Ellen Ginsberg Simon

Harvard Caves to Roth’s Bully Pulpit

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Harvard, you broke my heart.

After more than a solid week of engaging in an epic public tantrum over a job rejection from Harvard University’s Kennedy School, Ken Roth, former executive director of Human Rights Watch, finally got his way. He bullied Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf into giving him the one-year fellowship at the Carr Center for Human Rights that he views as his absolute right.

Most people would have moved on, recognized that not all opportunities are meant to be, and looked for new doors to open.  Some people might even have felt the slightest bit of shame at leveraging the media machine on the daily to bully their way into a position.  Not Ken.

This entire episode wreaks of pathological arrogance. But the malevolent stench surrounding Roth’s campaign to sully Harvard for having the nerve to make its own, legitimate hiring choices carries the whiff of something more putrid.

Roth continues to insist without evidence that influential, Jewish donors must have pressured Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf into rejecting his presumed fellowship position with the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.  While openly acknowledging that he has no proof of that claim, he feels perfectly comfortable bandying it about in the press.  He can think of no other possible explanation for the Dean’s original decision.  That tells you everything you need to know about the quality of his scholarship.

He dismisses out of hand the Dean’s explanation that Roth’s past scholarship and activism demonstrates an anti-Israel bias that the department did not want to incorporate. He recharacterizes a desire to reject bias as a rejection of all criticism of Israel, hardly a fair representation of reality.  But Roth never has been troubled to fairly represent reality.

Consider his decades of shoddy scholarship at HRW, funded by the Saudis, Ghaddafi, and other regional autocrats. Consider the thirty years of false accusations of war crimes and Apartheid levied at the one Jewish State.  Consider the error-ridden reports, falsified quotes, blatant misrepresentations of events, and distorted research he has peddled to the world, helping in his own way to stoke the flames of a resurgent hatred of Jews.  Roth turned what used to be reputable, independent human rights monitoring organization into a witch hunter with a virulent anti-Israel agenda.  He eviscerated HRW’s reputation, and with it, his own. He has no one to blame but himself.

What world-class university wouldn’t want such a crown jewel in its cap?

No – Roth’s own shortcomings could not possibly have explained Elmendorf’s initial lack of interest in hiring him. According to Roth, it had to have been the inordinate power that rich Jewish donors have over the Kennedy School that explained this grievous slight. The evil, Zionist Jews struck yet again, this time with their conspiratorial control over Harvard. In fact, even as he basks in the success of his ill-gotten gains, he perpetuates his conspiracy theories and calls for a review of who the shadowy figures could be who dared stand in his way.

If anything, Roth’s own immediate resort to anti-Semitic tropes as an explanation for Harvard’s original decision not to hire him should have disqualified him from any jobs anywhere. It was this anti-Semitic stink that proved Dean Elmendorf initially made the absolutely correct decision.

So what happened to change Elmendorf’s mind?

Roth brought the full weight of his international influence to bear by engaging every media outlet he could to support his smear campaign of Elmendorf as anti-intellectual, closed-minded, and limiting freedom of speech and scholarly discourse.  He hounded Harvard with a media battering ram. He leveraged every external resource at his disposal to pressure Harvard into giving him a job to which he seems to believe he is entitled, and this he views as the best means to ensuring healthy scholarly discourse.

No, Ken.  Manipulating your bully pulpit to hurl unfounded, anti-Semitic tropes at Harvard in order to obtain an ill-begotten fellowship is not the way to ensure healthy academic discourse and the free exchange of ideas. But the hypocrisy of your actions will be lost on you.

The most ironic element of this whole story is just how little control Jewish donors and alumni obviously do have over Harvard. Consider the following.

As an alumna of the law school, I was a little more than disheartened when Harvard ranked highest among all U.S. universities for anti-Semitic incidents in the 2021-22 academic year according to the AMCHA Initiative, an organization monitoring anti-Semitism at institutions of higher education.

Anyone following campus news knows how horrific a scene college is for Jewish students today. Harvard took the prize this year, though, with AMCHA deeming it the most hostile college for Jews.  Who can forget how The Harvard Crimson became overrun by anti-Zionists paying lip service to the newly popularized yet entirely nonsensical claim of Israeli Apartheid? We can all thank Ken Roth and his HRW for giving credence to that popularized fictional account of Israeli civil society, along with Amnesty International and other biased “human rights organizations” that wear blinders when it comes to the Middle East, especially when it comes time to raising funds.

Ken Roth has directly contributed to the dangerous environment in which Jewish students find themselves at Harvard today. By propagating the lie of Israeli Apartheid, using his position at HRW to undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel, and blurring the lines between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, Roth already has harmed the student body and sullied honest discourse.

Offering him a position of authority on campus to peddle his biased, poorly researched opinions will be directly injurious to Jewish students already struggling at Harvard while concomitantly harming the reputation of the Carr Center for objectivity and quality scholarship. Contrary to Roth’s claims, it will not add a much-needed voice to academic discourse because that voice is corrupt, unprincipled, and disingenuous.

There are plenty of Israel critics who manage to maintain a semblance of self-respect while conducting their work.  Any one of them would be superior to Roth.

What Dean Elmendorf’s decision tells me, as an alumna, is that Harvard is no longer in control of its own narrative or even its own hiring choices.  As the world continues to shrink for Jews, we can now count the Kennedy School as one more hostile environment where the anti-Semitic bully pulpit holds sway.

Dean Elmendorf, I can only say watch your back.  Ken Roth is not finished exacting justice for the imagined slights you inflicted on him. Do not look to Jewish alumni for sympathy, though, when he succeeds.  In abandoning right, you abandoned us.

About the Author
Ellen Ginsberg Simon is an attorney and compliance professional. She has an M.Phil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford University and is also a graduate of Brown University and Harvard Law School.
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