How a Harvard Fellowship Flap Spawned Israel Conspiracy Theories

Two weeks ago, the avowedly liberal magazine The Nation published a blockbuster piece claiming that the so-called “Godfather of Human Rights,” Ken Roth, former head of Human Rights Watch, had been denied a fellowship at Harvard University’s prestigious Kennedy School of Government because of his outspoken criticism of Israel.

Michael Massing, the author of The Nation piece, wrote that the Kennedy School’s dean, Douglas Elmendorf, overruled officials at the Carr Center for Human Rights, who had proposed the fellowship (Roth was never formally offered the position). According to Massing, Elmendorf told a Harvard colleague, Kathryn Sikkink, that Roth has an “anti-Israel bias” and that “Roth’s tweets on Israel were of particular concern.”

Massing, however, takes his argument a step further. He notes “the dominant presence of the U.S. national security community and its close ally Israel” at the Kennedy School, and speculates that these two powerful actors played a crucial role in Elmendorf’s decision to deny Roth a fellowship.

But Massing amasses not a single shred of evidence to back up this incendiary charge. Indeed, aside from Sikkink’s vague statement, Massing’s argument is based almost exclusively on innuendo and conspiracy theorizing.

But this is more than just a case of dubious journalism. Massing’s premise is grounded in a centuries-old antisemitic trope: that wealthy and powerful Jews secretly influence elite decision-makers. Massing publicly identified several prominent Jewish donors to the Kennedy School who are supportive of Israel and other Jewish causes. The inference is not hard to grasp—these wealthy Jewish benefactors used their influence to deny Roth a fellowship and protect Israel from scrutiny.

Persistent critics of Israel (and they are overwhelmingly liberal) have jumped on the Nation piece and rallied around Roth. There’s now a petition drive at Harvard demanding Elmendorf’s ouster over the incident. (According to James F. Smith, a spokesperson for the Kennedy School, “It is Harvard Kennedy School’s explicit and consistent policy that we do not engage with donors or funders in our deliberations or decisions related to fellowship appointments).” Yet, Harvard’s critics seem unbothered by the fact there’s no evidence to sustain Massing and Roth’s accusations. The generally accepted theory seems to go something like this: “There are wealthy Jewish donors to the Kennedy School and they are supportive of Israel… you know how those people are, you can figure out the rest.”

Now you don’t have to believe me that Massing’s claims are unproven. Roth confirms it.

In an opinion piece last week in The Guardian, he writes, “Elmendorf has not publicly defended his decision, so we can only surmise what happened … But as The Nation showed in its exposé about my case, several major donors to the Kennedy School are big supporters of Israel. Did Elmendorf consult with these donors or assume that they would object to my appointment? We don’t know. But that is the only plausible explanation that I have heard for his decision.”

For the former head of a prominent human rights organization to suggest—without evidence—that powerful Jewish donors derailed his fellowship demonstrates an astonishing level of insensitivity to how his words activate long-standing antisemitic tropes.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Moreover, while Massing’s argument is relatively circumspect, Roth comes right and out and says that the only “plausible explanation” for his appointment denial is a shadowy cabal of pro-Israel donors.

(NOTE: Hours after this piece went to print, Douglas Elmendorf reversed his earlier decision and offered Roth a human rights fellowship at the Carr Center. In response, Roth continued to push his evidence-free allegation that Elmendorf’s decision was driven by donor pressure, a charge that the Harvard Dean firmly denied. Roth tweeted: “Who were the people ‘who mattered to him’ who convinced @Harvard @Kennedy_School Dean Douglas Elmendorf to veto my human rights fellowship because of my criticism of Israel?”)

For those who have long followed Roth’s work, there is another explanation—his constant and virulent criticisms of Israel have occasionally veered into antisemitism.

As the head of Human Rights Watch, Roth has been undeterred in his criticisms of Israel, which he regularly labels an apartheid state, and accuses its military of committing war crimes. In 2009, the founder of HRW, Robert Bernstein, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times decrying the organization’s disproportionate focus on Israel (under Roth’s leadership) versus other Middle Eastern countries with far worse human rights records. Supporters of Israel, from the right-wing NGO Monitor to the American Jewish Committee, have claimed Roth has an anti-Israel bias and is an apologist for Palestinian terrorism.

Truth be told, HRW’s criticisms of Israel are generally the norm in the human rights advocacy world—which has long maintained a disproportionate and, some would argue, one-sided focus on Israel. In and of itself, they are likely not a good enough reason for him to be denied a human rights fellowship.

Of far greater concern is this 2021 tweet from Roth:

It’s not the first time that Roth has linked antisemitic violence in Europe to Israel’s conduct. In 2014 he tweeted, “Germans rally against anti-Semitism that flared in Europe in response to Israel’s conduct in Gaza war. Merkel joins.”

