Richard Falk Reflects on the Irony of Harvard’s Decision to Withdraw Fellowship from Kenneth Roth, HRW

Former director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth. (Photo: Kuhlmann / MSC, via Wikimedia Commons)

By Richard Falk

I admit to feeling an ironic mean-spirited satisfaction that Ken Roth had his appointment as Senior Fellow at the Carr Center of Human Rights of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government canceled. After serving for 29 years as Director of Human Rights Watch, the world’s leading organization addressing human rights violations, Roth was superbly qualified for and entitled to this appointment.

And would have had it but for the exertion of effective Zionist donor influence at Harvard. Without such a backroom factor this most revered academic institution would have undoubtedly been proud of Roth’s presence. [Chris McGreal, “Harvard Blocks Role for Former Human Rights Watch Head Over Israel Criticism,” The Guardian, Jan. 6, 2023] After his long and distinguished tenure at HRW Roth had become a civil society celebrity. This incident is another demonstration that even the most respected and wealthy institutions of higher learning are not fully insulated from nasty ideological and mercenary pressures that go against their proclaimed missions.

The irony of Roth’s mistreatment recalls a somewhat illuminating anecdote that seems so relevant that I cannot resist its disclosure. Over a decade ago I was a member of a local HRW advisory committee in Santa Barbara where I live. One day I got a phone call from a friend who chaired the committee. She informed me of my removal from this body because of a conflict of interest arising from my then holding the position of UN Special Rapporteur for Israeli Violations of Human Rights in Occupied Palestine. I thought it strange that this technical rule, given its dubious application here, should have been suddenly invoked some years after I had taken up the UN position, which led me to inquire further as to the real motive for my abrupt removal.

And I suppose unsurprisingly, it didn’t take me long to find out the true explanation for my ouster. UN Watch, Israel’s puppet NGO in Geneva had complained to HRW that it was unseemly to retain on their organizational chart a person with such notorious antisemitic views as myself. It was Ken Roth, I was told who had made the move to dismiss me in response. What followed could have been anticipated, UN Watch seized upon the incident to boast about their influence, announcing this blacklisting ‘victory’ on their website and through media releases.

HRW was silent in response, allowing the impression to stand that I had been removed from their committee because of my antisemitism. I asked that HRW issue a statement clarifying my removal from the committee on their stated grounds, which I thought of as a routine request, and learned that it was supported by several senior HRW staff, but rejected by Roth. The incident had some harmful effects on my academic life: lecture invitations were withdrawn or canceled, and I experienced a variety of other unpleasant effects of becoming ‘unacceptably controversial.’

By coincidence, a few weeks later Roth and I appeared on the same panel at the University of Denver, and I told him that I was harmed by the way my removal from the SB Committee was handled, giving UN Watch grounds to show that I was too extreme in my criticisms of Israel for even HRW. Roth brushed me off with these unforgettably derisive words—“no one pays any attention to what UN Watch says.”

In fairness, I acknowledge the subsequent reckless bravery of HRW years later in joining Amnesty International and B’Tselem in finding that Israel had established an apartheid regime of governance when it comes to the Palestinian people. [See “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution,’ Human Rights Watch, April 27, 2021; see also earlier report by Richard Falk & Virginia Tilley, “Israeli Practices Towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” UN ESCWA, MARCH 15, 2017.] It was this single report among hundreds issued during Roth’s long tenure that caused enough of a backlash as to make Harvard succumb.

I wish that it was true that smears by UN Watch and like-minded individuals and organizations lacked the leverage they possess to produce such totally unjustified results as inflicted on Roth. I suspect that what motivated Roth in my case was the influential Zionist membership on the HRW Board. As a child, I had known Bob Bernstein, the founder of HRW, as a family friend in NYC, and had a rather unpleasant dinner with him here in Santa Barbara a few years before the incident while he was the leading Israeli advocate on the HRW Board. I learned that he and other board members were unconditional Israeli supporters who would have shed no tears about my treatment a few years hence.

Roth’s experience recalls the famous 1946 poem of the German theologian and pastor, Martin Niemöller, which vividly depicted the problems arising from the tendency of liberals under pressure to sacrifice principles for financial gain or woke morality. The poem was undoubtedly inspired by Pastor Niemöller’s own life, especially the shift from being an outspoken pro-Nazi in his early years to becoming an imprisoned anti-Nazi dissident later in life:

First They Came

“First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Pastor Martin Niemöller

(This article was originally published on Richard Falk’s blog)

– Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies. He was also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. This article originally appeared on his blog.  
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