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Palestinian Freedom Goes Beyond Giving Kenneth Roth a Fellowship

By Josh D. Willcox, Contributing Opinion Writer
Josh D. Wilcox ’23 is a Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations concentrator in Pforzheimer House and an organizer for Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee.

On January 19, after around a week of student and alumni advocacy and widespread media attention, Harvard Kennedy School’s Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf acknowledged that he had “made an error in [his] decision not to appoint [Kenneth Roth] as a Fellow at [the] Carr Center for Human Rights.” Again and again, I heard sighs of relief at how academic freedom had been saved at Harvard.

Rosy as the reversal sounded, the accompanying sighs highlighted an expected but disappointing reality: Harvard students are often content to advocate for politically neutral academic freedom, but many stay silent when it comes to confronting the brutal oppression of Palestinians.

It seems a couple points were absent from Dean Elmendorf’s announcement. At no point did he address the elephant in the room: what scholars like Cornel R. West ’74 have alleged as Harvard’s complicity in silencing voices that call for Palestinian freedom.

While I welcome the reversal, let’s be clear: What is essentially a tactical decision deserves little praise. I’m sure Dean Elmendorf wouldn’t have wanted some reaction like a fired-up student body holding placards in the Kennedy School lobby; God forbid a public scandal besmirch Harvard’s gleaming reputation. Instead, it would be much easier to give Roth a fellowship, apologize for the temporary doubt cast upon HKS’s sacred mission, and hope that everything would be swept under the rug by the time we arrived back for our first week of classes.

But Roth’s allegation that Elmendorf denied his fellowship on the basis of Human Rights Watch’s “anti-Israel bias” under his leadership cannot be swept under the rug. What “bias” really appears to mean is that Roth doesn’t cower down to the deeply-rooted racism against Palestinians I believe is present throughout United States foreign policy and the Kennedy School itself.

To be precise, Roth isn’t afraid to call Israel what Amnesty International agrees it is: an apartheid regime.

I’d wager that Roth’s courage in calling out Israel’s apartheid regime is despised by some at the Kennedy School. It’s much easier to keep discussing stability in the world in conversations I believe functionally mislead and dehumanize people, treating Palestinians like chess-pieces to be disposed of where America’s interests deem fit. At the end of the day, what’s a little collateral damage to keep Uncle Sam on top?

In his announcement of the reversal, Dean Elmendorf said his initial decision “inadvertently cast doubt on the mission of the School.” So it’s worth reexamining what, exactly, this mission represents. The Kennedy School claims to “improve public policy and leadership so people can live in societies that are more safe, free, just, and sustainably prosperous.” What definition of safe, free, and just makes it permissible to turn a blind eye to what even Israeli historians and journalists have labeled ethnic cleansing?

Perhaps they mean free from accountability. Or free to unleash relentless violence against Palestinians under the guise of stability. Perhaps it is the same brand of freedom that justifies U.S.-backed interventions, regime changes, and crimes against humanity across the Global South. Get the beers and hotdogs out — Henry Kissinger is bringing you freedom!

Similarly, HKS’s track record of offering positions should make us skeptical of the sincerity of its mission statement.

HKS has proudly lended its name to Amos Yadlin, a former general in the Israeli Air Force who participated in the brutal war on Lebanon in 1982. Yadlin is known to be an architect of the Israeli military's policy on “targeted killings” — killings of Israeli government-designated terrorists without trial that have resulted in scores of civilian deaths. The U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has declared these civilian killings unlawful and suggested they may violate the Geneva Convention, but HKS is happy to provide Yadlin with a platform to teach about national security.

Yadlin is only one of several questionable characters. As Harvard students, we cannot continue to let our University welcome agents of colonial violence while denying those who reject U.S.-backed Israeli apartheid.

HKS reversed the initial decision in Roth’s case, but it happened only after wide public criticism due to Roth’s global platform and stature. If this was how Harvard treated a renowned figure, what is happening to the voices of Palestinian supporters with less extensive platforms?

What Roth’s situation made blatantly clear is this: Pressure works. I find it unlikely, to say the least, that Dean Elmendorf woke up one day, in the midst of a public relations storm targeted at him, and discovered his moral conscience. It is far more plausible that he reversed the decision because of the immense backlash from student organizing groups, faculty members, and news outlets.

But if we really care about freedom for Palestinians, appointing Kenneth Roth is the bare minimum. We must start to apply pressure and amplify Palestianians’ demands for justice.

We cannot be satisfied with hollow apology emails. We cannot be satisfied with mere verbal commitments to anti-racism; we must demand divestment from companies complicit in Israel’s human rights violations against Palestinians, and a University environment that treats Palestinian freedom as central to human rights. To call for accountability means to go beyond echoing the politically neutral call for free speech and ask ourselves difficult questions: In silencing Kenneth Roth, what was Harvard trying to shield its students from? And in reinstating his fellowship without addressing its own considerable bias, who does Harvard continue to silence?

Josh D. Wilcox ’23 is a Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations concentrator in Pforzheimer House and an organizer for Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee.

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