For three decades, Ken Roth, until recently the executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), used the high profile of his NGO to expose tyranny and human rights violations in countries around the globe. But while HRW has produced research concerning some 100 countries, under Roth’s leadership the organization has obsessively and relentlessly targeted Israel with denunciations, allegations, and slanders, all in a disproportionate way that all but ignored the predations of chronic significant human rights abusers and obsessively positioned Israel as a pariah state and a stain on the world community.
Roth’s fixation with the Jewish state was so blatant, seriously jeopardizing HRW’s reputation, that even the organization’s founder and chairman, the late Robert L. Bernstein, articulated his displeasure with how Roth had hijacked HRW’s mission in his zeal to demonize Israel mendaciously for its alleged war crimes, chronic human rights abuses, military occupation, and even—as alleged in a 2020 HRW report—the crime of apartheid.
In a revealing 2009 New York Times op-ed, Bernstein accused this fixation with Israel’s defects was degrading the quality of HRW’s work and jeopardizing its reputation as a credible, unbiased NGO tasked with exposing human rights abuses worldwide, Bernstein admitted that “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,” even though far worse abuses occur by the region’s totalitarian, non-democratic regimes where human and civil rights are often minimal or non-existent.
There is, of course, a danger in focusing so much opprobrium on one country, at the expense of addressing far worse and egregious human rights violations elsewhere: that danger, which seemingly was Roth’s motive in the first place, was that HRW’s coverage of Israel, as Bernstein suggested, was weaponized to alter the world’s perception of the Jewish state, that organization’s toxic “reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict [were] helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.”
And since Israel’s implacable and terroristic enemies continue to force Israel to defend its citizenry from genocidal attacks, HRW’s tactic was to focus only on Israel’s responses to this illegal aggression, not on the motives or behavior of Hamas, Hezbollah, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (AMB), and other groups intent on murdering Jews and destroying Israel.
“Yet Israel,” Bernstein admitted, “the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism.”
The conversation over Roth’s role at HWR, along with his apparent fanatical bias against Israel, became news recently when it was announced that Roth had initially been offered a fellowship at Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, but that offer was eventually rescinded by the Kennedy School’s dean, Douglas Elmendorf, and the backlash against that decision was immediate and thunderous.
Roth himself immediately initiated a pity campaign in which, as he wrote in The Guardian, he ascribed the decision merely to “my criticism of Israel.” And why had the Dean decided to withdraw the fellowship offered to Roth? Without any confirmation as to the actual reason, Roth claimed, “As best we can tell, donor reaction was [Elmendorf’s] concern.”
And these were not just random donors to the Kennedy School. As outlined in a long and conspiratorial essay in the left-wing magazine The Nation which sought to prove Roth’s theory, wealthy Jewish donors to the School, some of whom were likely defenders of Israel, had used their malign influence to have Roth’s fellowship canceled. This interpretation of how Jewish influence and money can bend the decisions of others to serve the Jewish community or Israel is, of course, one of the classic antisemitic tropes in which wealthy, influential Jews, working behind the scenes furtively and slyly, manipulate governments, institutions, and even society for their own benefit and to the detriment of non-Jews.
In the modern context, it is claimed that Jewish influence and wealth are now used to shield Israel from any criticism and to serve the interests of the Jewish state at the expense of the United States and its relationship with other nations. This was the precise conspiratorial theory laid out in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, a controversial, nearly antisemitic book (whose co-author was, coincidentally, Kennedy School professor Stephen M. Walt).
Roth, of course, minimized the impact of what he apparently considers his benign “criticism of Israel,” and faculty at the Carr Center involved with the fellowship also dismissed any notion that Roth’s scholarship was tinged with bias and a seeming pathological hatred of the Jewish state.
Kathryn Sikkink, the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School and someone involved in the Roth fellowship, while she was well aware of Roth’s reputation in the human rights world, was either disingenuous about Roth’s bias or was ignorant of malignancy of it. “I have seen no credible evidence whatsoever that HRW or Ken Roth are biased against Israel,” she said. “I consider this misinformation, and for people who know better, actual disinformation.”
That may well have been Dean Elmendorf’s opinion about the Roth fellowship, as well, that is until the candidacy was announced and donors, faculty, and possibly others came to the dean with additional information and a more perspective on the damage Roth has done, and likely would have continued to do, to Israel’s reputation in the world community. The faculty committee that considered various applicants for the Carr Center fellowship may well have been in thrall with Roth’s high profile in the human rights community but totally unaware of how his 30-year corrosive campaign to demonize Israel and hold it to an impossibly high standard not used in judging other countries has had a lasting negative impact on how people perceive Israel.
And, as often happens when discussing the many alleged defects of the Jewish state, that conversation frequently devolves into accusations against Jews themselves, where Jewish students are held accountable for a country thousands of miles away with which they may not even have any connection.
Roth also made another accusation against Elmendorf’s decision to withdraw the fellowship offer, namely that the decision was “a shocking violation of academic freedom.” In a statement echoing Roth’s own view, Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), suggested that “If Harvard’s decision was based on HRW’s advocacy under Ken’s leadership, this is profoundly troubling — from both a human rights and an academic freedom standpoint."
But Roth and Romero have a misunderstanding of academic freedom and what protection it affords faculty in an academic community. An applicant for a fellowship or faculty position does not enjoy academic freedom at the institution—in this case Harvard—at which they wish to work. They had freedom of speech to express their ideology and beliefs before they came to the new institution, but Roth would not have the protection of academic freedom to express his views, no matter how corrosive or biased, until he actually became part of the Harvard community—something which obviously never took place.
