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A resolution over Harvard fellowship, but no end of controversy

Harvard's seal is on view atop a gate to the athletic fields at Harvard University in Cambridge in this 2009 image.REUTERS

Too bad Kennedy School dean caved to pressure on human rights activist

Kenneth Roth’s Jan. 19 op-ed (“Harvard needs to stand with its principles, not with Israel — or its donors”) whitewashes his anti-Israel record at Human Rights Watch and reads like anti-Israel bias masquerading as concern over denial of academic freedom by Harvard. Too bad the dean of the Harvard Kennedy School has caved to pressure to extend a fellowship to him (“Kennedy School reverses on fellowship: Dean now says he ‘made an error’ on Roth,” Page A1, Jan. 20).

I am fed up with universities intimidating pro-Israel voices but supporting pro-Palestinian voices in the guise of academic freedom.


Human Rights Watch has consistently claimed that Israel is a repressive, “apartheid” nation, despite its being the only democracy in the Middle East. While Roth claims to have criticized the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and Hezbollah (none of which allow LGBTQ rights), Human Rights Watch has obsessed over delegitimizing Israel and labeling those seeking its destruction as victims. The organization’s April 2021 report accusing Israel of apartheid and persecution is an egregious example. Roth ignores the fact that Israel is under constant siege by terrorists and that the Palestinian Authority has rejected every peace plan for the West Bank.

The late founder of Human Rights Watch, Robert L. Bernstein, suggested in a 2009 op-ed in The New York Times that the organization under Roth was not only prejudiced against Israel but that it equated Israel with authoritarian countries that aim to eliminate human rights altogether. Sadly, he was right.

Sherry Alpert


It makes some sense to hold Israel to a higher standard

Abigail Cable (“Two contrasting views of flap over Harvard fellowship,” Letters, Jan. 17) argues that the Harvard Kennedy School was right when it initially denied Kenneth Roth a fellowship, because Roth’s “holding [Israel] to a higher standard than the rest of the world is illegitimate.” I don’t know about Roth, but I hold Israel to a higher standard. That is because the people doing the oppressing there are my people. I come from a Jewish home. My grandfather, Israel Goldstein, was a noted Zionist. So I feel especially compelled to speak out when the government of Israel does wrong.


Moreover, Jews should know better, having endured millennia of oppression. The Torah says, “And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is the lesson I learned as a child, and when the Israeli government violates it, we should all speak up.

Ken Olum


Roth’s hypocrisy is astounding given record of donations to Human Rights Watch

The level of hypocrisy in Kenneth Roth’s op-ed excoriating Harvard for failing to offer him a human rights fellowship is astounding (“Harvard needs to stand with its principles, not with Israel — or its donors”). He hopes that, at least, something positive will come out of this “sorry episode,” by Harvard clarifying that “it will not accept contributions from any donor who tries to use a gift to undermine academic freedom.” This from a man who reportedly solicited and accepted a gift for Human Rights Watch, the organization he headed, from Saudi businessman Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber, on the explicit condition that the funds not be used for LGBTQ rights work in the region. As reported by The Intercept in March 2020, the “controversial donation is at the center of a contentious internal debate about the judgment and leadership of” Roth at Human Rights Watch. (The organization returned the gift after The Intercept began investigating it.)


Perhaps this in part informed the original decision by Douglas Elmendorf, dean of the Kennedy School, rather than Roth’s unsubstantiated suggestion that Harvard’s decision was in response to large donors who are supporters of Israel.

Mel Shuman


These organizations should not be above criticism

It is unfortunate that in the commentary about the Harvard Kennedy School and the fellowship first denied, then offered, to Kenneth Roth, there has been little substantive discussion of human rights themselves and the ethics and efficacy of Human Rights Watch as an organization defending them. Human rights organizations are often unwilling to assess themselves critically, and they can monopolize debate on human rights law and human rights themselves in ways that are inimical to accountability. They are primarily accountable to their donors, and they are not democratically accountable. That is as true of Human Rights Watch as it is of other human rights organizations.

Human Rights Watch merits reasoned, well-substantiated criticism to ensure the integrity of its mission and its accountability. Its record is not flawless, and that includes a generally poor record of successfully influencing human rights policy and practice (while it has issued many reports).

Instead of centering focus on Roth, could we have a broader conversation about human rights globally and about how human rights organizations work, their values, and their practical impact? Human Rights Watch does a great deal of good on many issues in many areas; however, treating it and its former leadership as beyond critical engagement constitutes a failure to respect the very orientation of human rights themselves. Power and politics can hold sway over nongovernmental organization as much as they can governments.


Noam Schimmel


The writer is a lecturer in international and area studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and has conducted research into human rights law.

This episode recalls how Harvard treated Cornel West

Harvard’s morally obtuse decision to initially rescind its Kennedy School fellowship to Kenneth Roth, ostensibly because he was “biased against Israel,” is not a singular decision but rather congruent with its 2021 decision to deny tenure to renowned public intellectual, social critic, and philosopher Cornel West, who, though never given a reason, believed it was because of his staunch support for justice in Palestine.

What the Globe correctly called a “chilling” threat to academic freedom in the case of Roth, West described as a “spiritual rot” in his resignation letter. Both seem apropos.

I’ve seen it remarked that Harvard’s motto is, sadly, often more Lucritas (profit) than Veritas (truth). Perhaps there is truth in the biblical maxim that you can’t serve both God and mammon.

Stephen Fisher