The Harvard Kennedy School had offered former Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth a fellowship with the school. In what was supposed to be a formality for what had already been offered, Kennedy School dean Douglas Elmendorf refused to sign off on Roth’s offer, initially denying him a fellowship because of allegedly unfair and disproportionate criticism of Israel. Human Rights Watch has investigated countless governments for violations of human rights of which Israel is only one.
This provoked a massive outcry from many civil society organizations saying that Roth was being unfairly targeted for providing valid criticism of Israel. The outpouring of pressure and protest over the decision eventually resulted in the offer being put back into place.
According to The Guardian, “On Thursday, Elmendorf told Kennedy School staff and students that the decision had been a mistake and that Roth would be accepted after all. “I now believe that I made an error in my decision not to appoint him,” he said in the email. “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.” The initial denial was attributed to pressure from pro-Israeli donors.
The decision sparked strong reaction from many civil society organizations leading to Elmendorf reversing his decision though he denies pressure from donors playing any role. The ACLU and Pen America criticized the decision as contrary to principles of academic freedom and open debate which universities are supposed to be built upon.
According to The Guardian, “The Carr Center for Human Rights Policy offered Roth a position as a senior fellow shortly after he retired as director of HRW in April after 29 years. Kathryn Sikkink, a professor of human rights policy at the Kennedy School, told the Nation that Elmendorf said to her that Roth would not be permitted to take up the position because HRW had an “anti-Israel bias” and its former director had written tweets critical of Israel.”” Furthermore, critics accused Roth of anti-semitism despite the fact that he is Jewish. The wider context involves Human Rights Watch releasing a report in 2021 showcasing findings that Israel had established an Apartheid system against the Palestinians in the areas it controls.