While it’s certainly true that antisemitism often spikes during and after Israeli-fought wars, Roth’s argument goes a step further. He suggests Israel’s conduct is to blame, which leads to an obvious and disquieting conclusion—if Israel just acted differently, then some antisemitic incidents would not occur.

The charge amounts to victim-blaming and is the geopolitical equivalent of suggesting that if Israel had just worn a proverbially longer skirt, bad things wouldn’t have happened to Diaspora Jews. Anyone familiar with the historical plague of antisemitism, which long predates Israel’s creation, or the rise in anti-Jewish violence in the U.S. coinciding with the rise of Trump (which was largely unrelated to Israel), knows that anti-Jewish hatred is enduring.

For those who would argue that Roth is merely noting a correlation between Israel’s actions and antisemitic incidents, it’s important to note that he goes out of his way to point a finger at those who he says “pretend” that Israel’s behavior isn’t a precipitating factor. Blaming Jews for the prejudice and violence aimed at them is yet another long-standing antisemitic trope. Indeed, Hitler defended his antisemitism by suggesting that the actions of Jews drove his hatred of them. Roth, as his defenders often point out, is the child of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and is a prominent human right activist. If anyone should know better than to traffic in this kind of innuendo, it’s him.

One would imagine, even hope, that after a spike in antisemitic attacks, the head of a human rights organization would be focused on how antisemites use the actions of their co-religionists and co-ethnic group members in Israel to rationalize and excuse their anti-Jewish hatred.

Anyone who links the behavior of Jews in Israel to Jews in the Diaspora holds deep-seated and racist views about Jews. It would be no different than attacking those of Asian descent because COVID-19 originated in China. Yet, no one suggests that anti-Asian violence, to paraphrase Roth, gives lie to those who pretend that the Chinese government’s conduct doesn’t affect such prejudicial views. Indeed, when President Trump regularly called COVID-19 the “China virus,” it was liberals who were the loudest in condemning such connections and warning (correctly) that it could lead to hate crimes.

But what is perhaps most telling about Roth’s infamous July 2021 tweet is his response to it. After an outpouring of criticism from primarily Jewish voices, Roth refused to apologize or acknowledge the potential insensitivity of his remarks.

“Interesting how many people pretend that this tweet justifies antisemitism (it doesn’t and I don’t under any circumstances),” Roth wrote, “rather than address the correlation…between recent Israeli government conduct in Gaza and the rise of UK antisemitic incidents.” (Roth would later delete his original tweet, claiming it had been “misinterpreted.”)

Again, Roth is a persistent critic of Israel. He regularly calls it an “apartheid state.” The notion that he is simply pointing out a correlation between Israel’s conduct and antisemitism, with no other motivation, is so ludicrous as to be laughable.

In his more recent Guardian op-ed, Roth argues that accusations of bias against him are “rich coming from people who themselves never criticize Israel.” Personally, as a published critic of Israel’s policies and someone who believes that Roth has a bias against Israel, I can confirm that his statement is wrong. But more importantly, Roth’s comments show a disturbing lack of introspection. In his formulation, anyone who criticized his statements (and not just government officials, but independent groups and private citizens) is a slavish defender of Israel and, thus, should not be taken seriously.

If Elmendorf determined that Roth’s use of antisemitic tropes and his dismissive attitude toward critics and supporters of Israel would make him a bad fit for a sinecure at Harvard, that would be quite legitimate. Of course, we don’t know if that’s the case, because Elmendorf has refused to explain his decision.

Smith, the Kennedy School’s spokesperson, told me in an email that “we do not discuss our deliberations about individuals who may be under consideration” and did not provide any further detail.

It’s certainly possible that a potentially negative reaction to Roth’s hiring from Kennedy School donors influenced Elmendorf’s decision. But the idea that there was no legitimate reason for Harvard to deny Roth the fellowship is belied by his past statements.

Still, there is a far larger issue than Ken Roth’s employment potential (he has since been awarded a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania).

Why are so many self-avowed liberals—who regularly decry racism and ethnic prejudice—unbothered and so quickly willing to embrace an argument not only devoid of evidence, but one that relies on long-standing anti-Jewish tropes?

Where is the outcry about Roth’s unapologetic use of antisemitic language and his slandering of anyone who seeks to raise the issue?

As is so often the case, those who raise the issue of antisemitism when it comes to criticism of Israel are quickly shouted down as apologists for the Jewish State and dismissed. They are regularly accused of playing the antisemitism card as a shield to protect Israel from criticism.

In the case of Roth, however, the charges of insensitivity to antisemitism are far from made up. But it seems for many on the left, they don’t want to hear it.

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Written by Politixia

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