Now in Retirement, Ken Roth Keeps Singing the Same Old Song

From 1993 to 2022, Kenneth Roth was the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. When he announced his retirement from Human Rights Watch a few months ago, he began discussions to join the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government as a fellow. However, the Dean of the Kennedy School, Doug Elmendorf, has refused to sign off on the appointment, effectively vetoing it.

Importantly, Elmendorf didn’t rescind any appointment – he refused to authorize it in the first place. So while Roth may have expected that his appointment would be finalized, in fact it never was. Roth’s (predictable) reaction was to blame Jewish and pro-Israel “donors” in the pages of the Guardian. (I once ran Human Rights Watch. Harvard blocked my fellowship over Israel,” January 10, 2023.)

Roth’s opening argument in the Guardian is that Human Rights Watch, under his control, recognized that individuals or groups that “wanted to exempt their favorite country [i.e., Israel] from the objective application of international human rights principles,” would never be among the group’s donors. How ironic, then that HRW actually used its reports against Israel to fundraise – in autocratic Saudi Arabia. As the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in 2009, after extensive correspondence with Roth:

In other words, yes, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division is attempting to raise funds from Saudis, including a member of the Shura Council (which oversees, on behalf of the Saudi monarchy, the imposition in the Kingdom of the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law) in part by highlighting her organization’s investigations of Israel, and its war with Israel’s “supporters,” who are liars and deceivers. 

“Liars and deceivers” is a reference to Roth’s characterization of Israel’s supporters. Notably, these events took place at a time when women were still not permitted to drive cars in Saudi Arabia. As Goldberg wrote at the time, the issue “cast serious doubt on whether Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division could ever fairly judge Israel again.”

And indeed, it has not.

As CAMERA has shown, Human Rights Watch’s 2021 report falsely accusing Israel of apartheid spread false information about water consumption in the West Bank as well as about land appropriations. NGO Monitor documented 105 errors and 136 misrepresentations in the HRW report.

The same 2021 report took aim at Israel’s Law of Return, which is designed to ensure that Diaspora Jews will have a refuge from persecution in the world’s only Jewish state. As CAMERA wrote at the time, “the fact that many Jews who attempted to flee the Holocaust were turned away by the U.S. and other countries seems to be of no concern to HRW. One might wonder, as well, without the Law of Return, what HRW would have liked to see happen to more than half a million Jews who settled in Israel between 1948 and 1972, after fleeing or being expelled from Arab countries. … An attack on the Law of Return is an attack on Diaspora Jews just as much as it is an attack on Israel.”

Another HRW report that same year, 2021, ran cover for Hamas by falsely denying that tunnels being used for military purposes ran under Gaza schools. Roth’s tweets have also blamed Israel for antisemitism directed at Diaspora Jews.

Shortly after the Atlantic delved into HRW’s fundraising practices, the group’s founder Robert Bernstein lamented in the New York Times:

Human Rights Watch had as its original mission to pry open closed societies, advocate basic freedoms and support dissenters. But recently it has been issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.

Bernstein further wrote that “Human Rights Watch has lost critical perspective,” on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

But instead of looking back at his own conduct over many years, Roth, fully in character, took to the pages of the Guardian to blame Jewish donors to Harvard for the decision not to grant him the fellowship, even as he admitted that he has no real evidence for this claim. “As best we can tell, donor reaction was [Elmendorf’s] concern …. Elmendorf has not publicly defended his decision, so we can only surmise what happened,” he wrote (emphasis added). He continued, “did Elmendorf consult with these donors or assume that they would object to my appointment? We don’t know” (emphasis added).

Even the Nation, in its article on the issue, has conceded that “to this day, Elmendorf has given no indication of who may have objected to Roth’s presence at the school.”

Kenneth RothIt’s also telling that Roth assumed that if there had been donor pressure, that it came specifically and exclusively from Jewish or pro-Israel donors. Roth recounts how he “explained [to Elmendorf] that the Chinese and Russian governments had personally sanctioned me.” Last April, the Harvard Crimson reported that the university had received $69.9 million in funding from sources within China between August of 2019 and April of 2022, a little under three years. “Harvard received 12.9 percent of the total funding given to American universities by Chinese sources — the most of any school.” But Chinese donors or business partners, we are meant to understand, expect nothing in return for their millions. It’s only the Jewish ones that nefariously expect influence. 

Is it really so inconceivable to Roth that the Kennedy Center Dean was himself critical of Roth and his organization’s long history of fabrications, distortions, and false allegations about Israel? Or that whatever Roth heard from his Carr Center contact might not have been the full story? That Elmendorf, on his own volition, felt that Roth would be a poor addition to Harvard’s team? But Roth’s reaction to his rejection is simply the latest iteration of his penchant for blaming the Jews first, and asking questions later.

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