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In Defense of Dean Elmendorf

Douglas W. Elmendorf, Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, speaks at a 2017 event.
Douglas W. Elmendorf, Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, speaks at a 2017 event. By Zennie L. Wey
By Natalie L. Kahn, Contributing Opinion Writer

Several hundred students have spent the last few days urging Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf to resign because he did something that was, well, entirely within his purview — Elmendorf vetoed the appointment of Kenneth Roth as a fellow at the school’s Carr Center of Human Rights, and Roth subsequently claimed the veto was due to his “criticism of Israel.”

Roth, the so-called “godfather” of human rights and former executive director of the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, spearheaded the transformation of HRW into an organization that has helped “turn Israel into a pariah state,” according to its founder Robert L. Bernstein ’44, who has since condemned the organization’s shift.

I find it amusing that the signatories in this letter think they are entitled to demand his resignation. Not everyone is entitled to a fellowship purely in the name of free speech, and Dean Elmendorf has the procedural right to not select someone.

While it is true that Dean Elmendorf’s reasoning is likely linked to Roth’s stances on Israel, this decision is not an attempt by the dean to block all anti-Israel perspectives.

How do I know this? Well, the proof is in the pudding. The reality is that the Kennedy School and Harvard University writ large already feature an array of anti-Israel voices at the faculty, fellow, and student levels, who have been provided with ample support from HKS and the University: Fellows have included former Palestinian Liberation Organization spokesperson Diana Buttu, while HKS hosted a controversial 2012 “One State Solution” conference that was partially sponsored by the Weatherhead Center and the Office of the Provost, to name only a few examples.

Dean Elmendorf never seems to have banned any of these people from discussing their views on Israel, nor has he ever publicly taken an explicitly pro-Israel stance, nor, as far as I can recall, has anyone else in the current Harvard administration, and so it would be hard to claim Dean Elmendorf is just a mouthpiece for the pro-Israel camp.

What is also laughable is that the cohort advocating for Dean Elmendorf’s resignation on the grounds that his decision goes against “principles underpinning free thought in a free society” is part of the same group of organizations that has continually protested about the presence of pro-Israel speakers on campus.

Many of the most vociferous among those who authored and signed this letter — particularly the Palestine Solidarity Committee and the HKS Palestine Caucus — are the same people who have supported the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which calls for Harvard to divest from any investments in Israeli companies, and who have called on students to boycott Israel Trek, a privately sponsored trip to Israel exploring the conflict from multiple perspectives.

The PSC, for instance, refused to have a conversation with one of Israel Trek’s student leaders to preserve “the comfort level and safety of the Palestinian students” since the fact that some of the trip’s organizers were former Israeli Defense Forces soldiers created a “power imbalance.” But since Israel has a draft, nearly every Israeli student has served in the IDF.

A similar letter from the ​​HKS Palestinian Alumni Collective calling on Dean Elmendorf to resign also says the school should not invite any speakers or fellows who “bear responsibility for war crimes perpetrated against Palestinians, including the crime of apartheid, a crime against humanity” — a phrase that, given the IDF draft, could be taken to imply that almost all Israeli citizens are guilty of war crimes, which would suggest that no dialogue should be had with any Israeli fellow or student.

Pro-Israel voices, on the other hand, do not seem to be particularly welcome, through efforts like the push to boycott Israel Trek. Last spring, Amos Yadlin’s study group was met with consistent protests and a call from the PSC for students to “deplatform Yadlin’s troubling presence,” while Israeli ambassador Michael Herzog’s visit to the school was interrupted and overrun with student protesters. At every turn, it seems as if pro-Israel voices are not permitted to speak.

You don’t see the organizations who called on Dean Elmendorf to resign advocating on behalf of free speech on these occasions, and so one can only conclude that their invocation of the principle in their letter is disingenuous — it seems, instead, to be anger that anti-Israel voices are not welcomed with open arms at every juncture.

Even if Roth’s rejection is in part related to his views on Israel, it is not a violation of free speech for Dean Elmendorf to decide that a fellow who will just regurgitate already-existing notions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is extraneous. That so many students and student organizations have signed this letter is proof that Harvard students do not need another fellow reinforcing their views rather than encouraging discourse and debate.

I hope Dean Elmendorf can use his platform going forward to bring in a fellow who can challenge the campus’s distorted conception of this conflict — say, a fellow discussing Israel’s role as the only democracy in the Middle East, with Arab and Muslim minority representation in its government, and by far the country in the region most accepting of the LGBTQ+ community. I would challenge every signatory on this letter to attend this fellow’s study group in support of, as they put it, “academic freedom.”

Our campus discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be nuanced and informative. Whining about not being able to add yet another voice to the anti-Israel echo chamber will not achieve that goal.

Natalie L. Kahn ’23, a former Associate News Editor, is a former president of Harvard Hillel and an Economics concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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