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Former Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth discussed the Harvard Kennedy School’s decision to veto, then subsequently offer, his fellowship at an Institute of Politics JFK Jr. Forum on Wednesday.
The forum came roughly a month after the Nation reported allegations that HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf vetoed Roth’s fellowship to the Carr Center for Human Rights due to his public criticism of Israel. On Jan. 19, following controversy and calls for resignation, Elmendorf reversed course and offered Roth the fellowship.
While Roth said he was grateful to the IOP for hosting the forum, he spent much of the forum discussing the fellowship reversal, referring to it as the “gorilla in the room.”
“I have to recognize, though, that that happened only because I was in a privileged position and was able to create a media fury backed by many of you,” Roth said. “The issue of critics of Israel being penalized is a real issue at Harvard and around the world.”
Roth also called for “some level of transparency” from University President Lawrence S. Bacow and Elmendorf regarding an explanation for the initial veto.
“Who was it? Was it people who were concerned about donors? Was it somebody else? We don’t know,” Roth said. “I’d like to know what happened and I think it would be beneficial for all of us if we knew.”
Roth emphasized the importance of “affirming a commitment to academic freedom” for those on either side of the issue.
“I recognize that some students, particularly who have pro-Israel views, also feel peer pressure, particularly, not to speak out,” Roth said. “That’s a problem as well.”
HKS spokesperson James F. Smith did not comment on Roth’s remarks during the event.
Elmendorf regularly attends JFK Jr. Forums and delivered opening remarks at Monday’s forum, but he was noticeably absent from Roth’s on Wednesday.
Smith did not provide a reason for Elmendorf’s absence.
“The dean has conveyed his views about this issue to the Kennedy School community, and that message is posted online,” Smith wrote in a statement.
In an email to HKS affiliates last month, Elmendorf apologized for vetoing Roth’s fellowship, adding that he will request that a faculty committee “develop a faculty-driven process for evaluating Fellow appointments.”
“I now believe that I made an error in my decision not to appoint him as a Fellow at our Carr Center for Human Rights,” Elmendorf wrote on Thursday. “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.”
In a statement to The Crimson, Roth wrote that he met with Elmendorf on Monday morning to call for more transparency regarding the veto and “an affirmation of academic freedom,” specifically around discussing Israel and Palestine.
“He said he would consider my requests,” Roth wrote of Elmendorf.
During the event, Roth also spoke about human rights and his work leading Human Rights Watch.
Roth pointed to a Human Rights Watch report that criticized Israel, and he called Israel’s presence in Palestine “actually overwhelming” and “blatant apartheid.”
Roth said he believes the Israeli government “couldn’t find anything wrong” with the evidence or legal analysis in the report.
“They resorted to the usual name calling: ‘You’re biased. You’re anti-semitic,’” he said.
Roth said he believes there is currently “plenty of pro-Israel tilting” and called for a balance in perspectives in future speakers.
“What’s wrong with allowing a pro-Palestinian perspective today, and there can be a pro-Israeli perspective tomorrow?” Roth said. “We have to change this.”
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