinly disguised attempt by The Globe to throw shade at the Jews—and right-wing extremists.
This narrative is not just misleading and deeply unfair to Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf; it turns the discussion about the attitude toward anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiment on college campuses on its head. Indeed, far from being an example of how supposedly courageous truth-tellers about Israeli atrocities are being muzzled by the all-powerful “Israel lobby,” Harvard’s move is a rare instance of a leading academic institution’s taking a stand against antisemitism, rather than tolerating it.
Pro-Israel voices are silenced
At universities and colleges around the United States, the field of Middle East Studies—and now even Israel Studies—is being taught by professors openly hostile to Zionism and the Jewish state. And it’s not exactly a secret that scholars seeking tenure in those departments, or any in the liberal arts for that matter, know that they must keep secret any sign of support for Israel or any belief or affiliation that might contradict reigning leftist/intersectional dogma.
This is the case even at the Kennedy School, as is ironically evident in Roth’s allegations. These include the claim that Elmendorf told scholar Kathryn Sikkink that he rejected Roth over “criticism of Israel.” Yet, Sikkink herself is a malicious foe of Israel who, as the left-wing magazine The Nation reported in its article about the controversy, used HRW’s biased research to put forward her own argument falsely claiming that Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, is among the world’s most repressive nations.
The issue at Harvard—or anywhere else in academia—isn’t that anti-Israel scholars can’t get jobs or be given a platform for expounding their ideas. As it happens, Roth already has a fellowship in hand at another Ivy League institution, the University of Pennsylvania, which granted him the title of “Global Justice and Human Rights Visiting Fellow,” an honor that makes a mockery of both concepts.
Indeed, Zionists with prestigious academic appointments are not so much outliers as they are an endangered species, while those prepared, like Roth, to falsely smear Israel as an “apartheid state” or to treat the existence of the one Jewish state on the planet as a crime which must be erased, are smack in the mainstream.
Seen in that light, the effort on Roth’s behalf isn’t so much wrongheaded as it is a case of the left-wing academic and media establishment trying to gaslight the American people into thinking that it is those who lie about Israel who are being persecuted, rather than the other way around.
By deciding to deny Roth the honor of a fellowship, the Kennedy School wasn’t punishing him for holding a minority opinion; it was rightly seeking to distance itself from a person who—despite his Jewish origins and the fawning support he gets from the liberal corporate media and left-wing activist groups like the American Civil Liberties Union—one of the leading proponents of antisemitic attacks on the state of Israel.
Contrary to the disingenuous talk about his merely being a critic of Israel, Roth turned HRW, a group that prior to his becoming its head, was respected as an unbiased advocate for human rights around world, into an organization obsessed with the cause of delegitimizing Israel and valorizing those seeking its destruction.
Human Rights Watch’s anti-Israel propaganda
HRW’s irresponsible and mendacious anti-Israel activism is a matter of record, not merely the opinion, as Roth’s supporters claim, of right-wing troublemakers. A good summary was published by NGO Monitor, an important non-profit organization that keeps tab on groups that specialize in fomenting antisemitism while operating under the cover of the cause of human rights.
Most devastating was the criticism of Roth made by the late Robert Bernstein, HRW’s founder, who wrote in The New York Times that Roth isn’t just prejudiced against Israel. He’s a captive of leftist ideology about colonialism, racism and white privilege. This, according to Bernstein, caused Roth to erase any distinctions between democratic countries like the United States and Israel—which may certainly be flawed and worthy of criticism for some of their policies—and authoritarian and totalitarian states whose very purpose is to eliminate human rights. In Bernstein’s words, Roth “cast aside the distinction between open and closed societies.”
It is true that Roth and HRW have spoken up against genuine human-rights violators like China, Russia and various dictatorships and Muslim theocracies for their offenses. But treating a genuinely democratic country like Israel, where the rule of law prevails and which is under siege from forces bent on its destruction, as the moral equivalent of those nations undermines the entire concept of human-rights activism or justice.
