Ken Roth, Whose Anti-Israel Obsession Defiled Human Rights Watch, Rejected For Prestigious Harvard Fellowship; Left Goes Crazy
Roth relentlessly pushed the fraudulent “Israel Apartheid” narrative, turning Human Rights Watch into a primary instigator of antisemitism.
Congratulations to Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf for blocking the former head of the rabidly anti-Israel Human Rights Watch (HRW) from a year-long fellowship at the school. The former head, Kenneth Roth, led the organization from 1993 until stepping down in August 2022.
HRW’s Obsessive Targeting of Israel
(a) HRW Founder Accused “Rights” Organization of Discriminating Against Israel
So obvious and obsessive had HRW’s anti-Israelism become even thirteen years ago that back in October 2009, its own founder, Robert L. Bernstein, publicly censured the organization in a New York Times op-ed (archived version here). Bernstein wrote, in part:
Human Rights Watch had as its original mission to pry open closed societies, advocate basic freedoms and support dissenters. But recently it has been issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state…
The [Middle East] region is populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records. Yet in recent years Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.
Israel, with a population of 7.4 million, is home to at least 80 human rights organizations, a vibrant free press, a democratically elected government, a judiciary that frequently rules against the government, a politically active academia, multiple political parties and, judging by the amount of news coverage, probably more journalists per capita than any other country in the world — many of whom are there expressly to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Meanwhile, the Arab and Iranian regimes rule over some 350 million people, and most remain brutal, closed and autocratic, permitting little or no internal dissent. The plight of their citizens who would most benefit from the kind of attention a large and well-financed international human rights organization can provide is being ignored as Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division prepares report after report on Israel.
Human Rights Watch has lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields (emphasis added).
— Prof Gerald M Steinberg (@GeraldNGOM) January 5, 2023
(b) HRW Failed to Learn From Bernstein’s Reprimand
In the dozen-plus years since, HRW has taken baby steps toward exposing the repression that is so typical in the rest of the Middle East, but those tepid actions have been vastly overshadowed by its increasing stridency and application of double-standards toward Israel. Back in 2010, this author wrote:
Between January 2009 and August 2010, HRW published seven reports on Israel (two ostensibly about rights violations by Palestinians also criticized Israel), two on Iran, none on Egypt, and two primarily on Saudi Arabia. None addressed Iran’s oppression of homosexuals, Egypt’s abuse of Christians, or Saudi subjugation of non-Muslims, women, and homosexuals. HRW’s 2009 report Human Rights and Saudi Arabia’s Counterterrorism Response focuses on detainee mistreatment without mentioning “Islamic extremism,” except in reference to a New York Times Magazine article.
HRW completely lost sight of what Bernstein called the “important distinction between open and closed societies,” scandalously soliciting and accepting Saudi donations for the purpose of targeting Israel in exchange for HRW’s actual or implicit agreement not to criticize Saudi repression of homosexuals or its repressive labor practices.
This is the organization Roth led for nearly 30 years.
HRW’s lack of perspective was exemplified by Sarah Leah Whitson, former executive director of its Middle East and North Africa Division on Roth’s watch. Whitson, who personally solicited some of that Saudi money, weighed in on the anti-Semitic Corbynistas’ takeover of the British Labour Party by blaming Israel for “interfering” in domestic United Kingdom politics.
— Sarah Leah Whitson (@sarahleah1) February 9, 2019
The UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) eventually found Labour responsible for illegal discrimination and harassment against Jews. In response, the party first suspended former-leader Jeremy Corbyn, and then announced a plan to purge itself of anti-Semitism. The fact that an HRW executive – in charge of its Middle East division, no less – observed this controversy and saw only aggressive and wrongful behavior by the Jewish State rather than obvious, over-the-top anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, is very revealing about HRW’s worldview and grasp of the issues – or, rather, its failure to grasp them.
"A listing of Roth’s vituperous attacks, and the lies, distortions, and unverifiable accusations would fill volumes. But a small sample provides more than enough to demonstrate the deep hostility."