Hiring committees normally vet applicants during the application process and, when this process is done correctly, an applicant’s previous teaching, scholarship, and research are carefully evaluated, and then a decision can be made about how a particular candidate compares to other applicants and whether that candidate will be a good addition to the university. Since one of Roth’s faculty sponsors at the Kennedy School “admitted that she had seen “no credible evidence whatsoever that HRW or Ken Roth are biased against Israel,” it is obvious that the initial stages of Roth’s application inadvertently, or perhaps purposely, ignored Roth’s unrelenting hostility to Israel and his maniacal campaign to demonize and degrade the Jewish state.
So, it is very likely that, once the choice of Roth was made public and Harvard stakeholders had the opportunity to inform the Dean about aspects of Roth’s career that would make him less desirable as a fellow, the Dean did what the hiring committee at the Carr Center should have done initially: expose HRW’s and Roth’s defective scholarship, its singular focus on Israel while tragic human conflict and human rights abuses were happening elsewhere, and a campaign against the Jewish state that was so accusatory and bereft of context, balance, and facts that it rendered the organization’s findings as pure propaganda.
While Elmendorf would probably not wish to cancel Roth’s fellowship if, in fact, his career was comprised of mere “criticism” of Israel, he certainly could make a judgment call that, in continually violating academic percepts and producing research that was based on lies, contortions, and bias, Roth had shown himself to be a less than desirable fellowship candidate.
A grotesque and harmful example of Roth’s shoddy scholarship and outright falsehoods can be found, as only one example, in an incendiary 2021 HWR report titled “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution,” in which Roth and HWR actually redefined apartheid to fit their narrative about Israel being a racist, oppressive regime. No apartheid exists in Israel, as any sentient being knows, but that did not prevent HWR from presenting this 217-page report as fact, based on their new definition of what apartheid is. Campus anti-Israel activists have long been falsely accusing Israel of being an apartheid state, trying to draw an analogy between South Africa’s apartheid and the relationship between Israelis to Palestinian Arabs today.
The Israel-based NGO Monitor watchdog organization produced a report of its own on HRW’s apartheid screed and concluded that “the HRW publication is fundamentally flawed, using lies, distortions, omissions, and blatant double standards to construct a fraudulent and libelous narrative demonizing Israel.
A careful examination of the text shows that HRW conducted almost no primary research. Instead, the text is bloated with cut-and-paste phrases, and quotes and conclusions taken from third-party sources – notably, other political NGOs participating in the same “apartheid” campaign against Israel . . . The omissions are even more egregious than the errors and misrepresentations, rendering HRW’s report as nothing more than propaganda.”
In fact, in “dismantling” the HRW apartheid report NGO Monitor exposed the shoddiness and dishonesty of the research, something that would be unacceptable and unwelcomed at Harvard, which is perhaps why Elmendorf made the decision he did.
“Overall,” the NGO Monitor report observed, “our analysis uncovered 303 total flaws: 105 errors, 136 misrepresentations, 37 omissions, and 25 double standards,” and the sloppy scholarship is more egregious because it was deliberate as a way of reinforcing previously held biases against Israel.
Why does Roth’s maniacal 30-year assault on Israel matter? Because it serves the purpose of arming the enemies of Israel with supposed “proof” from a respected human rights group that Israel is a pariah state and a racist, colonial enterprise that should not exist.
In May of 2021, as an example of the negative effect HRW has had on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, while Hamas was firing more than 3,000 deadly rockets from Gaza with the express purpose of murdering Jewish Israelis, members of academic communities around the world were falling over themselves to express their solidarity, not with the beleaguered citizens of the Jewish state again under attack, but with the genocidal psychopaths of Hamas and the Palestinian Arabs they are said to represent.
The ideological enemies of Israel could not have been more pleased. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, the odious organization which put out the original call for efforts to slander the Jewish state, noted gleefully that “300 academic departments, program centers, unions and societies worldwide [had] endorsed statements supporting Palestinian rights, and statements from individual scholars, staff, students and alumni have garnered more than 15,000 signatures in what the campaign describes as ‘an unprecedented wave of solidarity.’”
One recurring theme in these statements was that Israel is essentially a racist enterprise and that it practices a new form of apartheid in its subjugation and oppression of the Palestinian Arabs, both in Israel proper and in the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria, and even in Gaza. Almost without fail, the statements flung the counter-factual apartheid slur and referred to two repulsive 2021 reports both HRW’s and also a similarly toxic report by B’Tselem.
People have the misconception that academic freedom enables scholars to say, and research, and express ideas about anything they want, with the assumption that their contribution to the marketplace of ideas can bring new insight and knowledge into the academic community. But academic freedom also requires academic responsibility for one’s views and anyone can be challenged by others with differing, even contrary views.
Ken Roth is now being forced to take responsibility for his scholarship and ideology about Israel, and even though he tried to deflect blame to wealthy Jewish donors of the Kennedy School or pro-Israel individuals who defend the Jewish state and answer back when they are confronted with the lies, slanders, and demonization that have been part and parcel of Roth’s poisonous and non-fact based campaign.
He has, as Hamlet put it, been “hoist with his own petard.”
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Jew-Hatred Rising: The Perversities of the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.