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Kenneth Roth, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch, critiqued Harvard University President Claudine Gay’s responses to a statement originally signed by 34 student groups that held Israel “entirely responsible” for a deadly attack by Hamas earlier this month.
“Even though I understand why [the University] was not happy with the pro-Palestine statement put out by many Harvard students, it should not have commented,” Roth said during an event hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights on Monday.
“It should instead say that the institution believes in academic freedom and students are entitled to say what they want,” he added.
Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on Roth’s critiques of the administration’s statements.
Roth’s critiques came after Gay distanced the University from the student groups’ statement in her second of three University-wide messages released following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack and Israel’s subsequent retaliation.
“While our students have the right to speak for themselves, no student group — not even 30 student groups — speaks for Harvard University or its leadership,” Gay wrote on Oct. 10.
In an Oct. 12 video message, Gay rejected calls to punish students affiliated with the groups that signed onto the student statement and said that the University “embraces a commitment to free expression.”
Roth expressed concern that by taking a stance on the student groups’ statement and the war in Israel, Harvard “invites pressure from donors to restrict [academic] freedom.”
This is not the first time Roth has alleged the University allows donors to influence academic debate about Israel and Palestine. Earlier this year, Roth said HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf blocked Roth from a year-long fellowship at the school over his past criticism of Israel.
Roth also called on the University to “explicitly adopt a policy that it will not opine on statements issued by students or faculty, but it will limit itself to the role of defending academic freedom.”
“It’s not the goal of the University administration to speak about developments around the world, rather that’s what faculty and students do,” he added.
Roth pointed to Princeton University as a model for how Harvard could better facilitate on-campus discussion of contentious issues.
According to Roth, after a Princeton professor was accused of teaching an antisemitic book in her class, the Princeton administration responded by defending academic freedom and refusing to comment on world events.
Roth offered his critiques of Harvard’s response to the war in Israel during a conversation with Carr Center Faculty Director Mathias Risse and several dozen Harvard affiliates who attended the event.
Risse began the event by underscoring the complexity of the crisis to an overflowing classroom of attendees and called the fighting in Israel and Gaza over the past two weeks “a tragedy in the most ancient and precise sense of the word.”
Risse then turned the floor over to Roth, who analyzed the alleged human rights violations by both Hamas and the Israeli Defense Forces since the fighting began.
“Hamas’ attack of Oct. 7 was a blatant violation of humanitarian law,” Roth said. “The rule number one of humanitarian law is you don’t kill civilians.”
“Similarly, you don’t abduct hostages,” he added. “This is not a complex legal matter.”
Roth then discussed Israel’s retaliation in the context of international humanitarian law. Since Israel launched its retaliatory attack against Gaza, more than 5,000 Palestinians have been killed.
Roth added that international humanitarian law “prohibits attacking even legitimate military targets if the predictable civilian consequences would be disproportionate.”
Roth concluded the talk by discussing how other Arab countries could play a role in promoting peace between Israel and Palestine.
“What should the Arab states be doing at this point?” Roth asked. “This is an opportunity for them to push for some viable solution for Palestinians — to insist on equal rights.”
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