— Jewish Journal (@JewishJournal) January 15, 2023
Roth himself has similarly blamed the victim (archived version here) for anti-Semitism, and even spread anti-Semitic tropes (for all that his father survived the Holocaust – a fact he uses to shield himself from charges of anti-Semitism):
… Roth often displays a deep and personal hostility to Judaism and the Jewish people. In 2006, after HRW was criticized for a campaign demonizing the IDF’s response to a gruesome Hezbollah attack from Lebanon, Roth wrote: “An eye for an eye – or, more accurately in this case, twenty eyes for an eye – may have been the morality of some more primitive moment. …” As Abraham Foxman, head of the ADL at the time, observed, Roth’s comments repeated “a classic anti-Semitic stereotype about Jews.”
In parallel, Roth repeatedly blames Jews and Israel for the dangerous increase in antisemitic and at times deadly violence. In 2014, he attributed violent attacks against Jews and synagogues in Germany and Europe to Israel’s so-called war crimes during the Gaza War. In the context of the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Roth endorsed a propaganda piece published by a platform reportedly linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, and headlined “Birds of a feather: White supremacy and Zionism.” Roth included a picture depicting a Confederate and Israeli flag, commenting “Many rights activists condemn Israeli abuse & anti-Semitism. Some white supremacists embrace Israel & anti-Semitism.” And in 2021, Roth tweeted, “…the surge in UK antisemitic incidents during the recent Gaza conflict gives the lie to those who pretend that the Israeli government’s conduct doesn’t affect antisemitism.”
HRW’s claim that Israel is an “apartheid” state, however outrageous (as LIF previously reported), was simply a logical extension of its actions and mindset described above.
Roth’s and his organization’s actions exemplify contemporary anti-Semitism, as defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), in particular for:
Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis…
Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
Current Controversy: Harvard Dean Rejects Roth for His Anti-Israel Bias
Whether despite this record or because of it, the director of the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy decided to invite Roth to join the center as a senior fellow, after Roth announced his plans to step down from leading HRW. The fellowship appointment needed approval from the school’s dean, and he wouldn’t give it.
Elmendorf hasn’t publicly said why, but reportedly it was because of Roth’s discriminatory bias against Israel. Kathryn A. Sikkink, Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School, told the Harvard Crimson that Elmendorf informed her HRW has an anti-Israel bias, which led to his decision not to approve Roth’s fellowship.
Kenneth Roth, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch, has accused Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf of blocking him from a year-long fellowship at the school over Roth’s criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. https://t.co/H02PdYPync
— The Harvard Crimson (@thecrimson) January 9, 2023
(a) The Nation Comes To Roth’s Defense
The Nation, which first reported Harvard’s rejection of Roth, did its best to ignore or minimize reports of HRW’s anti-Israel bias in a long article by Michael Massing. He completely failed to mention HRW’s “donor-driven censorship” of reportage on Saudi rights violations, in exchange for anti-Israel funding. Not until a quarter of the way into the article did it mention Bernstein’s denunciation, which it tried to dismiss without really addressing its substance.
Massing swallowed whole a statement attributed vaguely to “HRW” that “since 2000 it had produced more than 1,700 reports and other commentaries on the Middle East and North Africa, the vast majority of which were about countries other than Israel.” Numbers would be helpful here. HRW’s Middle East and North Africa region comprises nineteen countries, including some of the worst rights offenders in the world, like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Israel is only one of these countries, and not a very big one in terms of population (9 million) or size. Yet the best HRW could do in responding to Bernstein’s charge that it targeted Israel disproportionately was to assert that the “vast majority” of its reports were about the other eighteen countries. Also note the time frame; it doesn’t say how many of the reports were written after Bernstein’s op-ed was published.
“About countries other than Israel” is also a vague phrase. Note, for example, that one of the two reports about Iran (population 87 million) HRW issued in 2019 – the only ones it issued on Iran between 2019 and the present – primarily targeted the United States for criticism following the Trump administration’s reimposition of sanctions on the country. HRW condemned US sanctions for impeding Iranians’ access to health care. That same year, the Iranian regime brutally crushed protests by its own people, in the process killing 1,500 people. But HRW issued no reports about that. While the organization castigates Israel for defending itself against Palestinians unreconciled to Israel’s mere existence, it “covers” serial, dictatorial human rights abusers by trashing the United States for mistreating them.
