Report: Ex-Human Rights Watch chief denied Harvard fellowship over anti-Israel bias

Dean of Kennedy School said to side with pro-Israel donors and veto Kenneth Roth’s position at human rights center; HRW has long been accused of bias against Jewish state

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch's executive director, speaks during a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, on November 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch's executive director, speaks during a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, on November 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

The former head of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Kenneth Roth was barred by a Harvard University dean from taking up a fellowship at the school over his alleged anti-Israel bias, according to a report on Thursday.

Roth was asked to become a senior fellow by Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights, part of the university’s Kennedy School, shortly after he announced his retirement in May.

However, Douglas Elmendorf, the school’s dean, rejected the position for Roth due to HRW’s longstanding positions against Israel, The Nation biweekly reported.

Roth, who is Jewish, ran the New York-based group for three decades. He championed a range of human rights issues, including a push to pan anti-personnel land mines, and the establishment of the International Criminal Court for prosecuting war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

Roth and HRW are widely praised among human rights activists for their work, but their harsh criticism of Israel — including accusations of war crimes and apartheid — has angered Israeli authorities and pro-Israel groups.

In 2021, HRW issued a sweeping 213-page report accusing Israel of apartheid. Israel rejected the report, calling its “fictional claims… both preposterous and false,” and accusing HRW of having “a long-standing anti-Israel agenda.”

Palestinians clash with Israeli troops while forces carry out an operation in the West Bank town of Nablus, August 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Roth told the UK’s The Guardian newspaper that he noticed something was wrong during a phone call with Elmendorf in July.

“We had a perfectly pleasant chat for about half an hour or so, but toward the end, he asked the question, ‘Do you have any enemies?’ And I said, ‘I’ve got many. That’s a hazard of the trade,’” Roth said, adding he knew the dean was referring to Israel.

“He didn’t want to hear about how I’ve been sanctioned by China, sanctioned by Russia, or attacked by Rwanda or Saudi Arabia. He wanted to know: What was my position on Israel?”

Roth charged that his position was denied because Elmendorf caved to pressure from pro-Israel donors to the school.

The Nation attributed the dean’s decision to several factors, including a fear of upsetting the donors and damaging its ties with the United States national security community, from which it draws other fellows.

The former HRW head denied claims that his organization singles out Israel in its work, telling The Guardian that the Jewish state “is one of 100 countries that we cover.”

“And even within the Israeli-Palestinian context, we deal with Hamas, we deal with the Palestinian Authority, we deal with Hezbollah. We are fair and objective, but we are critical, because the Israeli government deserves to be criticized. It is becoming increasingly repressive, and as we found in the occupied territories it is committing the crime against humanity of apartheid,” he said.

Roth left his role at Human Rights Watch in August, and instead accepted a visiting fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania.

Palestinian members of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas terror group in Gaza City, September 21, 2022. (Attia Muhammed/Flash90)

Prof. Kathryn Sikkink, who is affiliated with the Carr Center, told The Nation that she was surprised when Elmendorf told her that Roth’s fellowship had not been approved over “anti-Israel bias.”

“We thought he would be a terrific fellow,” she said, adding she attempted to rebut claims of HRW’s bias in an email to the dean by comparing other similar assessments of Israel, but Elmendorf refused to amend his decision.

James F. Smith, a spokesperson for the Kennedy School told The Nation: “We have internal procedures in place to consider fellowships and other appointments, and we do not discuss our deliberations about individuals who may be under consideration.”

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