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No room for anti-Israel bias at Kennedy School

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Recently, news broke that the former head of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Kenneth Roth was denied a senior fellowship at Harvard University’s prestigious John F. Kennedy School of Government. Roth is not going quietly. He has responded with a Twitter temper tantrum accusing the Kennedy School of silencing him over his “criticism of Israel.”

The former HRW executive director has lost sight of the fact that it is a privilege to be associated with Harvard. It is not a right and certainly not a foregone conclusion. Earning an academic position at any university, particularly the well-regarded Kennedy School, demands an exemplary track record of academic integrity and scholarship.

As proof of his qualifications, Roth points to his nearly 30 years as executive director of HRW where he was charged with keeping tabs on human rights abuses around the world. Yet, it was during that time that a once storied institution morphed from a global human rights watchdog to a pit-bull obsessed with Israel. HRW frequently singled out the Jewish state, accused it of the most heinous crimes, including libelously branding it an ‘apartheid state,’ and calling for boycotts of and divestment from Israeli institutions and businesses.

As far back as 2009, HRW’s anti-Israel bias became so egregious, it prompted founder Bob Bernstein to publicly excoriate the very organization he founded. Bernstein wrote that, “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.”

Rather than course correct, Roth seemed to double down. In the ensuing years, he used his social media platform to paint Israel as a pariah state and even gave oxygen to the appalling assertion that antisemitism is sparked by the actions of the Israeli government. Writer Jeffrey Goldberg responded to this outrageous claim by penning an article asking “Does Human Rights Watch Understand the Nature of Prejudice?” and reminding Roth that “it is a universal and immutable rule that the targets of prejudice are not the cause of prejudice.”

Judging by his writings in recent days, Roth seems entirely unaware of his prejudice. He asserts that he was “cancelled” because his detractors “don’t want less criticism of Israel. They want no criticism of Israel.” Yet, there is no shortage of critical anti-Israel voices at Harvard. Indeed, the campus has become a hotbed for anti-Israel and antisemitic activity.

Israel is, of course, not above the law nor beyond reasonable criticism. At issue, is the fact that Roth is not an objective arbiter of global events. All democratic societies commit abuses from time to time. When it comes to Israel, there are no allowances made for the fact that the Jewish state finds itself surrounded by hostile, armed enemies that openly call for its destruction nor latitude for wrongs committed in self-defense. Reading HRW reports in recent years, one would be hard pressed to know that for all its challenges, Israel has a democratically elected government, an independent judiciary, an abundance of political parties, and a free press that devotes much of its column inches to criticizing Israeli government policies.

The same cannot be said for Israel’s neighbors, yet they received a fraction of the attention and criticism. By relentlessly singling out the only democracy in the Middle East, Roth turned his back on countless victims of authoritarian regimes being repressed, tortured, and murdered the world over. That is the tragic legacy of HRW.

Ken Roth seems adamant that he has earned the right to teach the next generation. His credibility in the realm of human rights is questionable, but should any universities need an expert on polemics and political bias, Roth is available.

Aviva Klompas is CEO of Boundless. Arsen Ostrovsky is a human rights attorney and CEO of The International Legal Forum

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