Skip To Content
Fast Forward

Harvard denies former Human Rights Watch director fellowship over Israel, report says

Kenneth Roth told the Nation that the Kennedy School rejected his planned fellowship over criticism of Israel

Kenneth Roth, the longtime director of Human Rights Watch, said that Harvard’s Kennedy School denied him a planned fellowship over the organization’s work on Israel. Roth made the allegations to The Nation, a liberal periodical, in an article published Thursday.

“It’s crazy,” he said.

Shortly after he stepped down at director of Human Rights Watch in April, Roth was offered a fellowship at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School, Harvard’s sprawling network of programs related to public policy. But Douglas Elmendorf, the Kennedy School’s dean, subsequently intervened to reject Roth’s fellowship, according to the Nation.

Roth said Elmendorf asked him during a meeting whether Roth had any enemies. “I knew what he was driving at,” said Roth, who is Jewish. “It’s always Israel.”

Roth grew HRW significantly after he was hired in 1993, swelling its budget from $7 million to nearly $100 million and staff from 60 to 550. The New York Times called him the “godfather” of human rights. Along the way, he has racked up opponents in governments across the world who object to HRW’s accusations. But his work on Israel has been especially controversial. The organization was the first major international human rights group to accuse Israel of apartheid when it released a report in 2021. The claim followed two similar ones leveled by Israeli rights organizations, and Amnesty International released a similar report in 2022.

Roth and HRW had already been accused of anti-Israel bias by Robert Bernstein, the organization’s founder, in a 2009 article criticizing the group for “issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.”

The faculty of the Carr Center rejected these allegations. Kathryn Sikkink sent a detailed email to Elmendorf pointing out that HRW’s reports on Israel were “pretty similar” to the State Department’s assessments of the country’s human rights record.

“The Kennedy school lost out by not having him with us,” Sikkind said.

Michael Massing, the Nation writer, also pointed out that the Kennedy School has hosted a long list of controversial fellows with fewer credentials than Roth including former Trump officials Sean Spicer and Corey Lewandowski. Massing attributed Elmendorf’s decision to veto Roth’s appointment to a combination of factors, including the influence of pro-Israel donors and faculty and a fear of embroiling the school in a controversy related to Israel.

Harvard’s student newspaper, the Crimson, provoked an extended outcry from some faculty and prominent alumni after it endorsed a boycott of Israel last year.

A Kennedy School spokesman told the Nation that it does not “discuss our deliberations about individuals who may be under consideration” for fellowships.

Roth has since accepted a post at the University of Pennsylvania.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.