Harvard Denies a Fellowship Due to Criticism of Israel

Recently, Harvard University rescinded a fellowship that it offered to human rights activist Kenneth Roth over his criticism of Israel. Roth was the former Executive Director of Human Rights Watch and was recruited by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy to become a fellow, which he accepted. But a few weeks later in July, Roth reported that someone from The Center called and told him that the Dean of the school, Douglas Elmendorf, had not approved his fellowship. Hundreds of students and alumni have signed petitions calling for Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf to resign after he refused to grant the fellowship to Kenneth Roth last year.

Free Speech

As Americans, we consider free speech to be one of, if not the most crucial of all liberties. When we detect even the tiniest threat to our ability to critique, support, and share our thoughts in public, we struggle to protect it. Freedom of expression even extends to protecting hate speech as long as it does not promote illegal behavior. This is a privilege that allows for discourse across the ideological spectrum.

Former Executive Director Roth’s criticism of Israel’s stance on Palestine and treatment toward Palestinians is protected and should not be filtered or censored.  

What this means is we cannot censor or filter speech just because we don’t like it. The only time this is acceptable is if the speech goes so far as to violate the first amendment and is unprotected. Cherry-picking what is allowed in speech defeats the purpose of this right in the first place. As a result, former Executive Director Roth’s criticism of Israel’s stance on Palestine and treatment toward Palestinians is protected and should not be filtered or censored.  

While some may argue that denying his fellowship does not directly limit his speech, the ramifications of his denial send a strong message to both the academic and non-academic communities. Anyone that would criticize Israel’s treatment of Palestine or even Israel, in general, would not be granted a fellowship at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. This sets a dangerous precedent and would likely result in people censoring themselves just so they can attain a fellowship with Harvard. The fact that people would be undermining their own speech should raise a red flag for everyone.  

Unfortunately, this is something that we do often. Depending on the environment we are in, we filter the conversations we have with people once we learn what their stance is on a certain issue. We do this so we can develop relationships in school or advance in our jobs. Self-filtering is a normal part of everyone’s routine. However, there is a major difference between that and using self-filtering to gatekeep access to a prestigious fellowship or position. One we do by choice and our own will, the other we are forced into.  

Diversity in Academia 

Denial of Mr. Roth’s fellowship sets the stage for a snowball effect within academic settings. This instance of self-censorship is not limited to criticism of Israel, this could easily extend to criticism of any other country, people, or historical event. Other school deans may see this as an example to filter and control what types of conversations and people they are allowing in their schools.  

As a result, academic settings are becoming less diverse in both theory and practice. While schools, and particularly Ivy League schools, champion themselves on being the center of “diversity” promotion and inclusion, their actions tend to speak otherwise. They think diversity is as simple as recruiting and admitting a certain number of students that fit diverse ethnic, racial, socioeconomic, gender, and religious backgrounds to qualify them as “diverse.” Diversity extends to the events, professors, speakers, and affiliates that are tied to the school. These are the factors that have a greater impact on shaping the diversity within the school and engaging the diverse body of students.  

If students don’t have professors they can see themselves in, how they are expected to feel represented in that environment? If students are shut down when they protest, how are they supposed to believe the school supports them? In the situation with former Executive Director Roth, taking an individual’s personal beliefs or opinions and using that to disqualify them has a direct impact on diversity at Harvard. This decision sends a message to the students at Harvard who hold those same or similar beliefs – they are not respected or tolerated and it’s better if they keep that to themselves.  

When it comes to diversity, the conversation in academia has always focused on numbers and never the people. Academia needs to take a step back and analyze how their decisions directly impact the diverse body they are trying to hold onto.  

Human Rights filtered 

Examples like this show us what human rights issues we actually care about and what issues we brush under the rug. It comes as no surprise that we are selective with what groups or subgroups of people’s suffering we highlight, with none being more obvious than Ukrainian and Syrian refugees. This is something everyone is at fault for, no matter what country or region you live in.  

Any conversation around Israel and Palestine historically has been met with censorship, anger, and grief. We have always been averse to letting even the slightest criticism of Israel into any setting academic or not. Every time we continue to censor the suffering of Palestinians, we lose another opportunity to diversify our conversations around this narrative. While bringing in different perspectives and even perspectives that we disagree with seems daunting it should not be categorized as impossible. We only experience growth when we are uncomfortable, not comfortable. The most uncomfortable thing that could come out of introducing a new perspective would be a conversation.

It is beneficial for everyone to check their biases and be challenged.

Objectively speaking, you will never reach the truth when you only focus on one side of the story. It is beneficial for everyone to check their biases and be challenged. Sometimes what you’ve grown up knowing is not what is reflected in reality.   

Academic settings are where we experience the most growth. It’s where we expect to be challenged and learn about subjects in a way, we never thought we would. To filter out what human rights issues are addressed or not goes against the purpose of universities like Harvard. It’s one thing for our general media and people to do this, it’s another for academic institutions to do it. We give “liberal” aligning institutions like these passes on many of their decisions because we see them as generally upholding beliefs that we align with. When in reality many of their decisions end up harming the diversity and equity they claim to promote.  

We expect academic institutions to be immune to the general sway of public opinion, but I guess we often expect too much from people who give too little. While the future of Harvard’s decision on this denial is uncertain, we do have hope that the response from people and organizations at Harvard will cause them to reconsider their decision.