The Nation article mentions a single HRW report that addresses abuses by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Evidently, Massing was trying to finesse Bernstein’s charge of institutional bias. Although Massing doesn’t say so, the referenced report also throws in claims of supposed Israeli abuse. The organization seems incapable of reporting on the Palestinian Authority’s and Hamas’ repressive dictatorships without also getting in its licks against Israel. It’s a kind of tick, and undercuts Massing’s attempt to portray HRW as evenhanded.
Several years ago – before Bernstein published his article – this author reached out to Human Rights Watch and to Amnesty International’s American branch, asking for reports about Arab rights abuses. I also called at least one of the two organizations, asking for reports documenting rights abuses of Palestinians by Palestinian authorities. The woman with whom I spoke responded, ‘Yes, we have many reports of Israel violating Palestinians’ rights.’ No matter how many times I asked the question, or how I phrased it, she could not grasp that I was looking for investigations of rights violations by Palestinians against their own population. It did not even seem to have occurred to her that it was a subject worth investigating. She could only see Palestinians as victims of Israeli “abuse”, having no agency of their own or playing any role in creating the conditions under which they lived. I found it quite illuminating about the organization’s failure to grasp what goes on in the Middle East – although I can’t be certain it was HRW I called, as opposed to Amnesty International. Neither one had covered Palestinian abuse of other Palestinians.
Massing also relies on ad hominem attacks against Gerald Steinberg, head of NGO Monitor, a watchdog against anti-Israel NGOs like HRW. In Massing’s view, that evidently makes Steinberg biased, which in turn supposedly discredits the voluminous evidence of HRW’s anti-Israel bias that Steinberg gathered.
Massing goes on to note that the Kennedy School had previously upset donors and others by offering a fellowship (later revoked) to ex-con Chelsea Manning. Manning was convicted of espionage for releasing hundreds of thousands of classified documents. (Does Massing really want to die on that hill these days?) The fate of Roth’s and Manning’s fellowships “suggest a fundamental reality about the Kennedy School: the dominant presence of the US national security community and its close ally Israel,” Massing wrote. In other words, according to Massing: (a) opposition to honoring someone who deliberately violated his trust is completely unjustifiable, and (b) those Jews (excuse me, Israelis) are just too powerful, and behind all manner of evils in the American Academy.
(b) Roth Continues His Offensive Against Elmendorf
Roth accepted a visiting fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania for the year. Evidently, he hopes to move on to other things – at Harvard. Roth wrote an op-ed published in The Guardian on January 10, piously proclaiming his devotion to respecting the “objective application of international human rights principles,” and decrying “donor-driven censorship” and the supposed threat to academic freedom.
It’s laughable; under Roth’s leadership, HRW had a history of prostituting itself to some of the world’s worst human rights abusers with promises not to report about them, in exchange for donations of cash with which to pursue its vendetta against the world’s only Jewish State, the region’s only democracy (unless one counts Tunisia). It’s profoundly dishonest. Unfortunately, given the leftward and anti-Israel bent of most media today, many of the people who read it probably won’t know any better than to accept Roth’s fictions as fact.
At Harvard, 360 affiliates and 19 student organizations "called on Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf to resign following accusations that he denied [me] a fellowship over his criticism of Israel." Elmendorf is hiding, not saying anything. https://t.co/f7jqo3m2MT
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) January 11, 2023
Predictably, anti-Israel intelligentsia and student groups are trying to create a furor over Elmendorf’s supposedly outrageous decision. The ACLU, PEN America, Harvard College Palestinian Solidarity Committee, and Middle East Studies Association Committee on Academic Freedom have all weighed in for Roth. Hundreds of students and Harvard-affiliated organizations are calling on Elmendorf to resign. A cynic might suspect Roth has deliberately created an echo chamber to pressure Elmendorf into giving him that fellowship.
Harvard achieved the dubious honor of ranking first in number of anti-Semitic/anti-Israel incidents on campus in a study recently published by AMCHA Initiative. It’s not surprising many on campus were willing to push back against Elmendorf’s decision and press to hire a demonstrated anti-Israel partisan. It’s only surprising Elmendorf vetoed the fellowship in the first place.
Here’s hoping Elmendorf and Harvard hang tough on this one.
There are many reasons why a would-be honorable institution would deny this recognition to Roth.
Let us count the ways:
— Dovid Efune (@Efune) January 15, 2023
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