In Bernstein’s view, Roth had hijacked HRW and turned it into an anti-Israel activist group that focused disproportionately on efforts to support the Palestinian war on Zionism. Like others who smear Israel, Roth ignored the fact that the anomalous situation in Judea and Samaria (the “West Bank”) is due almost entirely to the Palestinians’ repeated rejection of peace, support of terrorism and refusal to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders might be drawn.
Along with other so-called human-rights and international organizations like the UN Human Rights Council, HRW was part of a network of activists dedicated to demonizing Israel and Zionism. HRW is an avid supporter of the antisemitic BDS movement and “lawfare” efforts aimed at manipulating international law to make Israel a pariah. It is in this context that the onslaught against Harvard must be understood.
Some of Roth’s calumnies against Israel are particularly egregious. It wasn’t enough for him to spread falsehoods about Israel’s being an “apartheid state,” or to make dishonest claims about its murder of civilians. He even spread the blood libel that it was engaged in a racist attempt to deny COVID-19 vaccines to Palestinians, when it was the Palestinian Authority that refused the Israeli government’s offers of help in providing shots for Arabs living in the disputed territories under the despotic rule of Mahmoud Abbas.
Yet, what also needs to be understood about the effort to turn Roth into a martyr for academic freedom is that the debate isn’t merely about his despicable record of anti-Israel bias. It’s part of the vicious campaign to delegitimize Israel and Zionism that was the centerpiece of HRW’s activity during his long tenure there.
Roth is a prodigious fundraiser. HRW was rewarded for his calumnies against Israel with a $100 million grant from left-wing billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. Though some on the left treat any criticism of Soros as evidence of Jew hatred, his support for anti-Israel and even antisemitic activism aimed at supporting the Jewish state’s destruction renders their claims risible.
But Roth is also a terrible hypocrite when it comes to raising money. He solicited a $470,000 donation from a Saudi billionaire, and in return promised not to advocate for LGBTQ rights in Muslim countries. Many on the left consider those who cite the fact that Israel is the one country in the Middle East where gays have equal rights (Amir Ohana, the new speaker of Israel’s Knesset, is gay) to be “pinkwashing.” But Roth was prepared to sacrifice the rights of Muslim gays in order to get more cash with which to attack the Jewish state’s existence.
An honest assessment of Roth’s record must lead to the conclusion that he isn’t a “critic” of Israel’s, but rather someone who regards its existence as a crime that must be atoned for by its destruction. His lies about Israel and willingness to deny Jews rights he wouldn’t deny to anyone else isn’t merely a controversial opinion; it’s a virulent variant of antisemitism.
He wouldn’t be the only one with such vile opinions to be given a prestigious perch at an elite university. But it is to the credit of Harvard’s Kennedy School that it drew the line at giving him the kind of honor he clearly doesn’t deserve.
Contrary to the arguments of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that has stood up in the past for conservatives, the issue at Harvard isn’t the defense of academic freedom, but normalizing Jew-hatred.
In a saner environment than the one that currently exists in academia and the establishment media, it would be the University of Pennsylvania under fire from faculty, students, alumni and the public for honoring an antisemite like Roth. Instead, it is Harvard’s Elmendorf who is under intolerable pressure to reverse his stand and give Roth yet another platform to advance his campaign to treat Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, as racism.
That the organized Jewish community has had little to say about Roth and the attacks on Harvard’s stand against antisemitism also provides more proof of the failure of American-Jewish leaders and their preference for liberal causes that do nothing to protect the rights or the security of the community they purport to represent.
Rather than meekly accept his claims of martyrdom, those who profess to care about fighting Jew-hatred need to put aside political differences and join in an effort to call him out for his lies. If Harvard is ultimately forced to surrender on this issue, it will be a triumph for Roth’s brand of left-wing antisemitism that is a growing threat to the ability of Jews to speak up for Israel and Zionism in the public square, and especially in academia.
Indeed, it isn’t Kenneth Roth who’s being canceled, but all those who are willing to tell the truth about the leftist war on Israel and the Jews.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.